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A dream turned nightmare: Race and its place in NBA history

(Andrew Yang/The Intermission)

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said these words in his infamous “I Have A Dream” speech, in efforts to end the widespread racism in his country. Fast forward 57 years, and that dream has still not come true. If anything, that dream has become a nightmare. 

In a world where people are judged, hurt, and killed, simply based on the colour of their skin, it’s no surprise to see racism make its way to a place like the NBA, where players of all races come together to play the game they love. From racist owners to protests within the league, it’s safe to say that the NBA has its fair share of encounters with racial prejudice. 

The Trailblazers

From left to right: Wataru Misaka, Earl Lloyd, Butch Lee (Andrew Yang/The Intermission)

There’s a first for everything. First birthday party, first car, first date and the list goes on. In the NBA, three players would make these ‘firsts’ that would forever change the landscape of the NBA as we know it. 

Earl Lloyd

Lloyd grew up in Virginia, which at this time, was regulated by the Jim Crow laws, state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. Lloyd attended West Virginia State University, where he was the star player on the school’s championship basketball team. Lloyd’s entry to the NBA was interesting to say the least. The way Lloyd found out he was drafted to the league was through a friend on campus, who told Lloyd that she heard rumours about him moving to Washington. To Lloyd’s surprise, the Washington Wizards (known as the Capitols at the time) had selected him ninth overall in the NBA Draft. 

Joining an all-white team was intimidating, but Lloyd’s teammates—most of whom had played on integrated college teams—were nothing but welcoming towards Lloyd. Some fans, however, didn’t share the same feelings as Lloyd’s teammates. According to History, as the announcer read the Capitols’ starting lineup on the first night of the season, a white man in the crows asked: “Do you think this n***** can play any basketball?” Lloyd’s mother, who was sitting just behind the man, leaned forward and told him not to worry: “The n*****,” she said, “can play.” 

In his 9 seasons playing in the league, Lloyd averaged a statline of 8.1 PPG, 1.9 APG, and 5.8 RPG, while shooting 37% from the field, and 74% from the free throw line. 

Earl Lloyd and New York Knicks forward Willie Naulls fight for a rebound (Getty Images)

Wataru “Wat” Misaka

Before Lloyd became the first African-American to enter the league, a man by the name Wataru Misaka became the first player to break the colour barrier in the NBA, known then as the Basketball Association of America (BAA).

Misaka was born and raised in Ogden, Utah, around 40 minutes away from the Vivint Smart Home Arena, home of the Utah Jazz. After winning the 1944 NCAA and 1947 NIT Championships, Misaka took a two-year hiatus to serve in the United States Army in the American occupation of Japan. 

Following his military service, Misaka was selected by the New York Knicks in the 1947 BAA Draft. Coincidentally, Misaka wasn’t the only player to break the colour barrier of that same year. In the MLB, Jackie Robinson became the first player to break the baseball colour line. Despite this groundbreaking milestone, there were no press conferences or interviews to commemorate Misaka's debut game."It wasn't a big thing," he said. "Nobody cared."

Misaka went on to play just 3 games for the Knicks, before being cut from the team. Misaka said that he felt that the reason why he was cut was because of the surplus of guards on the Knicks roster. Misaka also added that he didn’t face or feel any racial discrimination from his teammates or opponents during his time in the BAA. After his short lived career in the BAA, Misaka was offered to play with the Harlem Globetrotters. He declined this offer and went back home to earn a degree in engineering from Utah. In his BAA career, Misaka put up a statline of 2.3 PPG, while shooting 23.1% from the field. 

December 20, 2009, the Knicks celebrated Misaka center court at Madison Square Garden (New York Knicks Twitter)

Butch Lee

The last of the three trailblazers was the one to pave the way for all of the hispanic, central american, and south american NBA players. That player is Butch Lee.

Santurce, San Juan, Puerto Rico, the birthplace of our third and final trailblazer. Lee’s family moved from Puerto Rico to Harlem, New York when Lee was a very young child. There he went on to become a 1st Team, PSAL All City basketball player and honor student at the DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. When offered a spot on the Marquette University basketball team, Lee accepted the offer, starring there from 1974 to 1978. In 1974, Lee asked his coach Al McGuire to allow him to play for the United States Olympic basketball team. However, his coach had sent someone else, and Lee qualified for the Puerto Rican national basketball team. When Puerto Rico faced off against the U.S. in the 1976 Summer Olympics, Lee dropped 35 points from 15 of 18 shooting (83%). The U.S. still avoided an upset, defeating Puerto Rico by one point, 95-94.

