By Tim Baffoe–

(670 The Score) “Basketball, basketball, basketball.” 

It was one word that was repeated as a taunt to Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who’s black, by at least one Chicago Blackhawks fan at the United Center on Saturday night as Smith-Pelly sat in the penalty box. Using the word “basketball” — in this case code for a sport where athletes of color “belong” — to antagonize a black player in hockey — where to the antagonizer the player doesn’t “belong” — is undeniably racist, full stop. It attempts to make being black worthy of just one lane, essentially telling people of color that they should go somewhere besides hockey to find decency and empathy.

And it further perpetuates an imagined hockey-against-basketball binary of LeBron James injury memes that doesn’t need to be. It’s also embarrassing to this city and anyone who works to rid hockey of its stereotypes. 

The ignorance of choosing that particular word and using it in such an awful context right now carries so much irony. No major pro sport has been more open about the need to address and discuss social issues highlighted by the likes of this incident than basketball. Some NFL players have used their platforms for change and equality but haven’t been embraced by their league itself. NBA commissioner Adam Silver believes in players expressing themselves and working for social justice. The WNBA has been active in this for a while now.

The intent of whichever of the four fans ejected by United Center security who used “basketball” as an epithet was division and exclusion. Yet it’s basketball that has been trying to stand up for the marginalized and against problematic power structures for years now. A fan or fans using that word to insult misses so much of what basketball is actually doing presently. Take just the past week alone.

Asked about the importance of how the NBA annually recognizes black history month, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — never one to shy away from honesty regarding the sociopolitical — had notable words.

“It’s pretty obvious,” Popovich said. “Our league is made up of a lot of black guys. To honor that and understand it is pretty simplistic. How would you ignore that?

“More importantly, we live in a racist country that hasn’t figured it out yet. It’s always important to bring attention to it, even if it angers some people. The point is, you have to keep it in front of everybody’s nose and let them know it still hasn’t been taken care of and we still have a lot of work to do.”

Earlier this month, Popovich also spoke bluntly of race relations in America. Then on Saturday, there was a report about the persistence of discrimination of people of color in obtaining mortgage loans and some idiots were awful to a player of color at a hockey game. Popovich, by the way, is an Air Force veteran who hired the first ever full-time female assistant coach in any of the four major men’s sports, Becky Hammon.

Basketball, basketball, basketball. 

Seventeen people lost their lives in a Florida high school when bullets from a military-style weapon ripped through them last Wednesday. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, his father a fatal victim of gun violence, spoke out that night about this country’s continued problematic gun laws and the failures of politicians to work to end this uniquely American problem.

“Nothing has been done,” Kerr said. “It doesn’t seem to matter to our government that children are being shot to death, day after day in schools. It doesn’t matter that people are being shot at a concert, at a movie theater. It’s not enough, apparently, to move our leadership, our government, the people who are running this country to actually do anything. That’s demoralizing.

“But we can do something about it. We can vote people in who actually have the courage to protect people’s lives, not just bow down to the NRA because they’ve financed their campaign for them. Hopefully we’ll find enough people, first of all to vote, get people in, but hopefully we’ll find enough people to actually help our citizens remain safe and focus on the real safety issues, not building some stupid wall for millions of dollars that has nothing to do with our safety, but actually protecting us from what truly is dangerous, which is maniacs with semi-automatic weapons just slaughtering our children. It’s disgusting.”

Kerr has become sort of a go-to in the sports world for thoughts on mass shootings. He called guns a “public health issue” after the church shooting in Sunderland Springs in November and called out the ineffectiveness of “thoughts and prayers” instead stricter gun laws after the Las Vegas concert shooting the month before. He also criticized the lack of action by politicians in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016.

Basketball, basketball, basketball.

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kevin Durant of the Warriors spoke together with Cari Champion on the online network Uninterrupted last week about social justice and the political climate, not mincing words. A cable news host then demanded these players’ silence on such matters, telling them to “shut up and dribble.” (The cable host conspicuously didn’t bring up Kerr or Popovich.) 

In an interview with USA Today, Durant called the cable news host’s comments “racist.”  James spoke at length Saturday about the “shut up and dribble” order. 

“We’re back to everything I’ve been talking about over the last few years,” James said. “It lets me know that everything I’ve been saying has been correct for her to be having that type of reaction. We will definitely not shut up and dribble. I’m definitely not going to do that. I mean too much to society. I mean too much to the youth. I mean too much to the kids who feel like they don’t have a way out and need somebody to lead them out of the situation they’re in.

“For me to be sitting here on the greatest weekend of the NBA All-Star Weekend … the best weekend in the NBA where all the countries all around the world come to watch the greatest players in the world no matter they’re a part of Friday, Saturday or Sunday, and I get to talk about social injustice, equality and why a person on a certain network decided to tell me to shut up and dribble.” 

Basketball, basketball, basketball.

During All-Star festivities on Saturday night, there was a musical performance from Andra Day and Common called “Stand Up For Something” that also featured current pros Karl-Anthony Towns, Sue Bird and Kemba Walker promoting equality and inclusion and former stars and civil rights activists Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell on stage, too. The performance was introduced by Dwyane Wade.

“Every year at this time, we come together, all friends, we make noise and celebrate the game we all love, but this game is about more than just basketball,” Wade said. “In the NBA, we come from all over the world, we have many differences, but this game teaches us one important lesson: We’re stronger when we’re united and we win when we’re together.

“All of us in the NBA family are committed to the values of equality, inclusion and diversity, and we’re committed to using our voices to bring people together, to be there with each other and for each other.”

Basketball, basketball, basketball.

Besides black history month, February happens to be the NHL’s “Hockey is for everyone” month, an attempt at inclusivity in the sport (though the past 30 days have given us multiple examples of the league’s long way to go for “everyone”). Hopefully those fans and others like them educate themselves on all the above issues and the history behind them and the meaning of the word “basketball” takes on a much more positively powerful meaning for them. Then maybe they’ll see Devante Smith-Pelly as very much belonging and encourage pro hockey to work for more inclusivity and social change, too, like many great hockey fans already do.

Basketball is doing important social work. Basketball is promoting positive change. Basketball is bigger than an ignorant pejorative.

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for 670TheScore.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not Entercom or our affiliated radio stations.

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