Imagine an alternative reality where Kyrie Irving is white.
Kind of deflating.
When you get past the suffocating political correctness that inevitably governs any discussion about race, there is something extremely relieving about Irving being a 6-foot-1 black guard. Duke’s successful recruitment of the St. Patrick’s prep stud is a gigantic victory in the team likability (and no doubt, diversity) department. In general, athletic and aggressive African-American guards possess enormous potential for improving a team’s fan base, more so than a player of a different race or position: White players invite a kind of natural scorn for being out of place in a mostly black game, and guards are more dynamic and skill-laden than centers of equivalent rank at their respective position. It is no coincidence that my personal iconic player list of the last two decades reads off Isiah, Magic, Jordan, Kobe and LeBron (technically a three, but really a combo guard at heart). Of course, I am leaving out a white forward of some acclaim by the name of Larry Bird.
Icons are by definition popular on a massive scale, and for this reason I leave Bird off the list. Bird’s popularity really only resonated in Massachusetts and Indiana, two states that were already predisposed to like him because of their large white working class populations. Among the rest of the country, Bird and his Boston Celtic teammates were viewed with general disdain. Spike Lee even managed to take pot shots at Bird and company in his award-winning film, “Do the Right Thing.” This dislike stemmed from the reality that Bird’s teams, like Bird himself, were unabashedly white (at least by NBA standards) and played a style of basketball predicated more on teamwork and defense than on style and flair—sort of reminiscent of the Duke teams of the last several years, no?
In fact, the more recent incarnations of Duke Basketball are even less likeable on a national scale than those 1980s Celtics. No one likes to root for the bourgeois: unlike Boston, Duke says Starbucks more so than Dunkin’ Donuts. Campus is also smack dab in the middle of a poverty-ridden city that audibly resents it. Add this to the fact that citizens of the aforementioned city, oftentimes black, work for the university in such glamorous positions as Subway chef and bus driver. When all is said and done, to an innocent bystander merely given general knowledge of the team and the University, supporting Duke Basketball is tantamount to supporting WASP culture.
Most people who go here are at least tangentially aware of all of the above, and consequently greeted Irving’s decision as some type of image revival. Certainly, there was campus-wide relief Thursday around 5:30 p.m. Would this relief have been the same if Kyrie Irving were white, as is 64.3 percent of this year’s team (versus only 48 percent of freshmen here)? For that matter, would any of this extended media circus over his visits and Twitter account have happened if he were white? It’s impossible to gauge whether we’re more excited that Irving is really good or really black.
This debate, as it pertains to basketball, has also gone in the opposite direction: we question whether talented white players are popular because they are really good or really white. Dennis Rodman once reportedly accused Larry Bird of winning MVP honors in 1987 solely because he was white. Journalist Dan Le Batard suggested to a clearly annoyed Jay Bilas that Tyler Hansborough’s race might play into how NBA general managers evaluate him. It’s a debate essentially centered around the implication that race is somehow representative of group image: Some Cameron Crazies will anoint Irving Duke’s Great Black Hope in the same manner that others anointed Bird the NBA’s Great White Hope. I also feel inclined to mention that George Lucas and the Jedi Knights declared Luke Skywalker “A New Hope.”
It somehow seems a bit idiotic that we should thrust these burdens onto people. Irving is 17 years old and now responsible for helping an entire fan base deal with white liberal guilt. The guy presumably is coming here to win a national championship and look good for the NBA scouts; next year he’ll probably think more about Miles Plumlee’s post game than Duke’s post-lacrosse image. If he were white, his immediate concerns would be no different. Irving probably doesn’t care about what he means to you and me, but you and I do. And next year’s applicants probably do, too. What Irving represents as a black American (in contrast to what he would represent as a white American) does have significant cultural implications for Duke, and as a result we have to keep having this stupidly cyclic what-if-he-were-white/what-if-he-were-black argument about basketball players. Let’s only hope the media will one day stop writing about it.
Ben Brostoff is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every other Tuesday.