Friday, May 27, 2011

Black Men, Verbal Skills, and the NBA

Last night, in one of the post-game interviews, Chicago Bull Joakim Noah was asked about his thoughts concerning his team's loss to the Miami Heat.

Noah explained that
"They're Hollywood as hell, but they're still very good." The somewhat poetic phrasing "hollywood as hell" made me chuckle. I was also amused that the reporter was somewhat confused.

"What was this 'Hollywood as hell'?" one reporter asked.

"Yes, they are Hollywood," responded Noah.

The TNT cameras then went to Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley who were laughing about the phrase. Smith noted that Noah "don't keep it real; he keep it right."

The statement, the reporter's follow-up, and Smith and Barkley's response to Noah had me thinking about the display of black verbal skills by NBA players.

Beyond showcasing a wide range of remarkable athleticism, the league provides national and international audiences with perhaps the most unscripted access many of them will ever have to large numbers of black men speaking in all kinds of dramatic ways.

From the players talking on the court, to the interviews, to the rap music playing at the arenas, to the commercials, to the commentary, we end up hearing from several different African American men during the course of a game as we watch on television.

A given game provides a glimpse at a diverse group of speakers. We even see how different individual speakers communicate in various contexts.

For instance, the NBA is running a series of commercials, where players apparently speak from the heart, unscripted about community service. Although the commercials are well-meaning, they really reveal how many of the players struggle as public speakers. During the course of a game, however, we can see some of those same speakers who seem somewhat inarticulate comfortably articulating instructions to their fellow players on the court.

To understand what I'm saying, check out Derrick Rose's on-court leadership and communication vs. the Rose of off-court interviews vs. the Rose of his commercials. We witness similar scenarios (with differences) with players such as Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James.

Over the years, the some of the players develop their public speaking and commentating skills. Consider Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley on TNT. For the sake of ratings, the producers at TNT have to love how entertaining Smith and Barkley can be when they are arguing with each other. There's even a popular T-Mobile commercial showing how Barkley's wild and rhythmic statements are easily adapted, set to music, and then primed to go viral.

White sports announcers regularly misunderstand black players' use of slang and more importantly the inside jokes and sarcasm. Years ago during an All-Star Game, Tim Duncan was on a break and made a layup, and the on-court microphones caught Shaquille O'Neal commenting that "there goes big fundamentals." The announcer mistakenly thought Shaq was complimenting Duncan based on his sound and fundamental play. It wasn't a compliment.

Maybe, what announcers miss and misunderstand from black basketball players is not simply racial and cultural, but generational. Everyone knew that Kobe Bryant and then Joakim Noah were wrong when they were caught on camera saying the particular F-word gay slur. The NBA front office quickly and rightly fined those players for their statements.

But the NBA front office fails to catch, censure, and police the homophobic implications of players saying "Pause." For the uninitiated, the use of "Pause" apparently (sigh) emerged in black communities, likely among black men. When an inadvertent statement or comment or pun is made that could be perceived as "gay," a speaker would say "Pause. No Homo."

As the word-game persisted, people dropped the "No Homo," and just said "Pause." At the end of an Orlando vs. Lakers game earlier in the year, I was surprised to see Dwight Howard say "Pause" in a post-game interview. I was surprised because it was on live television. The reporter did not understand it.

After a playoff win over the Lakers, Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets was doing a post-game interview when an enthusiastic teammate grabbed and hugged him from behind. Paul responded "Man, pause."

Eventually, team, NBA officials, and television producers will discover what is meant by "Pause," and players will be advised not to make the comment. And rightly so.

Overall, watching the NBA, we get to a range of black male verbal skills--for better and worse--on display.


Anonymous said...

On the contrary, I believe you have misinterpreted the use of the word "pause" by NBA players. When I viewed your supporting YouTube videos, players used pause to indicate a call to regroup or establish composure, not as an insult to a particular cultural community.

H. Rambsy said...

Nah, in many, not all, but many black communities, the term "pause" is pretty widely known as a comment with sexual connotations.

For instance, see here: