Familiarity, Contempt, and the Donald Sterling Saga

Familiarity breeds contempt, goes the old saying. What a colossal falsehood.

Familiarity is the only thing that will save the planet and its people from terrorism, ethnic cleansing, racial wars, religious wars, land disputes, gender hostility, gay phobias, nationalist fevers, and the thousand and one other prejudices and wedges that have for so long served to divide humans as if they were different species doomed to devour each other as part of the natural way of things.

Crossing borders of all kinds—whether geographic, cultural, racial, religious or whathaveyou—is always and everywhere the precursor to understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of others, not merely in their otherness, but in the far more vast expanse of commonality we share as humans.

Familiarity also corrodes ignorance, breaks it down, renders it stupid and passé. Not always and in every case, and often not soon enough, but the trend is inexorable. The world and its divisions are slowly shrinking.

We cannot easily disdain African-Americans when our child marries one, or consider gays to be sinful when our child comes out as one.

In most such instances—hello Dick Cheney, how ya doin’ Rob Portman?—the formerly prejudiced person’s views undergo a sea change. Nothing like a little first-person experience of light to make you see your former prejudice was just a shadow on the wall that you mistook for something of substance.



I grew up in Eagle Rock, a suburb close to downtown Los Angeles and abutting Pasadena, but we had exactly one black person in my combined junior and senior high school, and he didn’t enroll until my senior year. (This was the ‘60s, when “negro” was on the way out and “African-American” had not yet arrived.)

So my exposure to black people would have been virtually zero in those formative years were it not for the Love brothers, Benny and John. No, they were not a singing group. Yes, they were real brothers, yes, their last name was indeed Love, and yes, they were also “bruthas,” in that familiar way blacks began referring to each other at the time (and which whites who had passed certain informal tests of acceptance were allowed to use with them).

The Loves were large men, 6”4” or so, thick bodies, very dark skin, deep voices, and a raging love for basketball that saw them come over from Pasadena many Saturdays and most every Sunday all year round for open gym play at our high school, one of the few in the area to offer such access.

The Loves  were probably in their early 30s, major gym rats, serious demeanors, and they exuded quite the imposing air for us skinny 16-and-17-year-old white high school kids who hadn’t much encountered black people in our lives.

The Loves had spread the word about our open gym and were most always joined by a number of other bruthas who showed up in fits and starts to wage serious competitive battle in half-court pickup games that invariably seemed to take on the intensity of an NBA playoff game.

At first, all these grown black men descending on our white kids’ sparkling, spacious gym had an air of the exotic about it. But soon enough, after extended bumps and bangs and the trading of hard breaths and sweat and arguments over foul calls with seven others in a tight half-court quadrant, it was no longer exotic, it was just basketball.

The encounters went on for several years, even after my cronies and I graduated and went on to play college ball where we encountered many other blacks in many other circumstances, but still came back for weekend pickup games with the Love brothers at the old alma.

Over the years, here’s what became evident as one weekend of hoops combat turned to the next: After you’ve repeatedly mixed it up in close quarters with people, whether on the basketball court with blacks, your own home with your kid who turns out to be gay, or shaving daily in the barracks next to someone—who is black, and gay!—there’s not really much “otherness” left. The “other” and alien get dwarfed by the common passion of basketball, or family life, or your allegiance to your unit and country in military life.

Object becomes subject: living, breathing, perspiring, recreating, hoping, occasionally cranky subject. Not so much unlike you.



So then what’s up with Donald Sterling, he of the now infamous, “Why do you bring black people to my games?” plaint?

Sterling certainly mixed with countless black people over many years as owner of an NBA franchise and longtime landlord, so lack of exposure cannot explain his appalling prejudices.

I suspect, however, that the two key words above are “owner” and “landlord.”

Listening to his rant, I can’t help but think Sterling found himself dropped into the wrong century in a tightly sealed container, about 200 years after the glory days of the plantation owner he fathoms himself to be, revealed in these lines late in the tape:

“You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?”

