Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

White men can pass: On the exaltation of the Princeton Tigers

March 12, 1998

By JONATHAN TILOVE

NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

By now, sports fans, it should be plain which team is the thinking fan’s choice in the men’s NCAA Tournament. The Princeton Tigers, of course. They are ranked eighth in the country and, as we have learned in an effusion of recent commentary, they are a team of genuine scholar-athletes who play a smart, patient, selfless brand of ball.

“Just pure basketball,” in the words of a New York Times Magazine profile, “without the sludge of ego to congest it.”

“One should not commit sociology promiscuously,” cautioned syndicated commentator George Will in a column deep in Princeton’s thrall, “but this team might be a leading indicator of cultural improvement, advancing virtues important in society and decreasingly apparent in sports.”

But neither the Times magazine nor Will mentioned another aspect of the Princeton team that sets it starkly apart. In a game dominated for a generation by black athletes, Princeton’s starting five are all white.

What is mentioned is that these are smart kids, real students, who are not eligible for athletic scholarships, and who play an old-fashioned, more mental team game than that now in vogue most everywhere else. Race is implicit, for the Princeton game harkens back to a time when whites dominated the sport before black players pumped it up and took it over.

To some, the Princeton players’ race is irrelevant and unworthy of mention; the coincidence of their color and their intellect is just that – a coincidence.

“There are always jerks out there who root for the white team, but I think the real basketball fan doesn’t even notice it,” said sports analyst John Feinstein.

Feinstein notes that in past years Princeton teams have featured black standouts with similar smarts playing the same brand of basketball gaining praise this year. Until the low melanin count of this year’s starters was called to his attention, Feinstein said, “I hadn’t even thought about it.”

To others, the Tigers’ whiteness simply adds to a retro, underdog charm that elicits a bit of quirky but essentially harmless pride on the part of white fans who long ago conceded black hegemony on the college and professional courts.

“I think we all root for people who are like us. I think that’s particularly true for underdogs,” said Frank Deford, who writes for Sports Illustrated and got his start covering Princeton basketball as a student there four decades ago. By contrast, said Deford, “I don’t think white guys go cheer for white players at a baseball game because there are plenty of them out there.”

But to others, the exaltation of the Princeton squad is all about race – and not benign in its consequences. Rather, they argue, it is yet more Great White Hype for yet another Great White Hope.

“This is so much about the triumph of the white will and spirit. Every time they win, it’s a great victory for white mental capacity and for the cerebral over the physical,” said New York University historian Jeffrey Sammons, who has taught courses on race and sports at Princeton.

“I think for these white guys to come into a black-dominated world and do well is just a powerful statement in some people’s minds about the superiority of whites, and I think it has enormous psychic value,” said Sammons.

And, said John Hoberman, the author of Darwin’s Athletes, writers, editors and commentators tend to avoid directly confronting the racial issue out of fear.

“They don’t want to take the top off Pandora’s box,” said Hoberman.

All of this, of course, has more to do with the context the Tigers find themselves in than anything they intend or want.

“The last thing we want to be is a champion for white rights in sports,” said Princeton center Steve Goodrich, probably the most outstanding performer among them, who doubts that racial affinity counts for much of their following.

Goodrich, a history major, is writing his senior thesis on changing representations of the black athlete in American society, stretching from Joe Louis and Jesse Owens to Muhammad Ali and the black power protests at the 1968 Olympics.

Goodrich does not extend his thesis to late-20th-century America, where about 80 percent of NBA players are black, as are about two-thirds of Division I men’s college basketball players. It is in this context that the Princeton players’ skin tone marks them most assuredly to the broad public as presumptive underdogs.

“Sports, for sure, is a metaphor for life. And in America, basketball is a metaphor for race,” Washington writer Nathan McCall said in his book “What’s Going On.”

And, writes McCall, both blacks and whites share “a deep-rooted belief that blacks are more gifted as athletes than whites, but that God somehow shortchanged the brothers on brains.”

Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema and Television, said it is an impression constantly reinforced by media reporting of sports.

“There’s always this assumption that the African-American athletes are naturally gifted and that the white athlete has to work hard at being good, that Larry Bird was a legend for working so hard and that Michael Jordan came out of his mother’s womb playing basketball,” said Boyd, who has written about basketball in his book “Am I Black Enough for You?”

The coverage of Princeton seems to roll together the team members’ on-the-court and off-the-court virtues.

As Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated wrote a few weeks ago, Princeton had managed a superior record “to most of the college basketball teams that run faster and jump higher and study much more slowly if at all.”

What’s more, Thomsen noted, when the Princeton team toured Italy to play last August, “the players visited historic sights on their own time and didn’t eat every meal at McDonald’s – thus setting a modern record for American basketball players in Europe.”

Princeton is not broadly emblematic of whites, said Sammons. Trash-talking Larry Bird was not Princeton material. Rather, said Sammons, Princeton is the very epitome of white privilege.

“In so many ways they are the opposite pole from the people who have come to dominate basketball,” said Sammons.

And that, as it turns out, is especially true in how they play the game of basketball.

Princeton succeeded handsomely, earning a berth in the NCAA tournament that begins Thursday, by amassing a 26-1 record, albeit in the weak Ivy League conference.

And they did it playing a traditional Princeton game that, while not intrinsically white, evokes an era of white dominance. It is a slower, lower-scoring, less high-flying and flamboyant style that eschews slam dunks and sheer speed and power a style brought to dominance by black players in favor of passing, back-door plays, three-point shots and tough defense.

It’s a style that also seems to tap a deep nostalgia for that game of yore.

As Steve Serby wrote last month in the New York Post, “They are a joy to watch, five selfless kids touching the ball, taking precious care of it, moving it around for the best possible shot, poetry in motion, basketball like it oughta be, and yes, maybe you truly can go to class, maybe you really can study economics or evolutionary biology and somehow find the time not only to be the best college basketball team you can be, but the best college basketball team in America.”

But Princeton’s playing style has its limits, even for some fans.

“I’ve detected that nostalgia usually about this time of year when Princeton is in this tournament,” said Carl Belz, a Princeton basketball star in the late 1950s. “All these pundits and scribes wax poetic about how this is the way the game ought to be played – the clarity, the passing, the sharing, the teamwork – and I think, `OK, who would like to watch this game not just once a year? How would you like to watch it 30 games a year, and how would a television producer like to have to sell this routine?’

“I find myself growing a bit skeptical we would want this on a daily basis,” said Belz.

Belz, who now directs the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, said those who glorify the old game remind him of art critics who complain they haven’t liked anything since Jackson Pollack and Willem DeKooning.

“What I always thought was great about basketball was that it allowed for so much invention,” said Belz.

Ironically, Belz was among the members of the 1956-57 Princeton basketball team portrayed at the end of last year on a Sports Illustrated cover that asked, “What Ever Happened to the White Athlete?”

As it happens, Belz’s alma mater is one of the few where that question seems to have no resonance.

Belz also thinks that continued fan concern about the color of those on the court may be fading with each passing day.

“Whenever I hear the remark, `Gee, it was really good there was a white guy on the floor,’ it’s somebody my age or older, not some 20-something or even some 30-something,’ said Belz.

Written by jonathantilove

July 24, 2022 at 6:02 pm

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