During the Los Angeles Clippers’ thrilling game seven battle with the Golden State Warriors Saturday evening, head coach Doc Rivers could be seen pumping his fists, yelling, even high-fiving Los Angeles television analyst Mike Smith. Following the game, he quipped that he was more excited about the Clippers’ series-clinching victory than he was when he won an NBA Championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008.
Some people believing he was joking. I say, I hope he was not.
Cue thousands of angry Celtics fans expressing outrage over such blasphemy, right?
Look: I’m a Boston Celtics fan. Have been since I watched the 1984 NBA Finals between Larry Bird and the Cs and those hated Los Angeles Lakers. I enjoy seeing the Celtics raise championship banners to the rafters of TD Garden as much as anyone, and eagerly await the inclusion of championship banner number 18.
But celebrating a team winning a championship is one thing; celebrating a team winning its freedom is entirely different.
No, Donald Sterling does not own the players who play for the Los Angeles Clippers; no, Donald Sterling does not own the coaching staff of the Clippers; and no, Donald Sterling does not own the men and women who work for the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. That is not the sort of freedom we are discussing here.
What Donald Sterling DID own, however, was the spotlight. His ignorant, racist comments had stolen attention away from the players, the coaching staffs, and all of the people who made a livelihood working for both the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers. His comments had forced everyone in this country to confront one of the most vile creations the human race has ever engineered – racism – at a time when we should have been able to simply sit back and enjoy the entertainment that watching NBA Playoffs basketball brings to us.
Watching professional basketball is an escape from our troubles, and Donald Sterling stole that from everyone. More importantly, though: playing basketball is often an escape from life’s troubles for those who take to the hardwood. Whether it’s an escape from domestic abuse, violence, drug use, troubles at school or at home, or even racism itself, basketball provides a temporary safe haven for thousands of young people every day, and often a permanent means of escape for those lucky enough to play hoops in college, or the pros.
And dammit if Donald Sterling didn’t take that away from ALL NBA players, especially the ones suiting up in LA.
I’m not naive; the world of professional basketball is not a perfect one. There are likeable people in the NBA, and there are unlikeable people – just as in the real world. I imagine Sterling is not the only ignorant fool to be employed in the NBA, just as I imagine there are other evils to be found lurking beneath the surface of what we spectators see and hear: drug use. Spousal abuse. Gambling. Infidelity. Involvement with gangs. I could go on – we all know there is more than meets the eye.
Still, racism is a poison that continues to divide people in this country in a way that none of those other vices can. By turning the focus of this country toward that spectre, instead of the entertaining battle that was unfolding between the Clippers and Warriors, Sterling shackled all of us in the chains of the past. The fans, the media, and the players were locked in a storyline that had nothing to do with basketball. Had the Clippers lost, that would have been the story that defined their 2013-2014 season, and their offseason, as well. Donald Sterling may not own his employees, but he certainly had locked them up in a sort of hell-on-earth.
All of which means that seeing Doc Rivers celebrate his team’s first-round victory over the Warriors was infinitely more gratifying than watching the Boston Celtics win the Finals back in 2008. This is one of those rare times when winning a basketball games means more than just, well, winning a basketball game. It wasn’t just Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers who won that series – it was the Warriors, Mark Jackson, the cities of Los Angeles and Oakland, the country. It was all of us being reminded that a basketball court is a place where ALL people can come together, put aside our pasts, our fears, and our troubles, to work together and enjoy the sport of basketball, together. We can only hope the celebration continues long into the postseason.