Last night the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors in Game Seven of the National Basketball Association Championship Series.
Exactly one week prior to the game, a gunman killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida and, as the Cavs and Warriors were playing an unforgettable game, United States Senators were milling about the floor of the Senate and showing up on the late night news discussing, again, the nonsensical murder of innocent people and what, if anything, they can do about it.
I know this juxtaposition is odd, but bear with me.
After I got home from watching the game with some friends at a bar in the Highlands, I went downstairs and turned on the television because I enjoy watching the postgame interviews. Most of the time, I admit, they are anti-climactic and the players and coaches just end up saying the same clichéd things over and over (not unlike the politicians who were talking about gun control on the news channels).
That was not the case last night.
The collection of post-game interviews and reflections following the Cavaliers victory over the Warriors was different and as I flipped the channels back and forth between the athletes reflecting on the win (or the loss) of the NBA championship and the politicians reflecting on our national loss, I became both hopeful and agitated.
On ESPN, I saw a jubilant, overwhelmed and deeply reflective Lebron James talking about the very kinds of ideas that are relevant and important in democratic discourse. In his post-game remarks last night he talked about civic pride, his duty and his obligation to the state of Ohio, his commitment to his craft and his deep and abiding affection for his teammates as well as his opponents. James freely quoted lyrics from Jay-Z and Janet Jackson, among other musical artists, to help illustrate the points he was making and he expressed deep humility and an affecting sense of wonder about the position he found himself in. He was flanked by his two young sons and he held his baby daughter in his arms, holding her closely, whispering to her and kissing her on the forehead as he held forth to the press.
After Lebron left the stage, I flipped over to MSNBC where I saw the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, talking about how the FBI has told him that they (the Republicans?) have to be really careful about any gun legislation they put forward because if they don’t allow suspected terrorists to buy guns it just might screw up the FBI’s investigations. And then there is the obligatory reminder that we really have to ‘protect’ the Constitution–that late eighteenth-century document that has been amended more than a couple of times but that is apparently more important than the lives of innocent people. He says this with a straight face but he knows it’s a lie and as much as he tries, he can’t hide his shame at having to make this specious argument. Next up is Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and all he could say, again with a straight face and flimsy conviction, was, “Nobody wants terrorists to buy guns or explosives.”
Well, at least we got that straight.
I flipped back to ESPN and there was J.R. Smith, sitting at the press table with his head hung low and tears streaming down his face. “What?” I thought, “he won—why is J.R Smith crying?” Turns out he was crying because he was reflecting, to the press and to the world, on his parents and, given that it was Father’s Day, on his dad and the significant role that his dad has played in his life.
Smith, if you don’t know ,is a bit of a bad boy in the NBA—he’s frequently run down for being lazy or stupid, he’s been kicked off teams and he’s been publicly chastised by some of his coaches for his mental errors on the court. Smith is also totally tatted up—every inch of his arms, chest, neck and back is marked with a wild array of images including his family members, Jesus, starts, dollar signs, Smith dunking a basketball, images of fire and shooting stars and inspirational quotes.
But there he is, the J.R. Smith that even I made fun of and was glad to see traded from Denver, weeping on national television talking about the dark times that he had in his youth and the way his family rallied around him and supported him and telling us all that he never would have been where he was on that night except for the love and devotion of his parents.
And it’s worth saying that there’s a lot going on here in terms of race and the black body: J.R. Smith, the tattooed bad boy of the NBA who in the eyes of most of white America looks like the stereotypical threatening young black male, is weeping on national television and talking about the very thing that white American loves to blame black American for: the breakdown of the black family. Except, J.R. is talking about a nurturing, caring, loving black family that stayed with him and that held him up in times of trouble. The camera is panning back and forth between J.R. sitting at the press table and his dad, standing just a few feet away, his eyes trained on his child in a way that only a father can look at a son. Emotionally spent, J.R. stood up and very unsteadily walked off the podium and into the arms of his father. And, I never saw this before: the entire press room applauded.
At that point, I couldn’t even go back to MSNBC because I knew what was in store, and it wasn’t anything I was interested in hearing.
I’m not trying to oversimplify things: I know that the language of politics is not the language of professional sports and I understand that politicians need to be more circumspect and, well, politic, and that professional athletes have more leeway to express their emotions in public and that, well, frankly, there’s not as much at stake when athletes talk than when politicians make pronouncements.
I get all that. But, given the state that our country is in right now, and I’m talking about the murder rate from guns on the streets, I just think it would be useful/beneficial/healing, hell, it might even change something, if the politicians would take a cue from Lebron and J.R. and speak like real human beings for a change; that is, speak with passion, humility, a strong and abiding sense of their place within wider contexts, with a sense of community and even a sense of love.