Lee then went on to become the first Puerto Rican player to play in the National Basketball Association, when he was chosen in the first round of the 1978 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks. In his 3 seasons in the NBA, Lee played for the Hawks, Cavaliers, and Lakers, alongside legends like Tree Rollins, Bill Laimbeer, Magic Johnson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

In his final season in the NBA, Lee won a championship with the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers, along the likes of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and many others on the legendary Lakers roster. Lee finished his 3 season, 96 game career with a statline of 8.1 PPG, 3.2 APG, 1.4 RPG, and 0.9 SPG, while shooting 45% from the field. 

Lee during his time at Marquette University (Journal Sentinel Files)


(Andrew Yang/The Intermission)

February 4th, 2012. New York City, New York. New York Knicks versus the visiting New Jersey Nets. With three minutes and 35 seconds left in the first quarter, Jeremy Lin checks into the game. It was at that moment that NBA fans would witness history. 

Rewind back to 2005, where Jeremy played for his high school basketball team, the Palo Alto Vikings. Lin showed great success and flashes of talents that year, as he captained his team to a 32-1 record, as well as the upset of high school basketball powerhouse Mater Dei, defeating them 51–47, for the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division II state title. Lin would average 15.1 PPG, 7.1 APG, 6.2 RPG, and 5 SPG. 

A clip from the 2013 documentary “Linsanity”, showing Jeremy Lin and his Palo Alto Vikings pulling off the upset against the Mater Dei Monarchs

Despite his impressive statline, Jeremy struggled to receive any offers from D1 schools including his dream schools of Stanford University, and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Instead, Lin was offered a spot on Brown University and Harvard University. It was Harvard’s offer that Lin would accept. Harvard assistant coach Bill Holden was initially unimpressed with Lin's abilities, and told Lin's high school basketball coach, Peter Diepenbrock, that Lin was a "Division III player". Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob said Stanford's failure to recruit Lin was “really stupid.” 

“The kid was right across the street. If you can't recognize that, you've got a problem."

Lin would defy the odds, as he would go from averaging just over 4 PPG in his freshman year, to averaging 17.8 PPG in his junior year, and 16.4 PPG in his senior year, while averaging 2 steals a game with a field goal percentage of 58%. You’d expect someone with these numbers to be drafted in the first round, or maybe even as a lottery pick. But in the 2010 NBA Draft, Lin would go undrafted. Scouts saw what The New York Times described as: “a smart passer with a flawed jumpshot, and a thin frame who might not have the strength and athleticism to defend, create his own shot or finish at the rim in the NBA." Lin joined the Dallas Mavericks for their mini-camp as well as their NBA Summer League team in Las Vegas in that same summer. Donnie Nelson of the Mavericks was the only general manager who offered Lin an invitation to play in the Summer League. 

"Donnie took care of me," said Lin. "He has a different type of vision than most people do."

A highlight clip of Lin in the Summer League against NBA All-Star John Wall

Some may suggest that race played a factor in all of his pre-NBA struggles. It’s safe to say that Jeremy fell under the stereotype of asians not being able to play basketball as well as other races. While playing at Harvard, Lin would regularly hear bigoted jeer and racist remarks such as "Wonton soup", "Sweet and sour pork", "Open your eyes!", "Go back to China", "Orchestra is on the other side of campus," or pseudo-Chinese gibberish. According to Lin’s Harvard teammate Oliver McNally, a fellow Ivy League player once called Lin the ethnic slur "chink". Race would seem to be the most reasonable explanation to the questions that we were all asking ourselves when every team in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft. But race would play an even larger role than it ever had as soon as Lin would step on an NBA court. 

“I know a lot of people say I'm 'deceptively athletic' and 'deceptively quick', and I'm not sure what's deceptive. But it could be the fact that I'm Asian-American. But I think that's fine. It's something that I embrace, and it gives me a chip on my shoulder. But I'm very proud to be Asian-American and I love it.” - Jeremy Lin, during 2012 All-Star Weekend interview

Lin would be bombarded with racial slurs and stereotypes as soon as he stepped in the spotlight. From fans to media professionals, the following are just some examples of the racial disrcimination Lin had to endure during his time in the league. 

"Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight" - Former Fox Sports and ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock

"Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he's Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise." - Professional boxer Floyd Mayweather

"Chink in the Armor" - A headline used by ESPN after the New York Knicks suffered a loss against the Charlotte Hornets, where Lin recorded 9 turnovers

 "Sorry, sir, there's no volleyball here tonight. It's basketball." - A security guard at Lin’s first Pro-Am game

Although Lin was performing at an all-star level, his race still played a major factor in how fans and the media would portray him as a basketball player, as well as the portrayal of Lin’s abilities and performance on the court. After the New York era, Lin would take his talents to the Houston Rockets, playing alongside star 2-guard James Harden and sharpshooter big man Chandler Parsons. But the racism would still follow Lin and his game. After Lin dropped 21 points to help the Rockets secure a win against the Knicks, ESPN SportsCenter anchor Jorge Andres commented that Lin "was cooking with some hot peanut oil", referencing how peanut oil is used in many Chinese culinary practices. Andres followed the comment with an apology shortly after. 

