Skip to content

Difference as a second language

Sports, race, and class mix in a grade six basketball league

It’s November of 2002 and I’m sitting next to Ronnie Dumas in the Nabe. He is telling me how people say he looks a lot like “fiddy cent” and how he is about to kill this basketball tryout. I think he is flirting with me, but in sixth grade these things are difficult to tell.

‘The Nabe’ is shorthand for the ‘Neighbourhood house,’ an after- school program and community resource center in Morristown, New Jersey. According to its website, the centre is dedicated to assist “working and impoverished families to maximize their educational, social, physical, and economic potential,” as well as to help immigrant families “transition into their communities.” It’s a somewhat odd place for me, a privileged white kid, to be joining a basketball league. As a girl, it’s even more strange to join a league of mostly boys.

Yet there I found myself, nervously chatting with Ronnie Dumas in the Nabe’s crumbling little gym. People may think of the Northeastern United States as more racially integrated or tolerant, but ethnicity still divides neighbourhoods like lines on a court. Therefore, “fiddy cent” lookalike Ronnie and I lived worlds apart. He lived in Morristown and I lived in Morris Plains. Little differentiates the two municipalities; they share grocery stories, a high school, and all the little neighbourly concerns of small town New Jersey. Although it’s only a few minutes’ drive from my house, Ronnie was most likely from “the Hollow,” or “the area around Martin Luther King Street,” or whatever Morristown neologism that allows us all to speak the unspeakable. To say, “where all the black and Spanish people live.” To note, “Spanish” in Morristown means Hispanic. Few residents know – or care – to recognize the difference.

By virtue of girls sprouting earlier than boys, I was a desirable team member and picked within the first round. We received our t-shirts. They were plain Fruit of the Loom cotton tees with our team name screen-printed on top.  I was unimpressed, to say the least. On my previous basketball team, in a Catholic girls’ league, we all had brand-new jerseys and matching shorts. They came assorted by size and wrapped in plastic bags. At the Nabe, t-shirts were pulled out from old cardboard boxes. While notions like racism and classism were not words my 11-year-old mind was familiar with, community basketball played a large part in teaching me about socio-economic and cultural difference. Unlike school, or church, or any other social venue in which I came to understand differences of class, race, and gender, it was only by playing basketball at the Nabe that I came to understand how these things intertwined. With my growing knowledge, I began to understand why we had t-shirts instead of shiny jerseys, or why we only had a couple of half-inflated balls at practices instead of a whole rack.

I would be lying if I said I thoroughly enjoyed playing at the Nabe. I remember tearful car rides after missing birthday parties or sleepovers because I had a game to play. Furthermore, I was only one of two females in a league of over sixty kids. It was something I reminded my mother of constantly. “I didn’t raise quitters,” she would say in response. And I’m glad she didn’t let me quit; not only did I learn the value of team loyalty, but also that there are certain spaces where difference hardly matters. At the Nabe, I was good. I was tall, and was told “you play good D, girl. You play good D” by my coach. On the court, my girlness or whiteness hardly mattered. I was cheered on all the same. I got to beat boys at a game they felt was their own. It was a lovely little gender transgression. Furthermore, the small size of the gym made parents’ cheers sound louder than the big gyms at St. Wherever.  Essentially, the Nabe had spirit in a way that the Catholic girls’ league didn’t.

I don’t want to suggest that sports aren’t heavily imbued with racial politics. Black boxer Joe Louis cared about more than just a title when he knocked out Max Schmelling. Most viewers’ relish at Jeremy Lin’s rare placement as an NBA player is based on more than just athletic skill. Racial politics were certainly at play at the Nabe too. The question that remains is: couldn’t sports at an early age be a place of better racial and class integration if leagues weren’t structured around separation? By the time sixth grade rolls around, little leagues disappear, and kids are separated into school teams by gender. Difference, like learning a second language, is best learned and accepted at an early age, and sports seems like the perfect venue. Inaccessibility and closed minds are what keep the game from being played.

The last I heard about Ronnie was that he was in prison, charged with second-degree robbery for assaulting a high school kid in Clifton and stealing his iPhone. My personal privilege has led me other places. As I finish writing this, I’m staring at endless rows of books: scholarly meditations and a sea of knowledge at my fingertips. A decade after our time at the Nabe, is Ronnie looking at a row of bars? Or maybe, during the one hour a day or a week, he is shooting some hoops on a tiny basketball court, in a neighbourhood unlike the one we once knew.