What Hockey Fans Think About Basketball

By Guest Contributor Kristen Wright

On June 15, the Boston Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks 4-0 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. And on the previous Sunday, June 12, the Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat 105-95 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to secure the franchise’s first championship. The media has celebrated both victories as a triumph of grit and hard work over finesse and pure talent.

The streets of Vancouver may have erupted after the Canucks’ loss, but the team’s most potent offensive weapons – twin brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin – were relatively silent throughout the Finals. The twins combined for two goals, three assists, and a minus- 4 rating during the Finals, but multiple writers came to their defense when commentator Mike Milbury referred to them as ‘Thelma and Louise’ (an inaccurate and offensive reference to their poor play) during a broadcast. Miami Heat superstar LeBron James has his defenders, but much more ink has been spilled over his shortcomings. While Dallas role players like JJ Barea and DeShawn Stevenson played over their heads, LeBron failed to live up to his hype.

Drafted 1st overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA Draft, James was supposed to be the savior of a struggling franchise. He initially appeared to deliver on this promise, leading the Cavaliers to the playoffs every season between 2006 and 2010. The Cavs even made the 2007 NBA Finals, where they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

Last summer, LeBron became a free agent. After being courted by numerous NBA organizations, he announced his decision to join the Miami Heat during an hour-long special entitled The Decision. The program was widely ridiculed as a lengthy and unnecessary spectacle, and basketball greats like Michael Jordan argued that it was inappropriate for LeBron to join a team of rivals in an attempt to chase a championship.

But other criticism of James has come from the hockey world. Sam Fels, a Chicago Blackhawks blogger, wrote a piece on his blog Second City Hockey entitled “Viewing LeBron” (on NBC Chicago later cross-posted the piece under the title “What Hockey Fans Think of LeBron”). In his piece, Fels argued that hockey fans are turned off by the “bombast” of LeBron’s free agency and of the basketball culture in general.

Fels’ argument is not completely without merit. Many people believed that LeBron should have committed to Cleveland for a few more years. And if the team still did not appear to be championship material by the end of this period, he could have left with a clear conscience. I believe that if he was set upon leaving the Cavaliers organization, he could have informed them earlier (instead of minutes before the ESPN special aired), and avoided the televised special entirely.

It is important to emphasize that LeBron’s mishandling of his free agency was a personal mistake. Yet, Fels believes that the “bombast” of LeBron’s free agency is endemic to the culture of the NBA. The scandal surrounding LeBron’s free agency could be compared to the fracas surrounding Wayne Gretzky’s 1988 trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, or Bruins legend Ray Bourque’s 2000 trade to the Colorado Avalanche. Yet, the reputations of Gretzky and Bourque have remained intact. This is partly because the trades of Gretzky and Bourque were engineered by third parties. Gretzky had no idea that he was about to be traded, and during his tearful press conference, he was clearly reluctant to leave the Oilers. Bourque had expressed a desire to win a Cup before he retired, but Boston’s GM set up the trade with the Avs without consulting his star player. And in his piece, Fels argues that there is nothing wrong with leaving a cherished team to pursue a championship; LeBron and his fellow NBA players just lack tact.

Fels argues that some hockey fans’ disdain for the “bombast” of basketball comes with an “undercurrent of racism,” but for most fans, it is the ‘me first’ ethos of the NBA – its emphasis on becoming ‘The Man’ – and not its black players, that is a turnoff. Hockey is a team sport, not a sport that is intertwined with hip-hop culture and the “glorification of oneself.”

I believe that the NBA sells the game by marketing its stars, but any team sport requires contributions on all levels. Dirk Nowitzki may be the star of the Dallas Mavericks, but when he struggled to hit a 3 during the first half of Game 6, Jason Terry’s scoring touch bailed the team out. Jason Kidd is not a flashy player, but he is one of the NBA’s finest point guards. And Brian Cardinal, a career role player, used his body to foul Heat players at crucial moments.

And despite his self-expressed appreciation for ‘hip-hop culture,’ Fels’ analysis of basketball culture is limited. The “bombast” that he identifies in basketball players is often a form of self-expression. For young, disenfranchised black men (and women), the basketball court (or blacktop/parking lot) is a place to come alive, a place to vent frustration, and a place to learn about life. For many of these young people, the court is a place where they can be irreverent, and where they can show flash and swagger without fear of censorship. The black socks, bald heads, baggy shorts, and courtside celebrations of the University of Michigan’s ‘Fab Five’ (Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, Jalen Rose, and Jimmy King) were eviscerated in angry, racist letters by ignorant alumni (go to the 3-minute mark of the linked video). What these alumni failed to realize was that these young black men were injecting a new freshness into an old game.

