If only black America could work together as well as the NBA champion Warriors Yet, professor Michael Eric Dyson says, ‘black folks are a league, not a team’
The Golden State Warriors will hold their victory parade in Oakland, California, on Tuesday, celebrating the franchise’s third NBA title in four years.
This season’s accomplishment was heralded as the triumph of a great team and teamwork.
The Warriors are a team of stars, superstars, young players, veteran players, strong personalities and unique talents. They overcame internal issues through teamwork and an intense focus on winning.
After the final game June 8, a few players hinted that internal pressures and undisclosed distractions had made 2017-18 a particularly vexing campaign. Yet, the Warriors survived to win their third title since the 2014-15 season.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of tumultuous 1968, I find myself wondering whether far-flung black America could use the Warriors’ brand of teamwork to achieve a championship in an atmosphere of clickbait self-centeredness and narcissism.
The civil rights movement was a testament to the bravery of a few and the concerted action of many. Just as the Warriors had their issues, there were tensions and rivalries with the movement but the brutality and persistence of white supremacy were often enough to force alliances.
“We’ve always had disagreements and scuffles,” professor Michael Eric Dyson said during a recent conversation. “We’re going to have skirmishes. All black people don’t have to agree with all black people in order for black people to succeed.”
We were discussing Dyson’s new book, What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America. The book centers on a 1963 conversation between Robert F. Kennedy and a group of handpicked black celebrities and activists about the smoldering racial tensions in America. Kennedy became annoyed when his guests offered a no-holds-barred assessment of racism, including the Kennedys’ culpability.
The book’s overarching themes were the need to speak truth to (white) power and the need for white power to listen.
I told Dyson that I felt African-Americans spend far too much time persuading the white power structure to listen. I used a sports team analogy, suggesting it was like Tyronn Lue, the Cleveland Cavaliers coach, going to the Golden State locker room before a game and asking Warriors coach Steve Kerr to take his foot off the Cavaliers’ neck.
Why should he? They are opponents.
Just as Lue worked tirelessly, and ultimately unsuccessfully, to devise a strategy to defeat the Warriors, more time and energy is needed to get our own locker room, the black team’s locker room, committed to winning. That’s because racism is deeply rooted and an omnipresent opponent.
We must do everything it takes to achieve victory: prison reform, police accountability and economic justice. We must be as committed to the proposition of teamwork toward this end.
Dyson accepted the metaphor of the black team but argued that African-Americans are far too diverse and varied to be a single team.
On top of that, he argued, you have to figure out who’s on your team. Everybody who is your color isn’t on your team.
Regardless, great teams bolster the NBA. The majority of franchises are in disarray. Some teams are talent-laden yet never win. Some, such as the New York Knicks, the NBA’s most valuable franchise, don’t have to win to turn a profit. Some black “teams” are like that as well, where individual success is valued over collective success.
The beauty of Golden State, and before that a franchise like San Antonio, is understanding the vision of collective gain vs. individual gain.
I raised the issue of teamwork and great teams with David West, the Warriors’ 37-year-old veteran forward. West has played 15 NBA seasons, having come into the league in 2003. West has been with four teams, has been in the playoffs but did not win a title until he joined Golden State in 2016. He has won two titles with the Warriors.
West said the most important element for Golden State this season, and for successful teams in general, was “the ability to put aside personal agendas for the time that we are together. When we go to practice, guys aren’t bringing their issues into practice. Guys aren’t bringing their own ‘I’m going to do it my way’ into the group environment.”
West mentioned the Warriors’ morning music locker-room playlist as a small but poignant example of the give-and-take that forms the backbone of a successful team.
“Usually, wherever you go, the young guys rule the music,” said West, who played with New Orleans, Indiana and San Antonio before joining Golden State.
At Golden State, the distribution of music is generationally diverse, from Jordan Bell, the 23-year-old center, to West. The music is a thread that connects generations and sensibilities.
“You might hear Earth, Wind & Fire and Kool & the Gang one morning. You hear Michael Jackson another morning, and you might hear Kodak Black the next morning,” said West.
Talent matters and continuity matters. But there are teams that have talent and continuity that do not win.
On the team or in the movement, teamwork requires selflessness and sacrifice that might mean putting oneself in danger or at risk to achieve a greater good.
Each generation, of players or activists, must decide what is that greater good. What is the connective thread? The common denominator?
On the sports team, the thread is winning. On the black team, the thread varies from generation to generation.
In his book Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South, historian Michael Gomez writes about Denmark Vesey’s insurrection of 1822 when people of African descent “born in either Africa or the Americas, coalesced for the purposes of realizing a common objective.”
Gomez pointed out that even free blacks cast their lot with those in legal bondage “after sober assessment revealed that their own status was precarious if not illusory.”
In Vesey’s failed rebellion, the unifying element was religion, although that ultimately was not enough to overcome social and ethnic differences. In 1968, we were unified by the brutality of a deeply racist system determined to sustain itself.
In 2018, sports and high-profile sports stars making statements and taking stands have become a unifying thread. The NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles, largely because of the protest of black players, did not go to visit the White House. The Warriors twice have said they would not attend if invited.
West said social consciousness seeped into the Golden State locker room, where there were several conversations over the past two seasons about whether to protest during the playing of the national anthem. There were agreements and disagreements, but nothing got in the way of the ultimate quest to win a third NBA title.
“Black people have to give up the notion that we have to be unified in order for us to have progress,” said Dyson. “We do not.”
Commitment is more crucial than consensus.
Whether achieving an NBA title or the endless quest for freedom and justice, there must be a commitment to achieve collective victories.
The Warriors’ parade Tuesday, their third in four years, is a testament to dedication, vision and the power of teamwork.