My brother, Ryan Hollins, and I have all kinds of conversations. Spanning from the pertinent and substantial, to the light-hearted and immature. We argue, joke, debate, enlighten, listen and ignore. Friends since 1998–99, we’ve both been on our journeys — professionally, spiritually, and socially. Across this spectrum the amount of things we disagree on are vast but the gravity of what we agree on anchors our brotherhood. An example of this paradox can, humorously, be found on our surface: RH, seven-feet tall and fair-skinned. Myself, five-feet seven-inches short and dark-skinned. We are an odd couple. Both fortunate to have others with whom we have similarly layered relationships; that challenge one another’s perspectives and beliefs. But what makes our friendship so unique are our parrallel experiences. How I arrived here, writing to you, is the convergence of our journeys and one of our compelling conversations that we thought was worthy, and in need, of open and continued dialogue.
A text message comes in from RH, who is currently in Europe playing in his first season abroad: What’s the difference between the days when they said you could only have one or two Black players on a team and what they do here? The text message startled me a bit. We usually take our time swimming out into the deep end. Plus, I was on Tumblr, listening to Reasonable Doubt, and eating yogurt. Snowed-in, in Canada, I had set out to take complete advantage of the day — to do nothing of import! After rereading the question a few times my reply was simply, “Damn!” I thought to ask him where the question came from but, honestly, I already knew.
Traveling truly is an education all to itself. One that, utilizing our basic survival instincts, enhances our ability to observe, discern, communicate, and think independently, by placing us in the precarious position — through the nearly total unfamiliarity with our surroundings (depending on where you are and where you came from)— to unlearn or, at the very least, suspend, the absolutes we cling to. Living abroad for any extended period of time intensifies the experience of traveling. Of this arduous yet fulfilling process of living abroad comes the unearthing of what I now consider one of life’s prized possessions — empathy. And, I believe, my brother was in the midst of an enlightening moment of empathy, standing at the intersection of reconciling himself as an athlete, specifically, an international athlete, and — for geopolitical specificity — African-American. The reconciliation of two segments of society, historically known for being a highly-talented, yet powerless, labor-pool.
What they do here is a very important component of RH’s question. One that he had the luxury of expressing implicitly as it is a shared understanding between a large majority of the international basketball community. Notwithstanding, what they do here being lost on many within the basketball community, in America. RH, having played ten seasons in the NBA, had now, as an African-American athlete on a Spanish roster, become an import. What they do here is what almost every league around the world does: (1) Restrict the amount of imports that can be on a roster. (2) Restrict the amount of imports on the same team that can be on the floor together. (3) Restrict the amount of minutes an import(s) can be on the floor. In some cases all of these restrictions are in effect, simultaneously. In other cases, where these specific restrictions aren’t explicitly implemented, arise covert and/or unofficial methods that constrain imports.
So, what’s the difference? I believe — subtly implied in RH’s question and in my response — not much! In an effort to avoid any oversimplification, inaccurate conflation, and false equivalency (and because it is the dialectal nature of our friendship) we set out to prove, or disprove, our premise. As inheritors of oppression there is always an apprehension to discovering yourself to be in yet another oppressive position. Especially when that discovery is of a position that has, for some, afforded the opportunity for class mobility; and has, for many others, like myself, provided an educational and cultural experience of a lifetime, otherwise unaffordable. Neither RH nor myself had any reason to complain; a million reasons to be thankful, for what the game has given us and continues to give. And, you could sense the weight of this awareness between the two of us as the conversation switches from text to FaceTime.
Initially, we wrestled with categorizing our import experience as institutional racism. Although, African-American athletes are disproportionately affected by the import restrictions, these restrictions don’t explicitly discriminate against any race or ethnicity, as in the days when they said you could only have one or two Black players. A statement RH made in reference to the Jim Crow era in America: the legal, racial segregation that permeated every institutional and social crevice of American life, for a century. An era RH and I have a noteworthy connection to. Born and raised in the same city and attending the same schools as Jackie Robinson. This conundrum literally hits home for us. From our point of view, these import restrictions were done in the spirit of nationalism, with practices that resemble gerrymandering and redlining. But, to borrow the sentiments of James Baldwin, we don’t know how these governing bodies feel about imports, all we can do is conclude how they feel by the policies they enact and enforce. And, these policies have the same systemic affect as the days when they said you could only have one or two Black players.