Ice Cube reflected upon the cultural impact of the Fab Five in the titular ESPN documentary, arguing that “in the cultural sense, the [Fab Five] represented the homeboys and the homegirls.” Their undiluted boldness was appropriate for an era characterized by the Watts riot, the Rodney King beating, the twilight of crack epidemic, and, of course, NWA. And at the time, the Fab Five harbored a special disdain for Duke and its star forward, Grant Hill. Jalen Rose generated a huge amount of controversy when he called Hill an “Uncle Tom” in the documentary. Hill was also a young black man, but he was the product of a wealthy, two-parent home, and attended an elite, private university with a reputation for recruiting clean-cut players. The tension between Rose and Hill ignited a conversation about class dynamics within the black community, but it also showed that there are multiple ways to be a black basketball player, and that generalizations and stereotypes are fruitless.

There are many criticisms that could be leveled at the NBA, but Fels’ essay does not make those criticisms. He uses evasive language to express his discontent with the NBA, but the disdain that he feels for NBA players is the same disdain that the Michigan alumni felt for the Fab Five. The sentiments expressed in Fels’ essay are culturally racist; that is, they operate under the assumption that black NBA culture is fundamentally flawed, and inferior to the predominately white NHL culture.

The cultural landscape surrounding hockey is very different. NHL fans celebrate the grittiness of their athletes. Hockey players are expected to play through severe pain, and in the playoffs, injuries are not disclosed until the end of a series. NHLers are supposed to be polite to reporters and fans, and controversy is avoided at all costs. There aren’t supposed to be any characters in the National Hockey League (i.e., Ron Artest). The reality doesn’t always fit the image, but regardless, it is embraced wholeheartedly.

On average, hockey fans are wealthier than NBA, MLB, or NFL fans (with an average yearly income of $104,000), are more educated than fans of other sports (68% of hockey fans have attended college), and are more likely to be fully employed than other fans (64% hold full-time jobs). 2010 data from SportsBusiness Journal Daily shows than NHL fans are more likely to be male (63.6%) and white (86%) than MLB, NBA, NFL, MLS, or NASCAR fans. And these fans gravitate towards athletes that display the white, male upper-middle class propriety that they probably attempt to replicate in their own lives.

It is worth noting that there are prominent blacks in the NHL. Biracial Canadian Jarome Iginla is the captain of the Calgary Flames, and has won every major hockey award except the Stanley Cup. Iggy, as he is called, is beloved for his on-ice grittiness and off-ice generosity. Canadians PK Subban and Evander Kane are promising young talents. All three men are well-respected, though Subban has received heavy criticism for being “a pest” on the ice (many have also wondered if the controversy surrounding Subban is racially motivated).

When I connected hockey fans’ dislike of basketball to racism in the comments section of Fels’ piece, I was met with immediate backlash. Some commenters did acknowledge that hockey fans’ animosity towards basketball could be connected to racism, but they expressed similar disdain for NASCAR and white ‘Southern culture’ (which varies from state to state), or expressed frustration with what they perceived as poor NBA officiating.

Another commenter believed injecting race into the conversation was “insulting,” and he was rewarded for calling me out by another individual who believed that people are afraid of sticking up for their “actual thoughts because they are afraid of being called racist.”

Others argued that hockey players are more respected by their communities than NBA players, and that players would “knock [each other] down a peg” if they displayed the selfishness of NBA players. The same man said that one could “call him racist, envious, or whatever,” but that he “could not get behind the theatrics of the NBA and its players.”

Similarly, another commenter said that NBA culture does transfer “the worst traits of American society like no other sport does.” The Vancouver riots – both the 1994 and 2011 editions – incurred over a million Canadian dollars in property damage, and showed us that people of all races can embody the ‘worst traits of American society.’ But the discourse surrounding the riots has focused on the cleanup efforts. There have been no sweeping calls to change hockey culture, and no one would suggest that the population of Vancouver is fundamentally depraved. Some rioters have been demonized on social media sites – incriminating Facebook statuses have been reposted and ridiculed on Tumblr – but public disdain has focused on the rioters’ deeds and not their racial identities.

The racially-charged comments about Fels’ piece continued. One commenter argued that he couldn’t be racist because some of his favorite Chicago athletes were black. And my favorite quote expressed frustration with NBA players who were “ensconced in their own bubbles of luxurious isolation, replete with a retinue of hangers-on and mooches from their younger days.” This particular commenter said that NBA players were incapable of showing generosity like Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich, who stopped to change a woman’s tire after being eliminated from the playoffs last year. (Laich is also a prized UFA, and the embodiment of the NHL aesthetic).

