My son’s 5th grade community ed basketball team headed to a tournament this past weekend. We knew we were going to be playing up. There were going to be over 100 teams there, all of them traveling squads, who would out rank us in practice time, tournament play, and experience. The coaches warned us ahead of time – we were gonna lose. But we weren’t going there to win. We were going there to learn. To learn what the next level looks like, and hopefully to create some strategy for how to get there. (And I, for one, love this idea.)
When we saw the bracket, the coach groaned. Of all the teams we could have been paired up with, he said, Park Center may have been the worst. We would, in fact, have to go up against Park Center twice in this tournament (against both their A and B squads). Their reputation preceded them. They played dirty, they broke rules. Their fans and their coaches were known to be hotheads. Yes, they won but they were … threatening. We were in for some tough battles. Hearing the rumors, I was nervous for my altogether-too-skinny son, who was still trying to find his legs on the court, and often ends up looking like a baby giraffe chasing a runaway melon.
Hearing the rumors about this unknown suburban team, I was prepared to see a bunch of six-foot-&-pushing-fourteen “5th graders” in over stylized uniforms. Minnesota farm boys jacked up on protein shakes. My heart sank when they walked out on the floor. These were not overgrown farm boys. They were a bunch of 10 year old black kids, as skinny and awkward as my own baby-giraffe-legged son.
Now I know deep in my heart that my son’s coaches are not racist – because my son is the token black kid on our team, and they love him and coach him in a way that is flawless. And I think probably every parent on every team would say the same about all of the hundred or so coaches that were there too. There wasn’t any individual racism at play – no one calling the team thugs or urban trash or any other racial coded words. No one did or said anything that, individually, could have been called racist at all. We were just talking basketball, and Park Center just had a reputation for playing rough.
There was a collective (dare I say… systemic) bias that was palpable in that arena. It was both unmistakable and undeniable.
And so I watched these games closely. It was true – Park Center did break the rules, they did play tough. They continued to trap, even though that’s against the 5th grade rules. Their reach-in fouls were absurd. And the coach was a hothead (but to be fair, our own coach let a few bullsh*ts fly as well… as I said, they were heated games).
What I saw in Park Center I would not have described as rough though. It certainly was not any rougher than any of the other suburban teams with 13 year old 5th graders in over stylized uniforms.
What I saw were 10-year-olds, playing with the weight of their ancestors on their shoulders. I saw these teams playing with the burden of the black tax strapped to their backs. And I saw a determination in these kids eyes that I could only describe as …. heroic.
And while our team could lose gracefully (we matched them basket for basket, but while we were getting well practiced lay-ups, they were sinking 3 pointers) and say, it’s okay it’s just a game, the Park Center teams don’t have that luxury. For them, this is more than just a game.
It is a lifeline.
It is a gateway to opportunity, and a hope for a different kind of future.
It is also a place where Black fathers (and uncles, brothers, grandfathers, and cousins) are showing up and leading with passion and purpose (and a few f-bombs as well). And that might be the most threatening play of all.
I believe that is why I saw such determination in the Park Center players, why the games were so fast paced. Because those kids are racing to get ahead of that bias that keeps preceding them, the reputation that has everyone calling their team rough. There is no way our team could play at that pace – we are too sheltered and too privileged to even understand the need for that kind of determination.
As the tournament went on, I overheard more rumors from the bleachers – one of the Park Center coaches was thrown out of the arena (“taken out in handcuffs” – one said, wide eyed, although no one could confirm). But the Park Center A squad went on to win the tournament.
And I am left wondering what I can do to counter a collective racism where there is no individual to hold accountable, no single action or word or gesture to point out and correct.
And most people would probably say I am overthinking it all, and I shouldn’t worry about it because after all, it’s just a game.
But is it?