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Doc Rivers and America’s preoccupation with Black failure

Yes, his teams stumble in the playoffs. But this man is a prince.

America loves a fallen Black prince. Or more so, we enjoy watching a Black prince fall — like Muhammad Ali swaying on lethargic legs underneath the hail and hammer of Joe Frazier’s fists in 1971.

Let’s not romanticize our American appetite for failure, place it delicately on lace doilies, give it the mythology of aristocracy, the washed innocence of children’s books and Arthurian legend. Let me say it as it is:

America prefers its Black men and women dead. And, if not dead, low. Abject. Strung out. And if none of these options are available, then, at least, failed. In that place where we can say, “I told you so” or “That’s just the way it is” or “That’s just the way they are” or “That’s their problem. They always squander opportunities.”

We love to watch folks toil in these vineyards of failure from the comfort of our couches and living rooms. Failure fuels the American ego, the unacknowledged American pastime behind our American pastimes.

And better if that failure is over there. Muhammad Ali sentenced to five years in prison after refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. Huey P. Newton, former chairman of the Black Panther Party, dying in the streets of Oakland, California, three shots to the head, after struggling with addiction and the FBI’s extralegal COINTELPRO surveillance. Martin, Malcolm. “Princes” who became too uppity, wanted too much for themselves or their people. Wanted too much for and from America.

Doc Rivers (right) was fired from his job with the LA Clippers in September after a disappointing exit from the 2020 playoffs.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The national ritual (spectacle?) of watching Black failure is not just for the prince, but also for the pauper. And everyone in between, including our Black dukes and duchesses, who might not seem as royal or novel or magnetic as Ali or Newton or King. Here, I am thinking of Doc Rivers, the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, who was fired from his job with the LA Clippers in September after a disappointing exit from the 2020 playoffs in the conference semifinals.

Rivers had fallen, and the vulture-pundits circled. But rather than give interview after interview defending his time and his decisions as a head coach in Los Angeles, he plotted his next move.

Rivers is not an Ali — whom Norman Mailer characterized as “America’s Greatest Ego.” Rivers is a turn away from the 20th century’s obeisance and fetishizing of a certain sort of masculinity, a turn away from the braggart, the maverick, the conqueror, what Mailer called the desire “to declare we are sure of ourselves when we are not.” In other words, a turn away from Ego.

Rivers’ public persona flails at none of these hallmarks of 20th century confidence. On the podium, after a win or a loss, sometimes stoop-shouldered, often quite hoarse, Rivers answers questions with a disarming vulnerability and intelligence that feels at once comforting and frightening. The frightening aspect, for me, is that I’m always concerned for Black men who are a little too vulnerable to the American public. Men who tell it the way they feel it even if the telling puts them at the edge of a public unraveling, at the edge of tears, anger, and thus at the edge of reinforcing a stereotype. Men who forget momentarily about Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, We Wear the Mask, and that brilliant charge of the middle stanza:

Why should the world be over-wise

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

But Rivers, self-possessed, unafraid, allowed “the mask” to slip, to fall completely onto the floor and didn’t worry about the critics when he allowed himself to talk at a postgame news conference about the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by an officer of the Kenosha, Wisconsin, police department, the subsequent protests, and the fearmongering whipped up about unruly and riotous Black folks at the Republican National Convention.

Coach Doc Rivers’ postgame news conference on Aug. 26 felt familiar to Black America.

Cal Sport Media via AP Images

When Rivers began, he was wearing a black mask that read “VOTE” in white lettering across his mouth. He gave the reporters the normal postgame post-mortem on defensive adjustments, the raised intensity and attentiveness in the trapping of the Mavericks on the defensive side of the ball, and praised his players’ efforts in the win. But then, as a reporter asked about Paul George, his difficulty in adjusting to the bubble and the protests springing up around the Blake shooting, Rivers’ demeanor changed. He tore the mask away to reveal his face as if he wanted America to see what it was doing, to watch the anguish and grief move across his eyes, to watch its violence fall over his head like a noose. Rivers sat in front of the cameras and said what many Black folks in America were feeling through this killing season: We love this country, but this country does not love us back.

For me, this image of Rivers — his voice hoarse and trembling, his eyes red — is the symbolic picture of this historical moment and the longue durée of Black folks in America — civil rights, Reconstruction. It is a Black face staring baldly at America, asking this country to become the myth of itself.

