As a lifelong basketball fanatic – and a years ago mediocre point guard on my high school team, my unconscious (okay, conscious) bias against the game as it is played by women got, eh, “slam dunked” on during the recent NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Wow, what have I been missing all these years? Heck, the girls’ championship game, watched by 9.9 million viewers, the highest ever, was a lot more exciting to me than the boys’ games.
“Omigod, are you watching the unbelievable performance Iowa’s Caitlan Clark is putting on?” I asked my son on the other end of the phone in another state. “Yeah dad, and how about that Angel Reese from LSU. She’s owning the boards,” said my first-born.
But a day later I tuned into the men’s championship game between the UCONN and San Diego State, the lowest viewed on record, one that for me turned out to be a yawner compared to the performances the women put on the days before. Shucks, I switched to the Andy Griffiths Show at halftime.
In case you missed them, the women’s games were punctuated with jaw dropping three-pointers that would make Step Curry blush, smooth step backs, blistering fast breaks, devastating cross-overs, monster shot blocking and heated trash talking – all, until now, the exclusive domain of men’s basketball.
Undeniably the games were not without racial overtones. After all we reside in race-obsessed America. The most obvious elephant in the room was the sight of an all-white Iowa girls team tipping off against an all-Black LSU girls team, the mostly Black University of South Carolina girls squad and the whispers those realities probably generated.
Look, correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t it back in 2007 when talk radio host Don Imus ignited a firestorm after making racially disparaging remarks about the predominately Black Rutgers University women’s basketball team and infamously called them “nappy-headed hos?”
Which brings us to the recent tournament.
Caitlin Clark, the white guard for the Iowa women’s basketball team, is an outstanding, once in a generation player. She is as feisty as she is competitive. That’s what makes her so darn appealing.
Now just before the championship game against LSU, ESPN posted a video of Clark taunting a Louisville player during a game saying, “You’re down 15 points, shut up!” In the semi-final when Iowa upset previously undefeated South Carolina, Clark waved off a South Carolina player at the three-point line daring her to shoot and another time make a gesture, “You Can’t See Me,” made famous by wrestler John Cena.
Angel Reese is a Black forward on the LSU team. She too is an outstanding player, was the tournament MVP and led LSU to the national championship. During her career, a confident Reese has been criticized for her appearance and toughness, something that South Carolina’s head coach Dawn Staley can definitely attest to after her team was referred to as “bar fighters.”
Said Staley while attempting to maintain her composure, “We’re not bar fighters. We’re not thugs. We’re not monkeys. We’re not street fighters. This team exemplifies how you need to approach basketball on the court and off the court.”
Wrote the New York Times’ Tayla Minsberg, “The unwritten rule about how female athletes – especially Black athletes – are allowed to express themselves on the court is challenged anew by this generation of players.” Proof positive is this from Reese:
“I’m too hood,’ ‘I’m too ghetto.’ I don’t fit the narrative, and I’ okay with that. I’m from Baltimore where you hoop outside and talk trash. If it was a boy, y’all wouldn’t be saying [nothing] at all. Let’s normalize women showing passion for the game instead of it being’ embarrassing.”
During the championship game with the outcome already decided, Reese gave Clark the same “You Can’t See Me” gesture Clark used in her previous game, while pointing to her ring finger regarding the championship ring Reese would soon be wearing. The backlash was anything but praise.
Whined Keith Olbermann, “What a (expletive) idiot! …..Mindless, classless, what kind of coach does this team have?” (Olbermann, like the late Don Imus, feebly apologized soon after.)
Now maybe I missed the memo, but did Olbermann mouth something similar in reaction to Clark’s conduct in earlier games? Did I read somewhere that Caitlin was deemed “competitive” based on her style of play while Reese was considered “classless?” Humm, I must be missing quite a few memos lately.
But Caitlin exhibited a lot more class than Olbermann and others when she said later that Angel Reese shouldn’t be criticized for the gesture. “I don’t think she should be criticized at all. No matter what way it goes. She should never be criticized for what she did. I compete, she competed.” And, said Reese, “there’s no beef between Catlin and me.”
Now if all that wasn’t enough, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden – bless her well intentioned heart – stepped into the race “poop” by expressing an interest in breaking tradition by inviting the losing Iowa team to the White House along with the LSU team. Her idea didn’t end well.
So, what we’re left with, really, is fodder for the trolls who haven’t a clue about how the game has evolved over the years and how competitiveness is expressed nowadays and, yes, even among talented women.
Now I should kick myself in the behind for my years of not giving equal attention to basketball greats Sue Bird, Candace Parker, Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart, Sheryl Swoops, Dianna Taurasi and others because they did not fit my nonsensical narrative of what’s “real basketball.” And still might.
In the end, the optimism in me is that sports should be a unifying force in America. However, the pessimism in me suggests otherwise. You see, when it comes to the never-ending plague of race in America, divisiveness always seems to cancel out unity, and this time pollute a highly revered American pastime.
© Terry Howard is an award-winning trainer, writer, and storyteller. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, Blackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and 3rd place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.