Fast forward to 2019, and Jeremy Lin would make history, becoming the first ever player of Asian-American descent to win an NBA championship. 

In July of 2019, after the historic championship run with the Raptors, Lin would become a free agent. In a motivational speech on Christian station GOOD TV in Taiwan, he lamented the fact that he remained unsigned. Lin referred to his situation as hitting "rock bottom", feeling as if the NBA had "kind of given up" on him. 

On August 27, 2019, Lin signed with the Beijing Ducks of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). He would go on to average 24.2 PPG, 5.8 APG, 5.8 RPG, and 1.8 SPG, while shooting 47.4% from the field, and 36.2% from three point range. 

To me personally, Lin has always served as one of the biggest role models. Not just in my sporting and athletic life, but my personal life as well. I’m sure that a lot of people can share the same perspective as me, especially those in the Asian-American or Asian-Canadian picture. Jeremy taught us to never give up, no matter the circumstances, no matter the number of times you’ve fallen, or how hard you’ve fallen. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching Jeremy develop as a player, and a person, it’s to always have faith. Even in the worst of times, and even the best of times, you have to believe in yourself, and believe in the process. Because when you hit rock bottom, the only way to go is upwards. 

Sterling Stirs Up Controversy

(Andrew Yang/The Intermission)

On April 26, 2014, TMZ released a voice recording that featured former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, and his girlfriend at the time, V. Stiviano. In his recording, the words that would come out of Sterling’s mouth would be nothing short of hate, discrimination, and racial bias.

Following the release of this audio clip, many NBA players and celebrities spoke about their thoughts regarding Sterling’s words, as well Sterling as a person. 

“F*** you. That simple, that easy. If I was a Clippers fan, I wouldn’t be one anymore. It’s that simple. But, if I was a Clippers player, a current Clippers player, you wouldn’t see me on the court anymore. An apology wouldn’t do it for me, it wouldn’t work for me.” - Hip-hop icon Lil Wayne

“We didn’t stand with Donald, we never played for him to begin with. He just happened to be the owner of the team that put us all together. That was a crazy, uncertain time for us as players, and we were glad that [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver acted as swiftly as he did.” - Former Los Angeles Clippers forward Matt Barnes in an interview with Sports Illustrated

“The United States continues to wrestle with a legacy of race and slavery and segregation that's still there -- the vestiges of discrimination. We've made enormous strides, but you're going to continue to see this percolate up every so often. And I think that we just have to be clear and steady in denouncing it, teaching our children differently, but also remaining hopeful that part of why some statements like this stand out so much is because there had been -- there has been this shift in how we view ourselves.” - President Barack Obama in a 2014 news conference

Shortly after the flood of backlash from former and current NBA players, fans, and celebrities alike, the NBA and the NBPA took swift action against Sterling. On April 29, 2014, as his first major order of business, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA, for life. 

Following Silver banning Sterling from the league, as well as any association with the Clippers organization, NBA players and legends alike were quick to commend commissioner Silver on his actions. 

However, Sterling wanted to remain as the owner of the Clippers. So, he took action in ways that everyone was familiar with, a lawsuit. Sterling’s wife, Shelly Sterling, seized control of the Clippers and sold the franchise to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion USD. Donald sued her, too. Those lawsuits saw no success and the NBA moved on without Donald.

“He’s happy about selling the team now. Yes. He tells a lot of people. He says, "You know, I had to sell the team, but I feel like I fell off a tree and I landed on a pile of gold. - Shelly Sterling

2014: I Can’t Breathe

(Andrew Yang/The Intermission)

“I can’t breathe” were some of the last words that Eric Garner spoke before he was brutally murdered by a group of police officers. Why? Let’s break it down play by play. 

On July 17, 2014, NYPD officers Daniel Pantaleo and Justin D’Amico approached Garner on suspicion of selling single cigarettes from packages without tax stamps. After Garner told the police that he was tired of being harassed and that he was not selling cigarettes, the officers attempted to arrest Garner. It was at that moment when Pantaleo placed Garner in a chokehold and pinned him down. “I can’t breathe” was said by Garner 11 times, but not one time did the officers consider removing Garner from Pantaleo’s chokehold, causing Garner to lose consciousness. Garner was pronounced dead at an area hospital approximately one hour after the incident took place. 

Following Garner’s death, NBA players were quick to rally behind the cause. Players such as LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, and Kyrie Irving were just some of the players to wear a shirt during warmups, with the print on the shirts reading “I CAN’T BREATHE”, Garner’s infamous last words. 

