LeBron James and the Miami Heat Pay Tribute: When Life Transcends the Game

Erik Reitmeyer@@reity9690Contributor IIIMarch 24, 2012

Some things just don't go away—they're too embedded in our culture.  I'm not talking about March Madness, or Yankees-Red Sox.  Sports are just a small representation of who we are as people.  Some individuals are more passionate than others, and some don't even follow sports at all.  But what showed up on Twitter yesterday was a truly glowing example of what it means to be a member of a community.

Sports at their highest moments can teach more than just X's and O's.  Leaders, and teachers like John Wooden, are shining examples of people who preach the right way in not just sports, but life itself.  Yesterday afternoon, a photo of the Miami Heat team all wearing hoodies, found its way online.  Say what you want about LeBron James or the Heat, but this needed to happen.  In sports you are taught that the group is more important than individual.  Almost a month ago, Floridians and African Americans lost a member of their communities.    

One of the hottest topics trending over the past few weeks has been the slaying of African-American Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.  For those who don't know, Martin, 17, was walking when George Zimmerman, 28, shot and killed Martin, who was carrying only a can of ice tea, and a bag of Skittles.  Zimmerman, who is being described in the media as both white and Latin American, was a neighborhood watch captain, and called the shooting self-defense.

Word of Martin's death has spread across the country, sparking major uproar.  Since February 26, numerous protests have erupted.  At the time of his shooting, Martin was wearing a hoodie with the hood up, prompting Zimmerman to consider him suspicious.  On Wednesday, a "Million Hoodie March" took place in New York City, over a thousand miles away from where Martin was killed.  

Then on Friday, the Heat paid tribute to the lost.  I say lost because Martin is only another example of racial injustice.  It's sad, but it's the truth.  Racial biases do still exist, and if you think otherwise then quite frankly you've probably lost touch with reality.  On rare occurrences, these examples of disgrace can find themselves slipping into sports.  LeBron James is no stranger to this.   

Shortly after LeBron made his "decision" to leave Cleveland for Miami, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert gave a response to LeBron's departure, in the form of a letter which he posted online.  In it, he goes on to call James "narcissistic" and "cowardly."  To some, this may just appear as a bitter act of disappointment, but to others it could be seen as much more than that.  Civil rights figure Jesse Jackson came out and said Gilbert had a "slave master" mentality.  Even some on the socially conservative ESPN pondered similar sentiments. 

Sports have always been a hotbed for racism, or even on a simpler level, hatred.  In a way, sports are designed to cultivate hate.  You are told your team is most important, and the opposing team is not to be supported in any way—they must be defeated.  You are taught to separate people into groups, and just as problematic as that is in society, the same goes for sports. It's how Los Angeles fans are able to beat a San Francisco Giants fan within an inch of his life after a Dodgers game.  Or how a brawl between Pistons fans and members of the Indiana Pacers can erupt in Detroit.  

Basketball, in its nature, has always been a game where race has played a factor—probably more than any sport.  Yes, other sports like baseball have had encounters with race, and no one will ever forget what Jackie Robinson did for baseball.  But basketball's history is full of shameful moments that turned the sport into much more than just a game.

In 1966, Texas Western, with five African-American starters, defeated legendary coach Adolph Rupp and his heavily favored Kentucky Wildcats, a team that had zero African-American players.  During that period, African-American players were stereotyped in terms of who they were, and what they could do on the court, just as they were being stereotyped off the court. After the events surrounding Trayvon Martin, it's apparent that African-Americans are still being stereotyped today just as they were then.  

More recently, Jeremy Lin has encountered dubious racial monikers and identification. What this proves is that in basketball, one's integrity is vulnerable when confronted with something different.  When Bill Russell joined the Celtics in 1956, he was instantly met with racism as a result of entering a franchise known for its predominantly white figures, such as Bob Cousy and Red Auerbach.  Sometimes the bigotry even came from his hometown Boston crowd.  

Though Russell is far removed from the game itself, the issues he faced are still relevant today.  In 2010, the deplorable All-American Basketball Alliance was announced by Don "Moose" Lewis.  In this league, only white Americans are able to play.  Thankfully, this league was never able to come to fruition, and it remains only a horribly misguided interpretation of what basketball should be. 

What LeBron James and the rest of the Miami Heat roster did yesterday was reminiscent of 1968 African-American Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gestured not a Black Power salute, but according to Smith, a human rights salute while on the podium.  At the heart of any sport are individuals.  They come from different races and backgrounds, and they can come to represent a lot more than just a team.  

Trayvon Martin's community was closer to Orlando Magic territory, but that didn't stop the Heat from supporting the Martin family, and the incredibly difficult situation they currently find themselves in.  Maybe when you look at that hoodie you own with your favorite team's logo on the front, it'll appear to you as more than just a mere hoodie.  Right now it does mean a lot more than just a hoodie.  Let it be a reminder of what has happened in the sport, those who have fought for their right to compete in it and the challenges we still face not just in the sports world, but in our culture itself.