["The Last Dance" is more than just the story of a legendary
basketball team. Its a broader reminder that, in America, inequality
touches everything -- including sports.] [https://portside.org/]
'THE LAST DANCE' IS A REMINDER OF AMERICA'S ENDURING INEQUALITY
April 26, 2020
_ "The Last Dance" is more than just the story of a legendary
basketball team. It's a broader reminder that, in America, inequality
touches everything -- including sports. _
Washington (CNN)"Whenever they speak Michael Jordan, they should speak
Scottie Pippen," the basketball icon Michael "Air" Jordan says,
reverently, of his former teammate in "The Last Dance
the new 10-part docuseries from ESPN and Netflix about the 1997-98
Chicago Bulls season.
But while both men helped to catapult the once-middling Bulls to
international renown -- including, between 1991 and 1998, six NBA
championships -- Pippen's experience with fame wasn't as rosy as
Jordan's. The series' second episode revisits some of the financial
pressures that stalked Pippen early on in his career -- pressures
that, owing to enduring
America, still disproportionately affect young black players today.
In 1991, after the Bulls secured their first title in franchise
history, Pippen, in his mid-20s, signed a five-year contract
extension with the ascendant team
It was worth $18 million, which was good money -- if you weren't a
colossal talent, as Pippen was.
"It was embarrassing because he was maybe the No. 2 player in the
NBA," former Bulls coach Phil Jackson says in "The Last Dance." "His
value was immense."
Or as the team's owner Jerry Reinsdorf puts it: "I said to Scottie the
same thing I said to Michael: If I were you, I wouldn't sign this
contract. You may be selling yourself too short. It's too long a
contract you're locking yourself in for."
And yet, comments of this sort feel unfair at best. They pay virtually
no attention to the constraints that shaped Pippen's actions.
One of 12 children, Pippen grew up poor in the small southern city of
Hamburg, Arkansas. By the time he was a teenager, his father had
suffered a stroke and had to use a wheelchair; one of his brothers had
been paralyzed by a classmate's wrestling move. For Pippen, then,
basketball wasn't merely a pastime -- it was a means of staving off
"I felt like I couldn't afford to gamble myself getting injured and
not being able to provide," Pippen says in the series. "I needed to
make sure that people in my corner were taken care of."
The journalist Jemele Hill, who worked at ESPN for more than a decade,
explained further why a young Pippen, already intimately familiar with
the realities of the country's racial wealth gap
would agree to something that in the long run wasn't good for him.
"While not all black athletes in the NBA come from impoverished
backgrounds, for the ones who do, it's not as smooth a ride as you
might think," Hill told CNN. "Players often lean into their own
understanding of things because it's more comfortable than listening
to the interlopers -- the agents and other advisers -- who are now in
their world. ... And for Pippen, looked at by his family as the one
who made it, the years counted more than the money."
"We don't understand that poverty isn't just a cycle. It's traumatic,"
Hill said, referring to the disorientation of sudden acclaim and
wealth. "What Pippen wasn't taught to think -- because if you're from
his background, why would you be taught to think this? -- was that
he'd be a better player in a few years, and _that's_ why you don't
sign. He was thinking of all the bad things that might happen if he
In other words, when you add a bit of context, you see that there was
a certain wisdom, not to mention heart, in Pippen's decision.
But while the NBA has become more player-friendly since the '90s --
and for years has sought to steer rookies through the rocky waters of
young black players who "make it" today often inherit the same
professional and psychological challenges Pippen struggled with.
In fact, these difficulties are the subject of Starz's "Survivor's
Remorse," a sitcom that aired from 2014 to 2017. It follows a black
basketball player who signs a big-bucks contract and moves from a
down-and-out area of Boston to Atlanta; meanwhile, he must learn to
deal with the unfamiliar solar system of celebrity.
Though fictional, "Survivor's Remorse," in key ways, mirrors the
real-life journeys -- full of the new stresses of wealth -- of the Los
Angeles Lakers' LeBron "King" James (who was a teenager when he joined
the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003) and his manager and childhood friend
Maverick Carter, both of whom were executive producers of the show.
"I have (survivor's remorse) sometimes, because of my family and my
neighborhood where I come from. There's a lot of good people there,
and not all of them, to use a phrase, make it out. And I did. But a
lot of times I feel bad about making it when they didn't," Carter
told The New York Times in 2014
In this light, "The Last Dance" is more than just the story of a
legendary basketball team. It's a broader reminder that, in America,
inequality touches everything -- including sports.
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