I don’t know of any NBA players who have pulled over to change a fan’s flat tire, but retired Alonzo Mourning’s foundation, AM Charities, is one of the best-run NBA player organizations. Under the auspices of AM Charities, Mourning has raised funds to build the Overtown Youth Center in Miami and sponsors the Honey Shine mentoring program for girls. AM Charities’ flagship event is “Zo’s Summer Groove,” a five-day event – in its 15th year – that has raised over 7 million dollars for youth programs in South Florida. Many current and former NBA stars, including Mourning’s former Heat teammates Dwyane Wade and Gary Payton, have participated in the event. And Mourning’s work has also inspired younger NBA players like LeBron James and Chris Paul to do charity work.

However, none of the Second City Hockey commenters mentioned NBA players’ charity work during their critiques of the league. They continued to insist that hockey fans are not racist, and argued that any discussion of race and sports was only meant to “ratchet up angst” by people who did not have a strong argument to make. Yet, their comments tell another story. There is nothing wrong with disliking basketball, but the commenters used code words (and sometimes didn’t use them) to mask contempt for black NBA players. If Sam Fels and the SCH commenters can express admiration for the gritty, ‘team-oriented’ ball of the Dallas Mavericks, they can surely acknowledge the positive actions of other black basketball players. And maybe, they’ll see that LeBron isn’t such a bad guy.

Top image courtesy of Barstool Sports

  • Ladyguerita

     You have  no right to tell people how they should view themselves.

  • Kristen Wright

    Thanks for your comment, Daniel!

    I think that the explicitly racist comments definitely occurred after I commented on the article. And Fels never said anything explicitly racist in his original piece, but basketball has become so synonymous with black culture that words like ‘bombast’ and ‘loud’ (which seem benign on the surface) carry all sorts of negative racial connotations.

    With that being said, basketball may just not appeal to some people (which doesn’t make them racist). And that’s perfectly fine. But justifying one’s dislike of a sport by making inaccurate generalizations (as both Fels and the SCH commenters did) is wrong.

  • Gillian

    An interesting piece (and this soccer fan was pleased to see a slight MLS mention). This was the part that stuck out to me: 

    “But the discourse surrounding the riots has focused on the cleanup efforts. There have been no sweeping calls to change hockey culture, and no one would suggest that the population of Vancouver is fundamentally depraved.”

    Excellent point! When individual white people or groups of white people do something bad, it’s usually framed as an aberration and not indicative of the nature of that entire group; however, when it’s individual nonwhites or groups of nonwhites, then the behavior becomes a sign that something is inherently wrong with that group. I guess it occurs in all aspects of society.

    Thanks for sharing the link to the Fab Five documentary!

  • Anonymous

    Nice column. I happen to lurk quite often at SCH; and reading the tenor and responses to the post this column is based on was rather disappointing, but not surprising.
    On one level, I believe there’s a just a general hostility among  some American hockey fans towards the other major sports leagues (MLB, NBA, and NFL) because of the lack of attention their favorite sport receives from outlets like ESPN.
    If your a NHL fan comparing hockey players to other pros, then looking for supposed stereotypical flaws in the character of those OTHER players will make you feel better about the integrity of YOUR sport. 
    So even if Sportcenter is barely saying a word about the awesome hockey game tonight because someone on the Miami Heat sprained his thumb, at least hockey players are “less selfish” than basketball players (or aren’t cheaters like baseball players, don’t showboat like football players, etc.)

    It’s a way to compensate for the the lack of attention some hockey fans want the sport to receive in general, but basketball in particular seems to grate hockey fans more than in other two major sports, and I from my experience, part of the disdain definitely has a racist undercurrent. 
    If some hockey fans want to get defensive about it and throw out strawman or “race card” accusations, that’s cute and all, but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem avoiding talking about it.
    Just like any situation with racism, some people are so afraid of confronting their possible blatant or subconscious prejudices,  they’d rather make someone feel guilty about bringing it up and ruining their time. But when your a black, female hockey fan like me, it’s a not a ‘card’ being played, it’s my reality, and I’m been disappointed more than a few times with the coded language and broad generalizations I’ve seen on more than a few hockey blogs when basketball or the NBA is mentioned.

    Here’s what too many of these racially awkward posts look like.
    Someone mentions something about some hockey fans possibly being just a little bit racist because they’re saying stuff like “I don’t like basketball because the play/look  like thugs/I don’t like streetball/they’ve got too many tattoos and I don’t like hip-hop”.
    You’ll get a bunch of “I’m not racist, your just the PC-police!” messages, that to a non-BS person reads like this:
    “Basically, hockey players are salt-of-the-earth, quiet, but polite (white) guys from middle-class backgrounds who aren’t scary off the ice and just do their job; but basketball players are poor, undereducated (black) guys who escaped the ghetto because of their talent, got paid too money when they came into the NBA, and are now arrogant, flamboyant thugs messing up the game with their “lack of  fundamentals. And THAT”S why hockey rocks!”

