The summer when I was 14 years old, I walked past a car that had stopped at the end of a driveway to let me pass. The driver, and older gentleman probably in his early 40s, poked his head out of the driver side window, examining me closely.
“You play basketball?” He asked me gruffly.
I nodded that I did and kept walking.
I was used to the inquiry. I was tall and thin, young and baby-faced, and who doesn’t want to get in on the ground floor (even if it means just knowing about) of a superstar in the making?
This man in the car wasn’t a scout or coach out looking for talent. He was a Black guy in a Black neighborhood doing what Black people do: Assume that a tall Black male plays basketball. He had asked his question in an accusatory sort of tone, as if I’d be crazy to supply the wrong answer.
Playing a sport for a living is a glamorous job. Kids and adults alike look up to you and come to your job to cheer you on while you’re at work. You may have a really impressive physique, since your body is your business. You literally play a game every day, and get paid to do so. The publicized salaries that the top (and even average) players earn makes a pro athlete job a realistically-winnable lottery ticket for many people.
In communities like the one I come from — fully (or predominantly) Black, middle-to-lower class — becoming an athlete or rapper was the only lottery ticket anyone believed in (not the only route to success, but the only route to massive, unbelievable success). And, unlike the Powerball jackpot, we can actually see and hear stories of people from same set of circumstances as us who actually “made it.”
I’m fully grown now at 6’4”, just at the cut-off edge of you-MUST-play-basketball! height. So, my experience with that man poking his head out of a car is far from unique — especially with young men who were and are taller than I was/am.
Watch any high school, college or even NBA game. You don’t have to be a student of the game, or even care much for basketball, to point out by a simple eye test the players whose hearts are not in basketball. The fact that almost every player in this playing-just-because group is 6’5” and taller is not an accident: They’re conditioned — programmed — to believe that because of their size, playing basketball is what they’re supposed to do.
In youth, thanks to their unknowing and (sometimes) well-meaning family members, neighbors and peers, these tall kids are made to believe that they’d be fools to not “use” that height in sports.
Man, if I had your height, I’d be the best player around here.
You’re that tall and can’t dunk???
All tall as you are, you should be doing something with basketball!
You’re a waste of height.
You got all that height and ain’t doing nothing with it.
(All of the above were said to me by the age of 15 by other kids my age.)
This basketball-or-nothing conditioning is a result of the influence of people who simply don’t know any better.
Instead of seeing a human being, a unique person who has just as many interests and just as much potential as anyone else walking the earth, some people see only one trait — size — and pigeonhole that person into a profession that’s not even of his choosing (this happens to tall females too). A bright, six-foot-seven African-American young man could be an ace computer programmer, architect, clothing designer or head chef just as easily as he could be a backup small forward.
The problem often is, there’s no one of influence in that young man’s life who can get the message in his ear. Thank God for me.
Good thing now is that we have the internet, where misguided youth could find an article like this or a podcast episode like this.
Concluding thoughts below.
For Your Game
- Not every tall Black male has to play basketball. Some — like your author — do, but not all of them. And for those who do, hopefully it’s by choice.
- Adults who have influence over kids: When you comment that a young man “should be” playing basketball, he’s listening and possibly taking your words to heart. Understand that while you may just be thinking out loud or making a throwaway comment not to be taken seriously, think back on yourself when you were a kid: You didn’t just ignore grown-ups. They’re listening to what you say and taking it seriously, even when you’re not.
- It’s easy for us to look at height and assign a role to people because height is easy to see; I don’t even need to talk to you to see that you’re 6’10” and think of how you could help the Sixers off the bench this season. But people are complex and hard to fully figure out; what’s more, we change over time. The person you knew a year ago isn’t the same person today, the same way you aren’t the same. You might be slightly offended if a person were to just look at you and assume that they knew exactly what value you had to offer the world, without even pretending to get to know you. See other people the same way.
- Tall young men: You are not limited to playing basketball just because you’re tall. While your size would provide an “in” for the game, that’s only if you actually want to play the game. A short player who wants to play basketball is more valuable that a tall player who doesn’t want to be there at all. Get out and see the world around you. There are people, places, ideas and professions available to you that will make great use of your other attributes, things that people can’t see when they’re only noticing your height. Be the person you want to be, not the person you “should” be.