“It’s us supporting that movement and supporting each other as well as athletes. I think the beauty of our country lies in its democracy. If we ever lose the courage to be able to speak up for things that we believe in, I think we really lose the values that our country stands for. - Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant when asked about the “I CAN’T BREATHE” shirts worn by the Lakers

This isn’t the first time NBA players showed acts of activism. In 2012, the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin sparked outrage all across social media. Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, a volunteer Neighborhood Watch person. Zimmerman called Sanford police to report on Martin, who he said appeared "suspicious", which would lead to an altercation that would leave Martin dead. Martin was coming back from a 7-Eleven, with nothing but a pack of Skittles, and an Arizona Watermelon beverage. 

"I'm sitting there and I'm reading all these different articles. I'm seeing all these different play-by-play. I'm seeing all these different stuff of what happened, what didn't happen, what could have happened to prevent this...and I just started to think about my boys, my sons." - Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James after finding out about Martin’s death during his time on the Cleveland Cavaliers

To show their support, NBA players posted photos of themselves wearing black hoodies, which Martin was wearing when he was killed, on social media.

Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire show their support towards the Martin family (CBS Sports)

2020: I Still Can’t Breathe

(Andrew Yang/The Intermission)

Six years after the death of Eric Garner, police brutality against African-Americans is still evident in America. Walter Scott, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling. Just some of the names of innocent African-American who were unjustly killed by American law enforcement. And now, fast forward to 2020, and one case of police brutality would set off a chain of activism throughout the country, and the world. 

It all happened on May 25, 2020. George Floyd, 46, was arrested shortly after allegedly using a fake $20 bill to purchase cigarettes at a local Cup Foods convenience store. 

A cell phone video later posted to Facebook shows an officer, who we now know as Derek Chauvin, pinning Floyd to the ground with his knee on Floyd's neck while a handcuffed Floyd repeats "I can't breathe." It would only take a matter of minutes before Floyd would lose consciousness. 

"It went from a counterfeit bill to a man being killed to millions of people around the nation just hurting. Then to people being angry and responding in a militant way and destroying, burning cities. Then to a grieving and trying to protest. You just think about that, all from a counterfeit bill.” - P.J. Hill, a resident of the neighbourhood where Floyd was murdered

Much like the case of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, NBA players, legends, and the league itself were quick to act and show their activism and solidarity towards Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The NBA, along with millions across the world in an act of solidarity and unity by posting a black square on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, with the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James shares an image from 2014, where he protested against police brutality following Eric Garner’s death by wearing a shirt with the words “I CAN’T BREATHE” printed on the shirt. The same words that were spoken by both Eric Garner and George Floyd before they were murdered by American law enforcement

Kyle Lowry shares a heartfelt statement about racial prejudice and violence against the black community

Aside from protesting and showing acts of solidarity and activism on social media, former and current players also took their protests to the streets, and stood along with millions of others fighting for racial equality. Notable players that protested include Jaylen Brown, Trae Young, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyle Lowry, and Karl-Anthony Towns. 

One of the most notable protesters was former NBA champion Stephen Jackson, who has been known to be one of the more prominent faces of the Minneapolis protests. Jackson was a close friend of Floyd’s. He called him his “twin” and his brother, referencing the striking facial resemblance between the two men. The two knew each other from Jackson’s time growing up in Houston. 

“I’m here because they’re not going to demean the character of George Floyd — my twin. A lot of times when police do things they know that’s wrong, the first thing they try to do is cover it up and bring up your background to make it seem like the b******* that they did was worth it. When was murder ever worth it?” - Jackson on the murder of his friend George Floyd

Following Floyd’s death, Jackson has vowed to take care of Floyd’s six-year-old daughter Gianna. Jackson spoke at Minneapolis City Hall along with the mother of Gianna, Roxie Washington.

"There's a lot of stuff you said that he's gonna miss - that I'm gonna be there for. I'm gonna walk her down the aisle. I'm gonna be there for her. I'm gonna be here to wipe your tears. I'm gonna be here for [Washington] and Gigi. Floyd might not be here, but I'm here for her, I'm here to get justice, and we're gonna get justice for my brother.”

Jackson also had urged people on Instagram to donate to the Gianna Floyd Fund on GoFundMe, which has raised over $2.2 million as of this writing. This is the official GoFundMe established in George Floyd's honour to help provide for the needs of his six-year-old daughter Gianna Floyd, including mental and grief counselling, lodging and travel for all court proceedings and to assist Roxie (Gianna's mother) in providing for their child’s continued well-being and education. 

A video of Floyd’s daughter Gianna sitting on the shoulders of family friend Stephen Jackson as she exclaims: “Daddy changed the world!”


The Intermission Sports stands by everyone who is fighting for equality and will not tolerate any racial bias, prejudice, hate speech or violence. We are all people and we need to support each other during these troubling times. We stand with you, support you and will fight alongside you. - The Intermission Staff

Attached below are some of the links that you can visit to support the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as ways to help seek justice for those affected and killed by systematic racism.

#Black Lives Matter


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