Free Jemele Hill!

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On the night of April 15, 1965, my father and I listened intently to WCAU AM from Philadelphia, as the 76ers were playing the hated Boston Celtics in the seventh game of the eastern division finals in the National Basketball Association playoffs. Thanks to a miracle, the Sixers had the ball under Boston’s basket in the Boston Garden with five seconds to go, trailing by a single point.

All they had to do was to inbound the ball, score a basket, and score a huge upset against this behemoth that had monopolized NBA championships for most of my childhood. It was our moment and we were set to celebrate.

My family had moved from near Philadelphia to Lookout Mountain, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the summer of 1964. In September, the Phillies were leading the National League by 8- games and proceeded to lose 10 straight, losing the pennant to the St. Louis Cardinals by a game. (The Cards went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series.) It was one of those things that a boy of 10 could not understand, as sports were in my blood, and I rooted for any team from Philadelphia.

So, half a year later, we waited for a form of redemption for Philadelphia that never came. As many of you already know, there was no successful inbounds play that night. John Havlicek stole the ball. (I am thankful that I was not subjected to the screams of Celtics announcer Johnny Most in that most famous of broadcasts; the silence on WCAU was enough.)

Two years later, we finally received redemption as the 76ers demolished Boston 4—1 in the eastern finals and won the NBA championship. It was a most sweet moment as I, along with much of the Free World at that time, hated the Celtics. Hated the Celtics.

It turns out that Jemele Hill, a talented ESPN columnist from Detroit also hates the Celtics, and some of her words have resulted in her having to engage in the Official Grovel and Apology before the Altar of Political Correctness. Just as Havlicek spoiled my evening in 1965, Larry Bird of the Celtics would perform his own miracle steal in 1987, leading to a bitter series win over the Detroit Pistons. Writes Hill, describing a moment I can understand down to my toes:

1987. I was 12 and a huge Pistons fan. I just knew it was our year, just as I knew E.T. was real. Game 5. Celtics. Boston Garden. Eastern Conference finals. Larry Bird stole Isaiah Thomas’ friggin’ inbounds pass with a couple of seconds left, passed to Dennis Johnson, and the Celtics won the game (and eventually the series). I had a nervous breakdown and spent two straight days listening to Robbie Nevil, flicking the lamp in my room on and off like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.” Bad times.

One thing that made that series especially nasty were the racially-charged comments that Pistons forward Dennis Rodman made after Boston won a hard-fought game to take the series 4-3. When asked by a reporter about Larry Bird, Rodman replied that the only reason Bird received any publicity was because he was white. Now, this was before Rodman had become the NBA’s Official Freak Show, but when Isaiah Thomas — who knew better, given Bird’s outstanding Hall-of-Fame record as a player — affirmed those remarks, the series took another tone: Boston had too many white players; it was a racist team.

At that point, the racial wars within the NBA (and professional sports, in general) were in the open and never have subsided. In 1965, Philadelphia’s starting five — and Boston’s — were mostly black players. Havlicek’s famous steal did not carry racial overtones; he had bailed out the Great Bill Russell, who seconds before had committed the turnover that gave the 76ers the ball in the first place. Russell was black, as were Sam and K.C. Jones and Satch Sanders, who to this day remain the Gold Standard of professional basketball.

The 76ers in 1967 had an all-black starting five, led by Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer. At that time, it is doubtful that there were any more "racist" sports cities than Philadelphia and Boston. But we Philly fans did not hate the Celtics because their stars were black; we hated them because they were the Celtics. The green and white uniforms were enough to stoke the juices.

Unfortunately for Jemele Hill, she did not stop with saying she hated the Celtics. Instead, she embellished her statements, saying that "rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim.  It’s like hoping Gorbachev would get to the blinking red button before Reagan." (Unfortunately, the ESPN brass had her remarks airbrushed and no longer are available through this column.) Those were the words that would get her into trouble and lead to the following Official Grovel:

I deeply regret the comment I made in a column Saturday. In expressing my passion for the NBA and my hometown of Detroit I showed very poor judgment in the words that I used. I pride myself on an understanding of, and appreciation for, diversity — and there is no excuse for the appalling lack of sensitivity in my comments. It in no way reflects the person I am. I apologize to all of my readers and I thank them for holding me accountable. This has been an important lesson for me and illustrates that, like many people, I still have a lot of growing and learning to do.

To that I say: Give me a break. She did not echo any feelings that I and a million other people in 1965 and 1967 harbored and people in Detroit — black and white — harbor today. Please remember that when Red Auerbach was coaching the Celtics, he would light up a stogie near the end of the last game of the NBA finals (usually against the hapless Lakers) to make his point.

