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Race and Beyond: Moving Past Stereotypes in Basketball—and in Life

Lone Peak High basketball

SOURCE: AP/Rick Bowmer

Lone Peak coach Quincy Lewis, center, celebrates with his team after Lone Peak defeated Alta 72–39 in the state Class 5A boys basketball championship, Saturday, March 2, 2013, in Ogden, Utah.

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The late sportswriter Pete Axthelm first coined the phrase “the city game” in 1970, in regard to the many ways in which basketball was played in New York City—from the playgrounds in Harlem to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. His outstanding 1970 book of the same name followed the 1969-70 season of the New York Knicks and how it affected the black neighborhoods in New York City.

In his book, Axthelm codified the run-and-gun, fast-break, dunk-in-your-face style of play as a so-called black thing—something done mostly by black players. Though he didn’t say it explicitly, anyone who read the book recognized the implication. Such is the power of stereotypes, which stick like crazy glue even when subtly expressed.

Consider the images Axthelm evokes in the book’s opening pages:

Basketball is the city game.

Its battlegrounds are strips of asphalt between tattered wire fences or crumbling buildings; its rhythms grow from the uneven thump of a ball against hard surfaces. …

Basketball is a game for young athletes without cars or allowances—the game whose drama and action are intensified by its confined spaces and chaotic surroundings. …

The game is simple, an act of one man challenging another, twisting, feinting, then perhaps breaking free to leap upward, directing a ball toward a target, a metal hoop ten feet above the ground … And a one-on-one challenge takes on wider meaning, defining identity and manhood in an urban society that breeds invisibility. …

Other young athletes may learn basketball, but city kids live it.

There’s no mistaking that Axthelm is writing about black kids and their passion for hoops. In the decades since the book’s publication, the image of a black baller has conflated and morphed to the point that the game itself is inextricably a projection of black culture.

It comes as something of a shock to the system, then, when a basketball team breaks the stereotype. So dribbles the Lone Peak High Knights.

The high school is in Highland, Utah—almost as far as anyone can get from the tough inner-city nooks of Harlem. And the tall, quick, and showboating players aren’t sassy, street-smart black toughs seeking an escape from poverty. No, these players are white. And Mormon. And outstanding hoopsters.

The first two of these three attributes are more often associated with a high school chess club—which the team is often confused with being—rather than a top-caliber basketball team. And yet, against all the stereotypical odds, the Lone Peak High Knights are exploding on the high school baller scene.

The team’s best player, 6’10” center Eric Mika, recently told The New York Times that opponents are often surprised when he and his teammates come to play. “There was one team we played that was literally laughing when we were warming up,” Mika said. “And we beat them by 50.”

That’s the power—and folly—of prejudice. It clouds rational thought and creates embarrassing outcomes. In this case, the mistaken assumption is that talent on the basketball court is color coded. But it’s not. Not too long ago, largely because of racial prejudices, black athletes were invisible to most Americans, leading some to question whether they even had the ability to compete with white athletes.

Nobody thinks like that nowadays. Conversely, some will argue that in some sports such as basketball, white athletes can’t compete with black players.

Try telling that to the Lone Peak Knights. They finished the season with a 26–1 record, capped earlier this month by a 72–39 victory over the Alta Hawks in the Utah 5A state championships. In winning its third-straight state title, the team ran circles around its competition this season, with an amazing 28.5-point average margin of victory.

That run of success wasn’t against cupcakes either. The Knights seek out strong competition, traveling from gym to gym to play the best teams in the nation. The team hit the road during the winter holidays to play tournaments in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and California—and it won, leaving shocked onlookers with mouths agape, all saying the same thing about their fast-paced dunking style.

Last season the Knights participated in the Beach Ball Classic, a high school tournament that attracts some of the nation’s best teams to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The team knocked off Chicago’s Whitney Young High 72–67 in a double-overtime thriller. Though the Knights lost the championship game to a team from Georgia, the school set scoring records and made people from beyond the Utah mountains take notice of the Mormon kids who can jump.

“They play like inner-city teams; how blacks consider black teams play,” Tyrone Slaughter, the Whitney Young High coach, told The New York Times. “I don’t know any other way to put it. … So many times we see the predominately white teams play a conservative style, precise style of basketball. When you see this team play, it is completely different.”

MaxPreps.com, an online site that tracks high school sports, ranked Lone Peak the nation’s top high school basketball team. The website also selected the Knights among its seventh-annual Basketball Tour of Champions, an honor that is reserved for 20 of the nation’s best high school basketball teams. Only nationally ranked and state champion teams are considered for the distinction and—given that there are more than 40,000 high school varsity basketball teams in the nation—the selection means the Knights are better than 99.9 percent of all the teams across the land.

If Axthelm, who died in 1991, had seen the Knights of Lone Peak High School play basketball, he might have reconsidered the underlying premise of his book.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

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