Sterling saga reveals players' power

Yet several days after the trouble began, Rivers has made his inner conflict clear through the crumbling of his usually sturdy facade. At first, he appeared as a basketball coach, talking of the Sterling controversy as he would of any other: as an obstacle to the goal of winning a championship. He used the word "clutter," as though Sterling's reference to associating with black people as "like dealing with an enemy" (in a conversation with his black girlfriend) was simply another news cycle to overcome before Bill Russell handed him the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

As the days progressed, Rivers became less basketball coach and more African-American man born in 1961, the year of Anniston, when the Ku Klux Klan bombed a bus of Freedom Riders. The man whose house was burned to the ground by racists in 1997, who was again reduced by whites no matter how much he accomplished. On the tape, Sterling referred to African-Americans in his most paternalistic voice. "I give them clothes. I give them houses. Who else gives them that?" Rivers, in 2014, was W.E.B. Du Bois writing "How does it feel to be a problem?" in 1903. He had been accomplished, an elite player, a championship coach, and yet in the eyes of the man for whom he had chosen to work, the man who signed his check, he was still just a boy, someone to be fed and clothed and taken care of. Suddenly, after all of Rivers' respect and accomplishment, Sterling had reminded him that he and his people were just property to be maintained.

David West, anĀ  Indiana Pacers power forward, cut to the core of America, of its latent conflicts, the ones in remission until these eruptions, and of Sterling's pathologies with a tweet: "Sterling basically articulated Plantation Politics...Make money off the Bucks/Lay with the women/No Association in Public good or bad."

And it was here that it became impossible to dismiss Donald Sterling or Cliven Bundy. Here it became impossible not to recognize the connective tissue that for the past week has been running through America at surface level instead of the usual, simmering undercurrent. As Rivers discovered and rediscovered, as Earvin Johnson discovered and rediscovered, it never goes away; there is no escaping what they really think of you. Sterling and Bundy could not be dismissed as yesterday's old cranks because here they are today, still powerful and worth millions, with sympathetic, powerful, like-minded friends who did not suffer the misfortune of being caught on tape.

Silver was decisive, but during a brief window on Saturday morning, the NBA players possessed an opportunity to untether themselves from the league, from the paternalism, from being property, to take for themselves a full seat at the table and begin to reconstruct the mechanism without permission. The players could have shut the NBA down for the entire weekend. They could have gathered Saturday, all 16 teams, and chosen not to play. Rivers said Monday that the Clippers' players had discussed the option.

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