In 1967, Auerbach’s first year in retirement (Bill Russell took the role of player-coach for the Celtics), he sat in the stands in game five of the eastern series, a contest Philly would win 144-121, and a game I remember like it was yesterday. Philadelphia fans sitting near Auerbach lit their own cigars, and what a delicious moment it was, although I have described actions that today are considered so Politically Incorrect as not even to be mentionable in polite or even impolite society.

Had a sportswriter in Philadelphia on April 16, 1965, written Hill’s words, we would have agreed wholeheartedly. (Of course, Hitler had been dead only 20 years and it would be another 20 before Reagan and Gorby would meet in Iceland.) In fact, I suspect more than one Philadelphia fan on that morning believed that nothing short of a thermo-nuclear attack on the city of Boston would suffice. First the Phillies blowing the pennant, and now Havlicek stealing the ball. Philadelphia once again was a city of losers, and those loyal to the City of Brotherly Love were not pleased.

But today, Hill must repent of whatever it was she said. For those who might not understand the mechanics of sportswriting, she was using hyperbole. She was not advocating Round Two of The Holocaust or regretting that Gorbachev and the Red Menace did not nuke us; she simply was using over-the-top language that hardly is unusual in her profession.

At least she did not have to apologize for the following (although some people claim to have been offended):

Equally appalling is that some of my friends — people I consider hardcore Detroiters — have actually been rooting for the Celtics in the Finals. That’s just gross. If you’re from Detroit, and you’re at peace with the idea of the Celtics winning another NBA title, immediately hurl yourself off the Ambassador Bridge.

Rooting for the Celtics is like supporting inflation, unemployment and locusts. It’s like praying for Eva Mendes to get married and for Brad Pitt to be disfigured.

It’s like wishing dollar bills and free time for Pacman Jones. It’s like hoping the pit bull doesn’t take Michael Vick’s pinky as a memento. It’s like wanting Ron Artest’s raps on repeat. It’s like coveting fungus.

By the way, I do not recall Johnny Most, who truly was the ultimate homer when it came to announcing, being brought before the PC Police. However, there were no PC Police when he was doing his impression of a professional broadcaster. No one had to bow down before the God of Diversity and the ridiculous, parsing language that accompanies it.

No, Jemele Hill is a throwback to the columnist who was fun to read and who enjoyed writing for fans. For that matter, she was one of the few columnists in the country who gave apologies to the Duke lacrosse players after North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper exonerated them in April, 2007. Her column is well-worth reading and reveals someone who is willing to ask the hard questions of herself and others.

Most likely, I would not agree with every word of every column that Hill has written, and I am thankful for that. I figure that anyone who agrees with me 100 percent of the time is not worth reading, given that I doubt I would agree with me 100 percent of the time.

But Jemele Hill is a serious writer and someone I enjoy reading. She should not have to fall down prostrate to the PC Gods and be forced to write complete b.s. about her "insensitivity" and the like, since she was not "insensitive." She grew up hating the Celtics. So did I. Her moment was Bird stealing the ball, and mine was the theft by Havlicek. So, let her hate the Celtics — and leave her alone and let her write.

Correction:

In a recent article in which I took issue with a book review by Robert Perkinson, I mistakenly said that K.C. Johnson and Stuart Taylor had included the Darryl Hunt case in their book, Until Proven Innocent, in response to the charge that Perkinson had made against them in his review in The Nation.  Indeed, Perkinson was correct; there is no mention of the Hunt case in that book.

However, I must add that this omission was not due to Perkinson’s charge that they had left out the Hunt case because they did not wish to disturb their own “narrative,” but rather because the chapter (Chapter 23) of the book was dealing specifically with cases of prosecutorial misconduct.  Furthermore, the authors highlighted cases involving both blacks and white defendants who were convicted wrongfully because of misconduct by North Carolina prosecutors.

Darryl Hunt ultimately was exonerated because of DNA testing, something that was not available when he first was convicted in the mid-1980s.  It is ironic that many of Nifong’s supporters were willing to accept the results that freed Hunt but were not willing to accept the fact that no DNA by any lacrosse player on Crystal Mangum meant anything at all, except to mean the players were guilty.  (One North Carolina Central University student declared that the players “left nothing behind.”)

K.C. Johnson, in his Durham-in-Wonderland blog, highlighted the Hunt case long before the book was published, so Perkinson’s contention that he was not interested in the case because of a certain “narrative” simply cannot stand.  Nonetheless, I still made an error which I regret, and I apologize for it.

June 24, 2008

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services.

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