In another era not so long ago, the Miami Heat or the Oklahoma City Thunder might have become black America’s team. This is a phenomenon that arose from time to time when several aspects came together, like the sun and moon and earth in an eclipse. It would happen when a team had a significant black presence — such as one or several black players who many blacks respected or found unusually charismatic—and in some way were representative of black style, like Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the 1980s.
The team also had to have a sense of swagger and maybe an air of defiance and a flair to the way they played that somehow translated into an embodiment of blackness, or some sort of racial or political dimension that made the team seem to symbolize something beyond sports. And black America’s teams had to appear dominant — they were squads that were widely expected to win, never plucky underdogs. There’s no official acknowledgement of this honor and it’s not something a team can seek to create; they just grab a special place in the black collective mind.
Basketball has produced most of black America’s teams, but not all of them. I recall the Pittsburgh Pirates of the 70s, which won the 1971 and 1979 World Series, starring Willie “Pops” Stargell and Roberto Clemente, the first MLB team to field an all-black and brown starting lineup. (Clemente died in a plane crash in 1972, which endeared them all the more.) Their black-and-gold uniforms were cool and their theme song was Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” Breaking racial barriers usually puts a team in the black America’s team stratosphere. Jackie Robinson — along with pitcher Don Newcombe and catcher Roy Campanella — made the Brooklyn Dodgers into black America’s team because breaking the color barrier was a giant step in American history. At a time when baseball was America’s central sport, Robinson was like a forerunner of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s impossible for a team to have that sort of significance now, but Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls fit with the Zeitgeist in a way that made them special.
In the 80s, many black Americans were breaking glass ceilings and becoming incredibly successful — Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Eddie Murphy, Spike Lee, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Jesse Jackson, and a world of buppies who broke into corporate boardrooms all over. For that movement, Michael Jordan was Superman in shorts, conquering the court and Madison Avenue with uncommon cool, swagger, mettle, grace and an inspiring level of self-confidence. Jordan’s Bulls became black America’s team because at a time of black super-success he was the poster man. It was a cult of Jordan, but when he went to the lowly Wizards the title didn’t travel.
Pro football has created few black America’s teams but the Oakland/L.A. Raiders have long had a special pull because of their tough, transgressive vibe, their penchant for drafting from black colleges, and of course, their badass black and silver gear which looked really good on the street. The most intensely loved black teams have come from college basketball. The Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas (whose towering and powerful father figure coach John Thompson was as much of a draw as any of the players), the Larry Johnson-led UNLV Runnin Rebels, and the Fab Five-led Michigan Wolverines. But nowadays college stars never stay long enough to develop enough of a following to help mold their college into a black America’s team.
I think in this era of post-blackness, there’s too broad a range of black identities for the community to congeal around one team, and it’s too hard for any one team to symbolize much from a racial standpoint. Is black America’s team really a dead phenomenon? To get some answers I called Michael Wilbon, the ESPN analyst and one of the great sportwriters of his time.
Why did the stars align around certain teams to make them become black America’s team?
For many of those teams it wasn’t just identifying with blackness. It was with rebellious teams. It was with teams that were anti-establishment.
That sense of rebellion is really critical yet with Magic and Jordan there was no sense of rebellion.
That’s because their brilliance was historic. They had historical greatness. They had genius. The bad boy Pistons weren’t genius. They were Detroit — hard-working, blue-collar, that was their identity. Jordan and Magic were singularly brilliant. People sided with them regardless of geography.
Why is it that black America’s teams don’t develop anymore?
Because there’s too much content now. There are too many options. Back then you got a smaller dose of sports on national TV. Now there are too many people on the menu.
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Why don’t we see more black America’s teams in football?
Because it’s not a black sport. Even though the racial percentages in football and basketball are about the same, there are no white American stars in basketball but in pro football the white male face is still the face of the league. It’s Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Eli Manning or Drew Brees. You’ve got black stars, but pro football will never be a black man’s league.
Of course the ultimate black America’s team is the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Yes. Absolutely. When Magic [Johnson] purchased the Dodgers my first question to him was, ‘What did your dad say?’ He was choked up because it was the Dodgers. There’s no team as important to the history of African-Americans as the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe — that’s the ultimate black America’s team. All these other teams are derivative.
It’s impossible now to have the social significance that Jackie Robinson had.
That’s right. It’s impossible because of him. And it’s good that it’s impossible. What do these guys have to rebel against? $100 million contracts? Guys like Jim Brown and Arthur Ashe suffered and fought and rebelled so that these guys wouldn’t have to. So they don’t need to be rebels. Thank God. If they had to be rebels what it would mean is Jim Brown and Kareem and Arthur Ashe didn’t do their jobs. But we know they did their jobs. So it’s a good thing that we can’t have this. If we had one team trying to reflect all of our interests we’d be in a sad place.
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