    Forget for a second how wrong the previous statement is on many accounts, just remember that’s what the language comes across as to someone who isn’t afraid to read between the lines.  It’s problematic indeed. There are/have been hockey players who have those negative qualities hockey fans who claim exclusive to NBA players, while those same superlatives ascribed to hockey players can easily fit some basketball players. Anyone with a brain knows a person is who they are with or without a f’n sport on their resume.

    Listen, obviously the majority of hockey fans aren’t like this, and every sport and/or subculture has their issues and prejudices.
    But there is a segment of white hockey fans  that see a bunch of young, successive black men, living a lavish lifestyle they can’t relate to, speaking a cultural language they can’t understand, and getting more attention than the hockey athletes THEY idolize, and it makes them wonder what’s wrong with the world. And that uneasiness often translates into subtlety racist attitudes. It’s not the only reason, but I believe that’s a decent theory to start with when it comes to some hockey fans and basketball.

  • Truth

    A banana was  thrown at a black player during a hockey game in 2002.  Yes, 2002.

    That’s all i need to know.

    • SportsFan

      I attended a Western Hockey League game in Calgary in 2008, Saskatoon Blades were visiting the Calgary Hitmen. There was a Black player on the Blades team. Things were going okay until sometime during the middle of the game, a spectator yelled out the “N” word at him. Nobody responded and play simply resumed. Mind you, this was one fan in a stadium of maybe 5000. But it happened.

  • J. Archivist

    I agree that much of the hate people have for LeBron is laced with racism. There is also an economy of hate, though. Much like the rowdy fans in Vancouver or soccer fans in South America, nothing unifies people more than collective vitriol. James has been the biggest American example of how hating someone can be good for the economy:

    http://www.letmetalkmyish.com/hating-lebron-good-for-economy/

  • J. Archivist

    I agree that much of the hate people have for LeBron is laced with racism. There is also an economy of hate, though. Much like the rowdy fans in Vancouver or soccer fans in South America, nothing unifies people more than collective vitriol. James has been the biggest American example of how hating someone can be good for the economy:

    http://www.letmetalkmyish.com/hating-lebron-good-for-economy/

  • Anonymous

    Whenever one uses “always” and “never” to make an argument, it’s gonna be problematic. 

    I remember when Sergei Federov asked for a shit ton of money. His reputation suffered–probably more so because the man didn’t deliver every night. 

    Beloved players have always absconded to other teams who were in the position to win the cup—Chris Chelios, Dominic Hasek etc. Fans might not like it, but one can’t argue if that player hasn’t won the cup. 

    I think part of it too is that players that ask for a ton of money, make it all about them etc draw the ire of hockey fans because quite literally those players are killing the game. And what I mean by that is that the Canadian teams can’t compete with those salaries. I mean, can you imagine no Canadian hockey teams but most of the players are Canadian? 

    The NBA doesn’t exactly have that problem. 

  • Kai

    I’m a huge hockey fan, living in Vancouver at that, but it’s ridiculous for anyone to argue that there isn’t an element of racism in hockey fandom. Any huge group of white people will be partially motivated by racism, no matter what subject matter we’re discussing. It’s kind of that simple.

    To be fair, most NHL fans I know also follow the NBA, much more so than vice versa. During the recent finals stretch, people at the local sports bars would talk about the previous night’s game every night — whether it was Canucks-Bruins or Mavs-Heat. And here in this 60% immigrant city, hockey fans span the range of racial and ethnic categories, even if TV screens tend to show white men, especially if they’re burning cars and breaking shop windows.

    It’s also true that some of the most popular players in the NHL are Black: not just Iggy, but PK Subban, Georges Laraque, Dustin Byfuglien, Evander Kane. Here in Vancouver, two of the most popular players are Manny Malhotra, who is South Asian, and Rafi Torres, who is Latino. Of course, for a white person to be a fan of non-white athletes doesn’t really mean anything. But the presence and popularity of these athletes does mean that the NHL is slowly but surely expanding its demographic reach.

    • Kristen Wright

      @Kai: I definitely agree that NHL fans are more likely to follow the NBA than vice versa. Even though California has three successful NHL teams, the big centers of fandom are still Canada, the Midwestern US, and New England. And with the NBA’s expansion into Eastern Europe and China, it seems as though one can find NBA fans anywhere.

    • Anonymous

      Let’s not forget Grant Fuhr (who is half black, half white)! I realize he has been retired for some time, but I’d argue he’s one of the most famous goaltenders of all time.