Sterling, for all his wealth and previous stature, reveals himself here as a pitiful man, so far removed and detached from both reality and the riches to be gleaned from fearless and authentic engagement with others that one feels almost sorry for the true impoverishment of his life, laid low now at 80 years old, banished, scorned, the object of worldwide ridicule.


People often question the importance and relevance of sports. I am among those questioners, thinking the incessant pre-and-post game “analyses” ridiculously overboiled, the 24/7 sports talk radio drone nothing short of pathetic.

That said, sports is matched perhaps only by the military as a kind of incubator and model for the melding of people from all races, places and stations in life. Sports is the great leveler, not quite a perfect meritocracy, since nothing human can be perfect, but perhaps close as we come in this forever struggling world.

Shoot a sweet enough jumper or muscle enough rebounds and there will be a place for you on most every court you come across. Sports was ahead of the culture in accepting blacks, though far slower, given its top-heavy masculine ethos, in giving gays a seat on the locker room bench. (Even that is changing now, helped along by the more progressive stance adopted by the military, with the government’s not inconsiderable help.)

When I went to my first pro basketball game in quite a few years in Oakland over the Christmas holidays, I couldn’t help but notice the utterly diverse crowd—young and old, Asian and African-American, Latino and white, as many females as males. It was boisterous and polyglot, joined and glowing in yellow shirts to cheer on the multi-racial, multi-national team that represented them, truly, in the broad range of their heritage.

This is the world that is still being born, that has been dancing to far different tunes in far brighter lights than the one-note, darkened visions of Donald Sterling and his dying times.


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“One Tribe,” the Black Eyed Peas proclaim. And so we are…

Thanks to the photographers:

Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Hamlin, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Peapod photo by Koshy Koshy, Faridabad, Haryana, India, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kkoshy/

Basketball crowd shot courtesy of Mr. Fooji, Wollongong, Australia, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevy47/

9 comments to Familiarity, Contempt, and the Donald Sterling Saga

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Great crowd shot!! As a life long sports guy I can sure relate, I’ve often thought sports/music/travel (and I grudging must add, the military) are contexts that most rapidly make superficial differences like race/religion/sexual identity etc quickly moot – a colleague has this as his email stamp: “”Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” “… of course this is travel that is “cheek to jowl” not cooped up in bus/boat etc with others just like you – much like watching animals in a zoo!! I am confident the younger generation is further down this road, was delighted when my son (23) described his roommate in detail over the phone, but it wasn’t until I first visited them in Denver did I see his roomie is Black… love it, not a significant enough variable to merit mentioning … times they are a-changing!

  • Walt McKeown  says:

    While dissing this Sterling fellow along with many others, I must wonder what happened to freedom of speech in his case? He gets fined $2.5 million, excluded from attending games, etc, etc for something HE SAID IN PRIVATE TO A FRIEND?
    “Let he who is without guilt cast the first stone”. How many of us have never said anything inappropriate? While his message is despicable, his right to say it is guaranteed by the Constitution.
    For all the fuss about his well-deserved demise, the hypocrisy here is fragrant. If this country has free speech, that means everybody has free speech, not just those we want to hear from.

  • loweb3  says:

    That was certainly my experience after joining the Army. Before I joined the Army I didn’t know a single black. After awhile some of my best friends were blacks.

  • Moon  says:

    i remember that kid…I think his name was Frank. Talk about stereotyping for the times: most of us on the football team were amazed that he didn’t do any sports. He was more into the Drama club, and taking photos with Mr Born. Like the previous poster, I was introduced to black culture in the Air Force, and later, playing JC football. From a white kid’s school, it was an eye opener, a real necessary eye opener.

    There is not much to like about a character like Sterling…an entitled rich guy who thinks the world is beneath him. I do not think what he said was hateful in itself, but represented a lifetime of twisted thought, from which he cannot recover.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Kevin, the anecdote about your son says it all. And you know where that diverse crowd foto is from? The National Basketball League of Australia! You know—lily white, monoculture Australia, ha!

