The NBA race conversation

The NBA may genuinely be the least racist place I know. Basically, it's an environment that has been confronting some of these issues longer than most, with open-minded leadership and a competitive environment with a genuine appreciation for productivity, on and off the court, regardless of color.

The days of quotas -- limits to the number of black players and the like -- are well behind us. Forget players ... the ranks of NBA coaches, referees and even of front offices, have been diverse enough for long enough that nobody seems to notice much about the skin color of the new guy.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let's take a moment to celebrate that. Well done.

Maybe this post should end there.

But just one more thing, if I may: That's not to say the NBA, or any place, is a racism free zone. (If there is such a thing on this planet, I've not seen it.)

We know that in the NBA's past things were tough. Many of the NBA's racial pioneers are still around. President Obama will soon present Bill Russell with a Medal of Freedom, and the citation includes mention of his work as a civil rights leader. A lot of that leadership was in his day job.

The NBA has been eager to declare victory, on the topic of race, and then move on. That almost seems to imply that some kind of spell was cast -- and since then all that racism we know existed was wiped away for good.

But of course it was painstaking and slow progress, born of hard conversations, hard-won respect, and hard-earned trust. It's in degrees of gradation, and it's in a much better place now. It did not evaporate, though.

Acknowledging the truth of the situation is the foundation of that change. (I'm mindful that after wars, there is often a need for a process of truth and reconciliation. It rights precious few wrongs, but having losses at least acknowledged and on the record is an essential part of moving on, for many.)

In this current state of having things essentially okay, but not perfect, in the NBA and the nation beyond, I think it's important to keep a balanced view: this is not terrible! But also an open mind, and an open ear. As in, if someone wants to bring up some racial issue, we're open to that, right? Can anyone stare into the eyes of every NBA player and tell him with certainty that skin color has never been a factor in his work?

Some people would rather that whole conversation just evaporate. (David Stern said a few years ago that racism "doesn't exist in the NBA.") But I think the NBA has plenty to be proud of, and the time may be coming to end knee-jerk denials, and to indulge instead in that messy, but ultimately empowering line of conversation that admit race has long been a factor in how things happen in this NBA workplace. The progress has been mighty, but it's not done, and sweeping things under the rug doesn't help.