WHEN THE GREAT BRITAIN basketball team took on the United States in a warm up game before the London 2012 Olympics, it was the first time I’d ever supported a British team over one comprising primarily of black players. For the best part of my adult life my loyalty had always been with the nation closer to my native soul (blackness) or heritage (the Caribbean) than my country of birth (England). I didn’t think this game would be any different.
When Kobe Bryant’s name was announced at the beginning of the game, the sharp contours of his face flashing on the screen as he lackadaisically acknowledged the Manchester Arena crowd, my body tingled. Almost as much as when I stood ten yards away from Muhammad Ali some twenty years ago near Charing Cross Road in central London; almost as much as when I saw Magic Johnson jig and weave his hefty, recently retired body past slighter mortals at London Arena in 1993.
The arena quivered too. You could tell by the roar, the iPhone flashes, the gaping mouths. The majority of the crowd wanted to see Kobe and LeBron. They wanted the latest version of the Dream Team. They wanted the birth children of Michael, Magic and Larry in the flesh, more so than they wanted Great Britain. However, my tingle departed as quickly as Britain’s hopes of winning. Chris Paul’s bullying defence, Kevin Durant’s impossible long-ness and the United States’ general domination (eventually winning 118-78) could not veil my pride at finally watching a British team I could embrace.
This made me feel good heading into the Games. Major sporting events are always a little uncomfortable for me. Being born in London, the natural assumption people make is that I support Britain.
“We did well last night, didn’t we,” they’d say.
“Do you think they’ll beat us tonight?” I’m asked.
Yet basketball had always been the only sport in which I’d ever felt comfortable saying “we” or “us” when referring to England or Britain. Most of the English or British teams consisted of black players and their opponents were normally European. The culture of Black-Britain had also been imprinted on basketball in a way that it wasn’t in other sports or industries. Black players were the main men of the national teams. There were black coaches and black television personalities. In the eighties, if you wanted to see three or four black men on your TV not related to a crime, then basketball was the only place.
Britain’s 1988 Olympic qualifying squad, coached by American Joe Whelton, featured a number of dual national (holding American and British passports) players. Whelton described the team as playing a ‘Mid-Atlantic’ style, referring to how the team’s cultural mix influenced how it played. I think the statement ran much deeper than that. The team had an American flavour for sure, but it also played with an edge, unapologetically pressuring and unsettling its European rivals.
At the core of this team were players such as Joel Moore and Steve Bucknall (the first English player to play in the NBA). They were second-generation blacks that had clearly been influenced by America. Each had that American swagger and self-confidence. But they also combined this with a near obsessive work ethic, born from strict black parentage, a level of toughness which came from their experiences growing up in inner city London and a slight seasoning of British working class doggedness.
The ‘88 team never qualified for the Olympic finals and for the next decade plus coaches favoured a purer mix of British players, while black coaches rarely got the opportunity to assume positions of power. The system was one of black players and white decision makers. Without renegade coaches like Brixton’s Jimmy Rogers relentlessly developing players with little or no mainstream support, the current team would never have made it to the Games.
Yet as I watched Team GB take on the US, I could feel that ‘88 team. I could feel the heritage of Black-Britishness. Philanthropist Dame ‘Steve’ Shirley once said, “As an immigrant I love this country with a passion perhaps only someone who has lost their human rights can feel.” No British athlete embodies the spirit of Shirley’s words more than Chicago Bulls’ Luol Deng. The NBA star escaped the second Sudanese Civil War as a child and was granted political asylum in England via Egypt. He took up basketball under Rogers’ tutelage and worked his way to the NBA. He is without question the greatest player produced in England and has spent practically every summer in recent years helping Team GB to the Olympic finals. He even defied Chicago’s management, who wanted him to skip the Olympics in order to have surgery on his wrist. Deng was having none of it.
Okay, so Britain’s team managed only one victory in five games, but I could see myself in this team more than with any other sport in the Olympics. I’d not felt such pride in a British team since I was seven, and that was back in 1980, a year that redefined my relationship with England – and sports.
Born in England to Jamaican parents, I’ve always had divided loyalties. My cultural reference points were as much Jamaican (Max Romeo, rice n peas, cricket, saying “cha” when vexed) as they were English (Duran Duran, fish n chips, portly wrestler Big Daddy, cockney slang). But the Jamaica / England conflict rarely played itself out in sport. In 1980, Jamaica was only a world force in cricket and in selected track & field events. Cricket was my favorite sport because it was my father’s favorite sport. I understood, from an early age, the importance of cricket to him. The game provided a platform for one of his many tales about “back home.”