    Walt: with all due respect for your point about the considerable hypocrisy in this and most all other modern media firestorms, I think you’re conflating the legal dimension of free speech with the cultural and corporate one. Sterling can say what he wants (short of libel or shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater) and not be carted off to jail for it, but as an owner in a larger association in the public sector with huge media exposure and its own ethical and communication guidelines, he is beholden to a certain code of conduct and speech. And for better and worse, these constraints have been tightened a thousand-fold in the social media age.

    So: utterly unfettered, ignorant speech still saves you from jail, but not from public scorn and the swift response from your professional association (in this case, the NBA), which very correctly has to be deeply concerned about its image and acceptance by the public and its advertisers, who are its true lifeblood. The fact that it was a private conversation, illegally recorded and disseminated, is unfortunate for Sterling and abominable in its own way, but once the words were out there regardless, the NBA had little choice but to act swiftly and with great conviction. And for their own needs and the good of the larger culture, I think they got it exactly right, one more nail in the coffin of racism that is still a long way from being finally laid into the ground.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Nice shot, Andrew. I think you framed this issue through the “familiarity breeds contempt” fallacy beautifully. I fully agree with the assessment that owner and landlord are the operative words for Sterling. Those on the upper end of the food chain have an enormous challenge (and responsibility) to understand those less fortunate. In my view, Sterling represents the worst kind of detachment bred from stupendous wealth and privilege. My sense that he has lived his life in a maniacal transactional mode bereft of valuing the relational mode of human interaction. In commodifying other humans as tools for profitable transactions he renders them less than human. There are, of course, scores of people who live almost exclusively in a transactional context; so Sterling is certainly not alone there. Thankfully, I hope, few have such extreme views of those over whom they hold power. Sterling has been cut off from the realities of the times in which we live and the values held by most reasonable people, including those who hold season tickets for “his” games. In their book “Better Together,” Putnam and Feldstein noted the importance of bridge building between and among those of differing views and circumstances in order to build community. They found that groups of like-thinking people were often bonded together as if by glue to promote and advance their views. In order to build a strong sense of community, the authors suggest, there is a need for a healthy dose of WD40 to make the otherwise separated bonded groups more functionally integrated. I believe, Andrew, that familiarity is the functional, day-to-day WD40 espoused by Putnam and Feldstein. Many thanks again for a thoughtful piece; and a huge thanks for stirring the memories of Eagle Rock half-court battles with the Love brothers and company.

  • wmckeown  says:

    Good thoughts, Andrew, but still unconvincing. Since his remarks were private, there is no legal or cultural aspect. Only when they become public do other aspects of free speech come into play, especially the legal side. I’ll bet Sterling contests the $2.5 M fine in court because it was recorded illegally…and, sadly, he’ll probalby win.
    Just because he’s a media mogul, rich guy etc, he’s not “beholden to a certain code of conduct and speech”. Every American can do and say what they like within legal limits, rich or poor. He can speak his peace PRIVATELY like we all can. I despise his attitude but defend his right to say it…privately.
    If he says it publicly, all the better: the cultural reaction will, and is, running strongly against him. Good Riddance.

  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    Wow, some great comments here. Thanks to all. I also grew up in that place and that era, same as Andrew. With an immigrant Asian Mom. We had special visitors once, when I was a teen — a high-ranking U.S. military officer and his family, coming back to the States from Asia. We were so honored that they stayed with us a few days. They were also black. I remember that many neighbors were upset that we had people “like that” on our suburban street. I also remember that, even then, I thought those neighbors were morons.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Jay, good points all. You remind me that change doesn’t happen by accident, but requires ongoing intention, conscious strategic squirts of whatever the WD40 of the day is. And out from our cocoons must we go…

    Ah Joan, the wisdom of youth! Thanks for the hearty laugh.

    Walt, no doubt you’re right on the legal front, but this situation quickly went far beyond strict legality. If the NBA commish had deplored Sterling’s comments but defended his legal right to make them, players would have boycotted, advertisers would have bailed, and the repercussions would have been momentous. I don’t think the NBA acted hypocritically at all. The league doesn’t exist to defend the legal right of its owners (or players) to be asses. It exists to perpetuate itself and flourish. Sterling made that problematic. The league would have been crazy to fall on its sword in defending him, however odious it was that the tape became public.

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