So for this to make sense for you now the way it made sense to me then, we have to start at the beginning, which is in my living room, in Pittsburgh, on either a Monday or a Wednesday in the winter of either 1987 or 1988.
An eight-or-nine year-old and recently-basketball-obsessed me is watching Big East conference games on ESPN with my dad. I nominally rooted for Pitt, because I (stupidly) assumed that rooting for the team that’s from where you’re from is what honorable people did, but my heart, my gut, and spirit is with Georgetown University—who the second ugliest white boy in the third grade at East Hills Elementary said his dad said played “thug ball,” and who my homie Dre called “the team with the niggas.” Both were saying the same thing.
Basketball is America’s Blackest sport. And also, of the popular team sports, its most intimate, as you essentially compete in your drawers while the crowd is close enough to get splashed by your sweat. This feels somewhat paradoxical, but it ain’t. This intimacy—plus the level of individual agency the dynamic of the sport demands its players possess—makes the Blackness more conspicuous than with football, which is also played by us, but with layers of Blackness-obscuring protective gear. So for a team to be considered “the team with the niggas” in a sport already disproportionally stocked with niggas, is an achievement. And also, for eight-or-nine-year-old me, a revelation.
The fog of respectability that threatens to engulf everything Black had already begun to surround me, ferried by a Cosby-helmed ocean liner of aggressively palatable negrocity urging me, even then, to invest in belts. While I was still too young to be able to articulate it, I felt the tension between niggas who made white people feel safe and niggas who...just ain’t do that shit. Who sometimes were intentional with making them feel unsafe. Not physically threatened—although it would be that sometimes, too—but unsafe the way the best ideas worm inside and shake the fuck out of you.
I’d feel this each time I watched Georgetown play. Their teams were aggressively (and intentionally) monochromatic. There were no corn-fed, eighth man, floor-spreading Iowans named Conner on the roster. Just niggas. And not just just niggas, but just niggas from the Blackest cities, countries, and continents. It’s like their recruiting strategy was to find the tallest niggas Harriet wouldn’t have shot. It was a bizarro version of all them college ball teams from the 40s and 50s and 60s and even the 70s who refused to recruit Black players. (Or had unspoken mandates, like how my dad’s high school team—the New Castle Red Hurricanes in New Castle, PA—had Black players, but would never put four or more of them on the court at the same time.) They also hooped like 12 Patrick Beverlys—grimy, irritating, relentless, ashy. Basically, they each hooped like the niggas who hoop in black Air Force 1s. And they were coached by a giant Black man with the baritone of Zeus and the disposition of the trench coat nigga from “The Crossroads” video. Even the mascot was Black as fuck. It’s technically a “Hoya.” But I know a pitbull when I see one, and that’s a motherfucking pit. It was like—and I know how ridiculous this sounds, but I’m still saying it—the Georgetown Hoyas were basketball reparations.
I’m not certain if my affinity for the Hoyas preceded my parents buying It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back for me, but they exist in tandem as my entry to what radically Black art that loves us so hard that it scares the fuck out of them can look and feel like. They were hated, of course, by the sort of white (and Black) people who hate shit like this. There’s never been an American sports team, amateur or professional, ensconced in as much dog whistle as the 1980’s Hoyas were. This hate, by the way, is at least half the reason why they were loved so much by us. Yes, the gray, blue, and black jerseys and Starter Jackets were hot. (And matched with everything.) And they were blessed with basketball icons—Ewing, Mourning, Mutombo, Iverson. But there’s no better way to gauge if something is worth loving and supporting than if a critical mass of white people hate it. Going the opposite way they go is more reliable than WAZE.
So when you consider this—and then also consider that the eight-or-nine-year-old me’s HBCU literacy then was limited to School Daze, A Different World and “a bunch of schools in the south, I guess”—it’s not hard to see how I assumed that Georgetown University, a lily-white school on a lily white campus in a lily white part of Washington, D.C., was as Black as its basketball team was. Learning, a couple years later, that Georgetown not only had white students, but was predominately white, made me make the Wee-Bay face for like a month straight. I still haven’t recovered.