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'Black Planet' author on NBA, new film

11/24/2014
Play6:49
Return of Black Planet

Author David Shields calls sports are a "crazy funhouse mirror" showing aspects of American race relations.

When James Franco wants to make a movie with you, say yes. That’s what David Shields did, and the result is “Return to Black Planet,” scheduled to debut in early 2015.

The film is based on “Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season,” the book Shields wrote on the 1994-95 Seattle SuperSonics. “Black Planet” was published in 1999 to great acclaim and severe criticism because it went far beyond Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, George Karl and the Sonics to reveal the issues of race, sexuality and other taboo topics barely hidden below the surface of NBA culture.

The season Shields covered in “Black Planet” was a contentious one, with the Sonics coming off a historic playoff collapse, winning 57 games under great pressure and losing in the first round yet again, and in the book, Shields examined the tense times in microscopic detail. The film uses that season -- in juxtaposition to the Seahawks’ Super Bowl-winning season -- as a jumping-off point for Shields to get into the dimensions of American culture that have informed his 15 books.

As we hit the 20th anniversary of that NBA season, and with the movie on its way, Shields, in this email interview, takes us on a tour of the “Black Planet” that he believes is still the NBA’s true habitat.

You open the book “Black Planet” by saying, “Race, the league’s taboo topic, is the league’s true subject.” As you observe the NBA now, does that feel as true to you today?

The NBA has changed, because the culture has changed, but nothing seems to me structurally different: Nearly all of the owners are white, most of the coaches are white, most of the commentators are white, and most of the players are black.

The originating sin of America is slavery, for which reparations should be paid and will never be paid; as a result, mini-reparations are paid daily, and the NBA remains for me reparations theater.

What do you mean by “reparations theater”?

Three hundred and fifty years of American history are complicatedly echoed in the interplay between players and fans. When talking about the brawl in Auburn Hills, Stephen Jackson said, “It felt good to punch a fan one time.”

I’m really interested in Kobe Bryant calling Richard Sherman’s “rant” last year evidence of “the ugliness of greatness.” I think the core of fans’ relationship is one that vacillates schizophrenically and mercurially from reverence to resentment. Fans fetishize the players’ athletic genius and both deify it and demonize it; witness the way awe turns into anger whenever a player holds out or flips off the offensive coordinator.

Just a couple of years ago, Derrick Rose was a canonized saint. The vitriol that fans now visit upon him is to me a powerful if coded expression of the gap between white people and black people even now, in a supposedly post-racial America.

Sports -- especially the NBA -- function as a place where American society pretends to discuss and pretends to solve questions and historical agonies that can't possibly be solved within the realm of sports.

And the cognitive dissonance of it all -- players talking almost always in platitudes, fans saying way, way more than we realize on sports talk radio -- makes the whole thing discombobulating, paradoxical, thrilling.

You and James Franco are collaborating on the film version of “Black Planet.” How is that coming along?

James’s idea was to adapt “Black Planet” into a film, but not a traditional film full of scenes set in 1994 and 1995 at the Tacoma Dome, where the Sonics played their home games that season.

Instead, this is a monologue/documentary/confession/investigation/collage/remix of speech, video, audio and image. We shot the film over the summer and we’re now editing it. The plan is to release it as four episodes on MakerTV, and then as a unified film. We flip back and forth between the two seasons: the Sonics’ season of 1994-95 and the Seahawks’ season of 2013 (through the 2014 Super Bowl).

James conceived the idea of doing the film as a monologue. My role is to talk to him and to the camera. The film is a combination of a Spalding Gray confession (like “Swimming to Cambodia”), Errol Morris’s interrogation of, say, Robert McNamara (in “The Fog of War”), a Doug Stanhope rant and a TED talk.

I discuss America pre- and post-Obama, O.J. Simpson then and now, Jews and blacks, the never-ending shadows of slavery and the Holocaust and the Civil War, black men and white women, white men and black men, athletes as soldiers who -- barely -- get up off the battlefield, the irreducible tragedy of human tribalism.

Why is it a tragedy?

G.K. Chesterton, asked what was wrong with the world, said, “I am.” I try to bring the hammer to myself but also to the viewer.

In “Black Planet,” the candor with which you dug into taboo topics -- sex, death, race -- thrilled some readers. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and called (by A.O. Scott, now a film critic for The New York Times) “one of the best books ever written on the subject of sport in America, which is to say a book that is about a great deal more than sport.” At the same time, it turned off a lot of other people; about half the reader reviews at Amazon are pretty scathing.

What kind of reception do you expect for “Return to Black Planet”?

I try to be as honest as I possibly can about the contradictions within my own heart and thereby get to something "true" and revealing and important about contemporary American culture and human nature.

The core of sports fandom and sportswriting is the maintenance of dearly held illusions. A lot of being a fan consists of telling yourself fairy tales about place and territory and beauty and love and winning and salvation and redemption and transcendence. Only a few of my books deal with sports, but all of my work is an attempt to scrape away illusions within myself and within the reader/viewer.

As the readerboard outside the church around the corner from my house says (remember, this is in Seattle), “The truth will set you free, but first it will really piss you off.”

Gary Payton and George Karl were key figures in “Black Planet.” Did they read it and respond?

I'm curious if Payton ever read it. I’d guess not. He is aware of it. I’d love to hear his take. He's one of the most verbal people on the planet.

I heard from a third party that Karl read the book and liked it and thought that mainstream sports news organizations didn't really get what I was trying to do. Shortly after the book came out, I remember hearing on a national sports talk show the most transparent homoerotic panic expressed as hysterical antagonism toward the book.

In the 20 years since you started writing “Black Planet,” the Sonics went to the NBA Finals, fell apart, drafted Kevin Durant, and then moved to Oklahoma City. How did those ups and downs affect you?

After spending several years writing “Black Planet” and then a follow-up called “Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine,” I’d overdosed on sports, especially basketball. I really didn’t pay attention to sports that much over the next decade or more. But then along came the emergence of the Seahawks, and my now 21-year-old daughter’s fanatical interest in them, and my equally fanatical, perhaps more fanatical obsession with them.

All of life is a kind of star-gazing (everything from falling in love to raising a child to reading a book to watching a movie to hiking in the woods). I want to stop being a fan, but I’ve come to realize how powerfully connected for me -- and, I would argue, for nearly everyone -- the life force is to fandom. The book and the movie are an attempt to expose in myself and the reader/the viewer the underlying emotional psychic and cultural needs such fandom serves.