By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

Let's say there was no color issue; let's say everyone in America was green. Green like the dollar bill. Green with envy.

Now let's say there's a group of people, all green, all American, standing at a bus stop on their way to work. The bus pulls up, driver opens the door and the bus driver says, "Good morning everyone! You all know the drill ... dark green people to the back, light green people sit in the front."

Jermaine O'Neal
Jermaine O'Neal's taking a lot of heat -- for simply asking questions.

At some point we all knew it would come to this. But it didn't have to come to this. The "R." Racism. The word. Groundhogged it's ugly little head again. This time out of the mouth of Jermaine O'Neal. His words inexact: "Racism is part of the NBA's [David Stern's] reason to implement an age restriction on entering the league." I'm paraphrasing. But the point is out. And once out, it stays out, like the cork on the Verve Cliquot.

Somewhere in Toronto, outside the U.S., Jermaine O'Neal got caught off guard, and caught up. Someone asked him a question. An American question. Unparaphrasing. "Is it because you guys are black that the league is trying to put an age limit on the draft?"

The question demanded an answer. A real one. Not one of those scripted, toeing-the-company-line responses. So Jermaine gave the Charles Barkley answer. The Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman-on-Larry Bird answer. He gave the answer that many needed to hear, but hundreds were afraid to say. For lack of misunderstanding and misquotes, O'Neal basically called David Stern's intent to mandate an age requirement for induction into the NBA race related.

Then came the drama.

Everyone from Stephen A. to Mike & Mike in the Morning found a way to disagree with O'Neal's comment and assessment.

"Racism in the NBA?" you could hear them say. "Never. That's un-American."

Most didn't understand where O'Neal was coming from – straight felt that he is more than off base with his opinion. They voiced through phone calls on talk radio that he is dead wrong. One even went so far as to call his comment "stupid." Not necessarily a reflection of O'Neal the person ... but damn.

Let's define stupid. Stupid is Barry Bonds still working out with Greg Anderson. Stupid is Mike Tyson still fighting for a title shot. Stupid is the Lakers not getting at least one All-Star in return for Shaq.

An NBA superstar finding something racially motivated when the principals involved are specifically of one race? That's conscious. And in an era when apathy runs through the DNA of black athletes everywhere, the fact that one would even pose the question should get him Nobel Prize recognition.

Dr. King often said, "A man that doesn't stand for something will fall for anything." And while no one is saying Jermaine O'Neal is the MLK of the NBA, his wherewithal to approach the subject should be appreciated more than anything, if not applauded.

OTHER OPINIONS
Jason Whitlock thinks an age limit in the NBA is the best thing for the league, and the players. Cast your vote on the issue.
Even if he's wrong.

The problem is ... he isn't.

*****

To know him, you'd understand. He's very soft-spoken, quiet, almost humble at all times. But he doesn't shy away from two things: the truth, and what he believes. He asks questions. That's what we sometimes don't see or hear. We jump to conclusions, when really he's simply a young man asking the world questions – questions that he'd love to have answered.

Months ago, he asked this one: "What Would You Do?" He asked the question in response to the situation that got him suspended for a third of the NBA season. He never said he was right. He never backed away from his actions. But he did ask us, asked anyone who wasn't him at that particular moment in the Palace at Auburn Hills last November, to put ourselves in his Shox there, to see the situation from his vantage point, to process the scene in our minds. And then ask ourselves ... what would we do?

He sits in a chair, relaxed. Button-up game tight, white MLB cap to the back, smile hidden. He allowed NBA Nation into his house. Confronting the issue head on. This is what he does for a living, besides play ball. He asked a question.

"What's the debate about?" he said inside a mini-media interrogation. "I just want to understand better why an age limit is coming up. That's all.

"I'm not playing the race card, I'm not calling anybody a racist. I'm just talking about the facts. The product and economic reasons can't be the reason, because the league is doing well and the prime faces of the NBA are of high-school players. So why are they trying to change that? It doesn't make sense to me."

Freddy Adu
Tough to argue for an age limit in the NBA when Freddy Adu's already playing professional soccer.