I have known of these import restrictions ever since entering into the professional ranks, in 2006. Like the text message from RH, growing awareness of the import restrictions startled me. Growing up as amatuer athletes we often hear about the slim probability of making it to the NBA. You very rarely, if ever, heard about the option of playing professionally abroad, let alone the viability of such a career and lifestyle choice. As I began to inquire more about the import restrictions, I was given, what I understood at the time to be, a valid justification — which ended up as a backhanded compliment. The import restrictions are for the development of various leagues and their domestic players; to maintain a semblance of balance, equality, and fairness within the leagues. Without the import restrictions, the teams, thus the leagues, would be replete with import players; and the owners with the most money would be able to purchase more of the higher-quality imports. The justifications for the import restrictions could genuinely, with no malicious intent, be for something as idealistic as equality. There is reasonable doubt. Yet, these are privileges — to be obtuse or oblivious, whether earned or inherited, to the real impacts policy has on some people’s lives — that have come at the expense of the import. Our conversation cascades into an ocean of revelations of how this effects the imports.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian short-story, Harrison Bergeron, set in America, in the year 2081, everyone was finally equal under God and the eyes of the law, due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution. “Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.” This ubiquitous equality was achieved by the government handicapping anyone with any extraordinary capabilities. A mental handicap radio implanted in the ear that would transmit sharp noises every twenty seconds to prevent people with above-average intelligence from taking “unfair advantage of their brains.” A sashweight and bags of birdshot and facemasks, all in an effort not to offend anyone unathletic or not as pleasant to the eyes. Most intriguing about Vonnegut’s dystopian short-story was the impact these handicaps had on their bearers.
Harrison Bergeron is the fourteen year-old, seven-foot, handsome, and genius son of George and Hazel Bergeron. His mother, Hazel, is “of perfectly average intelligence, which meant she could think about anything except in short bursts.” His father, George, had a way above average intelligence and was the beneficiary of the mental handicap radio. And, due to Harrison’s tremendous endowments, Vonnegut would write, he “carried three hundred pounds in the race of life.” “[Harrison] looked like a walking junkyard” because of the amount of handicaps placed on him. The Ballerina, Harrison’s dance partner, was the beneficiary of the sashweight and bags of birdshot, and facemasks.
The policies that constrain imports are nowhere near as physically daunting as in Vonnegut’s American dystopian society, but are just as debilitating to wear — psychologically, economically, and socially. The environment these restrictive policies creates is the barrel the crabs — demonized for their behavior within an unnatural habitat — live in. Environments are collective and interconnected and people must be responsive to external demands and expectations in order to survive. We tend to conform to institutionalized beliefs or practices when these beliefs or practices are so externally validated and accepted by an industry, a community, or society at-large, as to be invisible to everyone they influence, or when their social fact quality renders them the only conceivable, “obvious,” or “natural” way to conduct an activity. George became docile. Within his twenty second gap to think he had internalized and legitimized his own handicaps with the belief that society would fall apart if everyone began cheating on laws. The most normal of them, Hazel, had begun to live vicariously through Diana Moon Clampers — head of the government agency responsible for maintaining equality — doling out her own ideas of how she would improve upon the existing handicap of her husband.
As imports we embark upon our journey through the industry — our environment — in full force. Unbeknownst to the mechanics and workings of the underworld and, more importantly, how they have come to shape the behaviors of all involved, our desires give fuel to our willingness to acquiesce to mediocrity, manipulation, and abuse. Beginning with the designated number of roster spots for imports, which eliminates any validity of the sport as a meritocracy, where the best athletes are competing — a naivete that is the driving force of many athletes (also creating bouts of xenophobia in the domestic players.) Especially young, would-be imports, who hustle out of a sense of hopelessness and desperation, are taken advantage of at “tryout camps” that offer opportunity (ha!) and a t-shirt, in exchange for five-hundred dollars. Teams and agents, very much aware of d’evils that the game’ll do, prey on imports looking to start their careers; offering jobs at egregious salaries where imports are also required to coach, teach, babysit and do hair. (I have seen jobs listed for as low as two-hundred dollars a month.) The most adverse factor of this environment — as it is what catalyzes true reformation—whether due to obsequiousness and condescension or a scarcity mentality that causes hoarding of resources and information, is the chasm created between the haves and have-nots of the athlete-class that discourages meaningful dialogue, and thus, community.
Opening up our conversation for dialogue was not in any way to absolve imports of their responsibility for what happens to them in the arena of their profession. Nor was it to cast off blame onto any agent, team, coach, etc. Quite the opposite. Our goal was to broaden the perspective on a pivotal issue to empower imports for the purpose of disrupting an institution that has long held them, the most integral class of a multi-billion dollar industry, disenfranchised and marginalized. Disruption, as the balanced redistribution of power and resources, starts with awareness and grows roots through education and succeeds via organized collaborative effort. We also wanted to remind our peers that we are not imports but human beings of import; and, to act in accordance with this knowledge is to understand what we allow is what will continue.