My father grew up in Galina, in the Parish of St. Mary’s in the 1940s and 1950s with no running water, no electricity and little or no career prospects. He lived on his own from 15, hustling any way he could to put a little food on whatever he used as a table. Cricket had been an escape from poverty’s suffocating hopelessness. My father, along with the other boys in the district, would huddle into a back room in Mr. Reuben’s shop and listen to a wireless, which would feed live cricket from around the world.
The West Indian players then were the most famous people in the Caribbean. The ‘Three W’s’ Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott and Jamaican fast bowler HH Hines Johnson, from whom my father adopted the nickname HHH, put the Caribbean on the world map long before Marley. Victory was important, particularly over England. Cricket had been used by British colonial masters to humiliate black natives. Now the West Indies used it to humiliate England.
By the time I attended my first live sporting event in 1980, a match between the West Indies and England at Lords cricket ground, the Caribbean collective were dominant in world cricket. England may have had more money, better resources and coaching, but West Indians were. When they conquered England and the other cricketing nations, they quickly became symbols of West Indian independence and Black Power. Of course I supported them.
Yet, I was still an avid England fan. When it came to football, nothing made me happier than watching Trevor Brooking, with the chewed up face of a cowboy, spray elegant cross field passes for the English team, and I’d leap in joy when Steve Ovett, with his cheeky grin and thunderous thighs, rounded the final bend of a 1500 metre race.
But the world middleweight title fight in September 1980 between black American ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler and white Brit Alan Minter made me re-evaluate my Englishness. Hagler, the challenger (bald, black and menacing) had been favoured to take the crown from Minter with his flashy air of an East End gangster.
Prior to the fight, my father asked me, “Who do you want to win?”
“Minter,” I replied.
My father was disgusted. Why would I support Minter after he said, in the build up to the fight, something like “Hagler’s not taking my title. I’m not losing it to no black man.”
England was about to enter a recession, and the nation’s intolerance of immigrants had come to the fore. Minter’s statement turned the fight from champion vs. challengers, from boxer vs. puncher, from England vs. America to white vs. black.
By the time the fighters entered the ring at Wembley, the arena looked more like a back street Dagenham pub; smoky, congested, and full of flushed, angry white faces shouting racist abuse at Hagler. I could feel the tension but couldn’t put it into any context. It was boxing. Of course it would be tense, passionate and antagonistic.
It was clear early on that Hagler was better than Minter in every way imaginable (harder chin, better technician, slicker mover, superior slugger). Hagler sliced Minter’s face into a bloody mess in three rounds, when the referee stopped the fight. Shuffling to the centre of the ring, Hagler dropped to his knees and raised his hands in victory. A bottle whizzed past his head. Then another, and another. Within seconds crowd members had jumped towards the ring while Hagler’s corner-men formed a pyramid over him to protect him from the half-empty bottles thrown in his direction. The crowd didn’t even have the decency to finish their drinks.
Not yet consciously aware of racism, it frightened me. I slowly pieced together the fact that the English had tried to harm Hagler because he shared my skin tone. For a while, I don’t think I looked at a white British athlete in a positive light.
Racism soon become a part of my everyday reality, from the police stopping and searching; having a sharp object held to my throat by an older white kid; old ladies clutching their handbags in my presence; shopkeepers threatening to call the police; bus drivers refusing to let me on the bus; stories of National Front members pouring petrol through the letter boxes of black and Asian families in my neighbourhood and setting their houses alight. These incidents weren’t in some “dangerous” neighborhood but at my local bus stop, in shops, at school. Many of them weren’t blatant either; a dismissive stare, a deliberate but subtle shoulder barge, a sneer.
By nine I’d developed survival strategies:
- Don’t go into a shop with an item purchased in another shop
- Never get angry because it doesn’t matter whether I’m right or wrong, I’ll be accused of being wrong
- Avoid eye contact with the police
- Keep at least a five yard distance from all white folks (particularly pensioners and white women at night)
- And smile motherfucker, smile. Keep smiling. You’re big. You’re black. Buck toothed too (which probably didn’t help). Smile.