Questions.

"It's not about race," he said to Matt Winer, as his former Portland Trail Blazers mentor Greg Anthony listened in (and, at times, tried to clarify the situation for O'Neal). "This is about an opportunity at life. We're talking about transition – young black athletes making a successful transition. It's been going on for 30 years. I just want to know why."

Why the change? Why fix something that ain't broke? Why mess with these kids' opportunity for a better life when the demand is high and they own the supply? Why, when Freddy Adu in the MLS just signed on last year at age 14? Why now?

The fact is that while 76 percent of the players in the NBA are black, almost 100 percent of the players who will be affected by the "delayed entry program" will be black. And more than color or race, economics is at the core of this. Nearly all of the players who make themselves eligible for the NBA draft directly out of high school do so to immediately better their family's financial situation. And now, all of a sudden, with nothing concrete at which to point that says "players under the age of 20 have been bad for professional basketball," a decision is going to be made on their behalf that will directly change the course of their lives?

O'Neal is one of the success stories of the rule that's about to be changed. He went straight from Eau Claire High School in South Carolina to the NBA. Yet when he asks the question – "Why?" – America seems to have a problem with it because of his injection of color into an equation that was all black to begin with.

If you were David Stern, what would you do?

A radio host in LA said of "the Jermaine O'Neal ordeal," every time you bring race or color into the conversation, another component appears.

One that most white Americans don't want to face. One that most blacks don't want to relive.

But does that mean it doesn't exist?

Ric Bucher said there exists a "resentment toward younger players" in the league, but that it's "generational, not racial."

Ric Bucher is white. Ric Bucher is right.

But when it comes to amateur basketball players under the age of 20 making themselves available to be drafted into the association, there's only one generation that counts. And inside that generational box, the color is no longer coded. It's specific.

How many white basketball players have entered the NBA draft out of a U.S. high school? One. His name: Rob Swift.

How many European/foreign basketball players have entered the NBA draft out of high school without professional experience? None. Even if they're younger than 20, they can play professionally in Europe before entering the NBA, like Darko Milicic (who was 18 his rookie season).

Ever since Kevin Garnett re-broke the rules in 1995, every basketball player under the age of 20 without professional or college experience (outside of Mr. Swift) who has come into the L has been black. All the young kids who have listened to the people around them (including NBA scouts and GMs) telling them they can make the "jump" and who then jumped, have been black. All of the ballers who have used the NBA as an economic refuge, eliminating drastic below-poverty-level situations the minute they became eligible to vote or join the army, have been black.

Recognize a theme? A color scheme?

It is not race at the base of Stern's quest to install an age limitation for entrance into the game, but it is race at the base of who that rule will directly affect. And that's the "fact" that Jermaine O'Neal is ultimately trying to get at. Yes, the players union wants to protect the 10-year vets who have been losing roster spots to these young studs in the way that seasoned actors are losing roles to rappers in Hollywood. But why keep the young brothas from that opportunity when no one is "holding a .45 to the head of these owners and GMs making them draft these kids."

He made a suggestion by answering a question. In the end, all he said he wanted was an answer. But in America, when someone like him, like Jermaine (or Kobe, or KG, or Amare, or McGrady, or LeBron) who's been through the fire, says they feel that there might be racial "undertones" in the decision to cap the age limit on coming into the league – and no one wants to listen – it suggests that there are bigger problems than the one O'Neal is suggesting.

The fact that Jermaine O'Neal made the "suggestion" that race might be an element, a component in the decision to advance the age requirement, is not stupid, is not unwarranted, is not racist. Given that the law will only affect people of Jermaine's color, his answer to someone's question isn't stupid, ignorant or asinine.

It's justified.

But we live in America. Home of the free, land of opportunity. A country where they want to shift the age limit for someone to be able to make millions, but not the age limit to be able to die for it.

And just because the overwhelming majority of the people the new rule would affect are of one color ... well, in America, what's racist about that?

I'm only asking a question. Get it?

Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines; and the author of "Sole Provider: 30 Years of NIKE Basketball," "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.



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