In this way, Rivers is anti-American and anti-ego. Anti-American in the way that James Baldwin or Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is anti-American — in that they critique the country and demand it becomes the lie of democratic freedom that it peddles to the world. Anti-ego in that Rivers does not declare himself sure of anything he is not, does not pretend to be unaffected by Black people’s anguish or the fear that disfigures the political and social landscape of America.

Unlike an egotist who speculates wildly about a territory that he’s never crossed, Rivers has walked the ground he must cross to reach the conclusion he comes to: that he lives in a country that prizes the myth of itself, the myth of justice over justice.

Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers (left) talks with guard Isaiah Joe (right) during the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics at Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 15.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As one of the few Black head coaches in the NBA, Rivers is acutely aware of the precarity of his job, of the slipping and sliding standards that measure his success and failure against his white counterparts. This is the same NBA in which a Black coach can win coach of the year, bring his franchise its best record ever, and still lose his job (ahem, Dwane Casey). Or, in the case of Rivers, coach through a worldwide pandemic, in a shortened season with a long work stoppage in the middle, the largest uprisings around race in this country since the 1960s, protests that are intimately about the players’ lives he works with, and do all of this while being sequestered from family and loved ones in a “bubble.” And then be fired for bringing the team only to the conference semifinals. This is the difficult mathematics of Black survival in America. Be best while being whipped and castigated.

Sure, the critiques of Rivers are there — the frequent exits from the playoffs, not being able to get the Clippers to a Western Conference finals, let alone an NBA Finals, not being able to catalyze the talent of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. All of this is true. Yet, he was hired by the 76ers less than two weeks after being fired from the Clippers.

Rivers is not merely some journeyman coach who drives into town with a red Corvette of a flashy offense, then leaves four years later with the franchise in shambles. As a head coach, Rivers won an NBA championship with the Boston Celtics, has more than 900 wins, and helped to guide the Clippers through a watershed moment in player activism against racism when his players protested the vile, racist comments of Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Rivers put his body and paycheck on the line when he said he would not coach for the Clippers if Sterling were to remain. As my mom would say, he put his money where his mouth is.

In doing so, Rivers helped to usher in and legitimize the space for players to do more than “shut up and dribble.” It was a blow against business as usual, a blow against accepting the racism of white elites that had become par for the course for Black folks in fields where there has been very little representation.

In the tradition of Ali refusing to fight the Viet Cong, Rivers’ refusal to coach under a racist owner evinces the opposite of ego, that of humility. Of a man who understands not only what ground must be crossed but, as James Baldwin would say, the price of the ticket. It is nothing less than the soul. It is freedom at stake.

Doc Rivers (left) and Lou Williams (right) before the start of Game 4 between the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks at AdventHealth Arena on Aug. 23.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It is this desire for freedom I hear when Rivers declared in that same news conference from late August, “I should just be able to be a coach.” In that declaration, what is unsaid, elided, is I should not have to always address the racial unrest and unfair treatment of Black folks in America. After addressing what he did not want to but felt he must, Rivers corroborated his exhaustion when he asks in the same interview: “Can we get back to basketball?”

For Rivers, getting back to basketball is not merely getting back to his job. It’s getting back to the language of the body, which is a getting back to freedom.

In Rivers’ “Can we get back to basketball,” I hear the dilemma printed on the placards worn over the bodies of Black men during anti-lynching campaigns at the beginning of the 20th century and that resurfaced during the protests this summer — placards reading “I AM A MAN” or “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.” In “Can we get back to basketball?” I hear and see the exhaustion of those men walking up and down the avenues and sidewalks of places like New York and Chicago.

I hear and see the exhaustion of men and women who must live in a world that tries to kill them, and they be must be excellent despite it. They, we, must be excellent in dodging death and addressing ourselves to freedom. To be and be and be.

This is what Rivers must coach against. That and the New York Knicks. And the Boston Celtics. And the Charlotte Hornets. And the Miami Heat. And ….

Roger Reeves is the author of King Me. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award and a Pushcart Prize, as well as fellowships from Cave Canem, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and Princeton University. His second collection of poetry is forthcoming from W. W. Norton.