For a time sport provided solace. But even this was tainted. Black footballers representing England were routinely booed and abused, subjected to monkey chants and bananas thrown at them. This carried on through the early 90s. Black cricketers had their loyalty questioned whenever they represented England. I wanted these players to fight back, to strike out, to say something. But they remained noble and passive. I wanted more – and found it in black America.
Black America had history, from Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ Black Power Salute in the ‘68 Olympics to Jesse Owens four gold medals in front of Hitler and Muhammad Ali’s stand against Vietnam. Where were Black-Britain’s historic sporting reference points? Sugar Ray Leonard was the world’s best boxer, Carl Lewis the best athlete and Michael Jordan the best basketball player, but how many Black-Britain’s ruled their sports? One. Decathlete Daley Thompson was the only athlete comparable.
More than anything, black American athletes had power and wealth. That’s what made the players so seductive.
Still, there was no excuse for me continually supporting black American athletes over Black-Brits. When Mike Tyson fought Frank Bruno in 1989, I rooted for Tyson. ‘Iron Mike’ was uncompromising and ghetto; he didn’t modify his behaviour for the mainstream. Bruno was ingratiating – armed with an easy grin, an affable quip, something to make white folks comfortable. A decent man. But I disliked him. I disliked what he and other famous blacks had to do in order to be embraced by the public. I disliked me.
In sport, players like Joel Moore and Steve Bucknall, and now Luol Deng and Pops Mensah-Bonsu put the ‘Black in the Union Jack’ in much the same way as Soul II Soul did in music, Ian Wright in football and Chris Ofili in art. That narrative has been largely lost in London this summer.
On August 4th, now known in the UK as “Super Saturday” Britain enjoyed its greatest night in the history of British athletics. Jessica Ennis, the face of the 2012 Games, won gold in the heptathlon, followed by Greg Rutherford’s victory the long jump and Mo Farah’s triumph in the 10,000 meters. The British basketball team was exiting the Games, but British sport was experiencing a night every bit as significant as England’s World Cup victory in 1966. The British press was full of articles about how symbolic the evening had been. Ennis, the mixed-heritage girl from Sheffield, Rutherford the ginger-haired jumper from Milton Keynes, Farah the resilient Somalian immigrant; this was multi-cultural Britain in its glory.
Next, Usain Bolt won the gold medal in 9.63 secs in the greatest 100 meter race of all time, the day before the anniversary of Jamaica’s 50th year of independence. Once again Britain was embracing its “troubled step-child” Jamaica and multi-cultural Britain. The side it is comfortable accepting; the athlete, the entertainer, the affable. The sheen of the Olympics had been maintained. Yet these victories did not tell the whole story.
Like, say, the first week of the games, where Great Britain won medals in the type of sports (equestrian, sailing, shooting) that require money and privilege, and it was clear that Britain’s minority ethnic community still doesn’t have equal access. The smiles and tolerance of the police couldn’t conceal the fact that, a year on from the 2011 Riots, we still don’t know the circumstances surrounding the death of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police, which sparked the disturbances.
Here, black men are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched. Black and Asian defendants are more likely to go to jail than their white counterparts even for similar offences. Black people in their early twenties are twice as likely to be NEET (not in employment, education or training) than their white counterparts. This is a reality that many black folks will return to post Olympics.
Yet for every conversation about racism, social mobility, the lack of managers in football or the problem with black boys, structural barriers are rarely mentioned. The shifting nature of racism (it’s not all about demonizing black boys or racist attacks, much of it is undetectable) is rarely discussed. The extent to which racism is weaved into the British psyche is ignored. Britain has not, as one London paper suggested this week, in light of “Super Saturday,” come to terms with “a complex nation with multiple identities and mashed-up culture.” It’s just plucked out the nice elements, while contenting itself that things are better. That racism is a thing of the past. That better is good enough.
In essence, I guess the British basketball team said more to me about Britain than any other athlete or event at the Olympics. The reality. This team of London youths, immigrants, white boys as the minority, and naturalized Yanks; this minority sport (in both players and popularity) that lacks the resources to fully develop young working class talent; the “gift of fury”, the humility, the second generation Caribbeans and Africans, the rejection of blacks from managerial positions, the renegades, the broken dreams, the dissolving presence of British African-Caribbean heritage, the untold story. The British basketball team traveled further than most during the Games and represented a reality of a Britain that struggles to be honest with itself around issues of race and multi-culturalism. More than anything, the team represented what it feels to be an outsider, it represented the fact that, many of these players – like many minority groups in the UK – succeeded not because of the system, but despite of it.