Dog whistle racism was heard loud and clear far beyond the confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena Saturday night.
I wasn’t the only one offended watching Saturday night’s NBA marquee match-up as the Golden State Warriors visited enemy territory in Oklahoma City. My phone buzzed to low battery life with texts that read “Are you watching this?”, “What’s wrong with these people?” and “Fuck this noise.” Golden State had improbably grabbed former MVP and nine-year OKC veteran, the imminently polite and soft-spoken seven-foot do-everything teammate Kevin Durant, who was a phenom from the first time his sneaks struck hardwood as a 19-year-old when the Thunder were better known as the Seattle SuperSonics.
Durant’s reasons for leaving were myriad and well-documented and Oklahoma City fans had a right to feel less than chuffed by it. Last season, Golden State came back from a 3-1 deficit to knock the Thunder from a spot in the NBA Finals and a most certain shot at dethroning LeBron James and his Cavaliers, a job the Warriors could not finish.
Though Durant was the undeniable face of the franchise for the last decade, the Thunder was then, as it is even moreso now, Russell Westbrook’s team — meaning he not only sets the tone but is the song.
Westbrook, it could be argued, is the best if not most impactful player in the NBA today. Unlike most players in repose, during the regular season especially where games among elite teams take on an air of VIPs waiting behind a velvet rope to get their hands stamped, while the proles on the other side shuffle and scramble to queue to get in — Westbrook plays every series like he knows he’s about to blow out his knee the next. He has no first through fourth gear but when he drives the lane especially, he clearly possesses a sixth.
His stat lines are impressive, and indeed he ended up with the game-highs Saturday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena with 47 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in what amounted to being on the losing end of a never-in-doubt 130-114 rout.
His 11 turnovers, then, may have been the most telling line.
Durant much prefers the Warriors’ egalitarian pass-first mentality and often was public about wanting the Thunder to rotate the ball more while he was there. The Warriors have the opposite problem. They lead the league in assists and though there’s no stat for how many passes on average before a shot, the Warriors would certainly be on top there too. “Make the extra pass” is something coached into you from your second day of CYO practice. In the Warriors’ case the extra pass philosophy is then squared. When they’re not in transition, I routinely catch Golden State making five or more passes and I counted at least a half dozen occasions Saturday where teammates had a clear basket underneath only to kick out for the three ball. The most notable came midway through the second half when KD buried a thirty-footer from the left wing in defender Westbrook’s open maw. Durant thrust his hand up in adulation and pointed to the sky, which was really a point to the crowd. It was a dagger bucket that quelled a mini-OKC run and signaled that Durant was a prodigal son…who had returned only to show he’d found a new, more welcoming home.
For their part, Oklahoma City fans, to a person human manifestations of sticky white frosting, held up cupcake-themed signs and paraphernalia for Durant, often chanting the word “Cuuup-cake” during time outs or whenever he got the ball in the first half. Cupcake was a term deployed by Westbrook upon Durant’s leaving to describe his softness. And a perfect idiom for the home crowd to embrace — if not to put on t-shirts and signs.
But the result was quite far from cute. There was real, recognizable vitriol behind those chants and one could clearly see that another two-syllable word, one starting with an ‘n’ and ending with a ‘r’ (hint: it’s not a country in West Africa) is what most fans were really saying.
For his part Durant downplayed the attacks after the game; at least one of which did cross the line and sent outspoken teammate Draymond Green into a frenzy as he approached the fan and basically told him to “Shut the fuck up.” Durant’s mother, Wanda Pratt, felt she could not hold her tongue completely after the vitriolic homecoming.
“It’s the people who make it so personal, and attack his character so viciously, like they know him — (all) because he decided to play somewhere else. But then, the bold thing is they’re standing in my face. They’re bold enough to call him a snake and a coward. One guy even called him — I can’t even say it — the p-word. In my face.”
We live in the era of white entitlement emboldened by an authoritarian, anti-democratic and probably clinically insane president who grabbed power by denigrating the country, the press, the truth, the citizens here and now the very laws and the judiciary that upholds them.
There are no parallels for what’s going on in this country, not in our own history. There have always been angry white men in political power. Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace gave rise to a certain kind of malevolent white anger but they still remained largely fringe figures, not the center of a caustic dialogue and certainly not as an OK stamp for people to be shitty to those of different color, religious beliefs or different nationalities — and certainly all women.
Trump could well simply be the stage-four cancer of this current democracy that has metastasized throughout our body and if his lies and constant ALL-CAPS outrage aren’t enough to give us a through-the-looking-glass nightmare vision of what we’ve become, it’s his seemingly quiet but direct way of exploiting racial tensions that has infected the masses.
Langston Hughes once wrote, “There’s never been equality for me / No freedom in this ‘homeland of the free’ and I recalled those words often Saturday. Of course, OKC fans, angry and white and empowered, can hide behind the word “cupcake” all they want. But what they were really saying was loud and clear and cannot be dismissed. Racism today courses through this country’s veins like never before and the careful and consistent practice of it is accepted, even encouraged from the highest office of the land.
It did my heart good to see Green and teammate Steph Curry wearing a pair of cupcake shirts to the post game conference. They were saying exactly what I was thinking, “We will debase your hate. We will rise above it. And we will win.”
Green even told ESPN in the post game in order to procure the shirts from a fan, the players had to trade their warm ups which were Black History Month-themed. Maybe that fan will wake up in the morning, look at those…and get the message.