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The NBA Draft: Prom Night Gets Political

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Dave Zirin
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The NBA draft is supposed to be Prom Night for basketball nerds. It's a place to gawk at pro-prospects adorned in garish double-breasted suits that would shame Max Julien. It's the time to watch the diminutive David Stern shake hands with a cavalcade of young men who could rest a drink on his head. No one views draft night as a place to get a handle on the current political climate in the United States. One would have to be dropping acid to think that anything involving "Screamin'" Stephen A. Smith, Dick Vitale, and Dan Patrick could provide any kind of political insight. Well call me Timothy Leary and bring on the White Rabbit because last night's draft was more politically interesting than anything said in the last year by Tim Russert and his bloated cronies. This column has argued that pro-sports were on the precipice of reflecting the divisions, polarization, and anger in our society. The draft last night gave a terrific window to this emerging trend: both inside and outside Madison Square Garden.

Draft night ceased to be spectacle as usual when Adam Morrison from Gonzaga, the NCAA's leading scorer in 2006, was picked third by the Charlotte Bobcats. We learned in the post-draft interview that Morrison who gets so intense he weeps openly on the court, also cried when Rage Against the Machine broke up. As ESPN's Stuart Scott needled him, Morrison in plain language defended his right to cry: a nice counter to the macho laws of jockocracy. But Morrison is more than a chronic weeper who sports a bizarre caterpillar mustache, and a pageboy haircut out of Degrassi Junior High. He is also someone who has said that his heroes, in addition to Rage, are "Malcolm X, Karl Marx, and Che Guevara." Why Che? As he told USA Today, "Just the adversity he dealt with in life, what he did for small countries of the world as a whole. Standing up for lower people, instead of the top tier. That takes a lot of guts on the world level to do that. So that's what's drawn me to him." Morrison was also a Nader voter in 2004, and someone who is known for getting in raucous debates on the team bus on everything from the logic of capitalism to the merits of national health care. "I've been told that's what you are supposed to do in college," he has said. "It's the last time in your life, pretty much, when you get to question authority... You're going to be answering to somebody else for the rest of your life." When Gonzaga coach Mark Few advised players to attend church, Morrison stood up and wrote on Few's dry-erase board "Religion is the opiate of the masses." Let's hope Morrison realizes that this kindof questioning is something he doesn't have to forgo just because he is in the NBA.

But the political march did not stop with Morrison. The number 4 pick from LSU, Tyrus Thomas, also made an impression. Thomas only played in college for one year, but made a big splash in the NCAA tournament. Through the draft coverage, we found out that his family couldn't watch him in the NCAAs because they didn't have the money to get there but were aided by a collection at their church. We also learned that Thomas sports a tattoo that reads "No struggle, no progress." As ESPN's Stuart Scott commented, "He's old school! He's down with Frederick Douglass! Boo yah!" [oO words to that effect.]

Stuart Scott also got more than he bargained for with the sixth pick, Brandon Roy. We learned that the University of Washington guard worked sweeping on the docks of Seattle as a janitor in High School, studying for his SATs while pushing his broom. Roy, working nights, did so poorly on the tests he had to retake them. On the second go-around, he scored so highly the testing Czars red-flagged him and Roy had to take them a third time under close scrutiny. That time he did even better. Roy told Stuart Scott he learned a lot from the janitors on the docks, mainly that life is hard and basketball could be his way out.

The other dimension revealed by the draft was one that rarely makes it onto television: the reality of poverty in the United States. There was Randy Foye, the stocky Villanova All-American talking about how his mother gave birth to him when she was just 14 and his father died in a motorcycle accident when he was a baby. Foye was put up for adoption and eventually raised by his Grandparents. A graphic at the bottom of the screen simply read, "People Foye Would Most Like to Meet: 'My Parents.'" Then there was Marcus Williams, the talented Connecticut point guard from South Central, LA who was caught stealing a lap-top computer in college. His mother borrowed money to move across the country and live with him to make sure he stayed out of trouble and didn't blow his big chance.

But not all the political banter was inside the Garden. Yesterday also saw a demonstration of several dozen Knick fans: demanding that the NBA remove control of the New York Knicks from CEO James Dolan and GM Isiah Thomas. Organized by the web site selltheknicks.com, the march was a cry of frustration against a hideous team led by idiots. "I never thought I'd be in a protest march against the Knicks," said Bill Morris to the New York Post. "It's a crime it has come to this, with the history of this franchise." James Dolan, a child of wealth who was described by one writer as "having the intelligence of a man-hole cover," recently fired Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown after one season, a 23-59 record, and the league's largest payroll. Thomas put together this squad which owes a staggering $410 million in contracts, and is now paying three fired coaches to not coach. Oh: and for all you non-hoops fans: the new coach for the Knicks is Isiah Thomas. Bill Simmons of ESPN.com put it quite well: "I'm telling you, we're going to remember the Isiah/Knicks Era the same way we remember things like Enron, the Hindenberg and the Bay of Pigs."

The marchers had a sense of humility and perspective that this was perhaps not the most critical issue facing humanity. As Dave Hornung said, "It's not for world peace, which I guess would be better." But for people who oppose corporate corruption, rampant greed, and consumer fraud (Dolan claims to be building a "basketball team"), the Knicks are as good a target as any. Maybe next year the demonstrators will return, led by a certain rookie with a funky mustache, and a fellow first year player showing his love for Frederick Douglass. Or better yet, maybe they all will go to Washington DC with fellow NBA rebels, Steve Nash, Etan Thomas, and Adonal Foyle with the aim of telling the jock-sniffers of Congress that they stand with Mr. Nash's famous phrase: "No War. Shoot for Peace." Stranger things can happen: like an NBA draft that morphs into compelling political television.
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Dave Zirin, Press Action 's 2005 and 2006 Sportswriter of the Year, has been called "an icon in the world of progressive sports ". Robert Lipsyte says he is "the best young sportswriter in the United States. " 

Dave writes about the politics of sports for the Nation Magazine, and is author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love

You can receive his column Edge of Sports,
every week by going to http://zirin.com/edgeofsports/?p=subscribe&id=1.

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