Interview with ESPN Columnist, Jemele Hill Part 2: #42; Pacman; Pokey, and the Real NBA MVP from 4/13/07

BET Presents "BALLERS" - May 24, 2007
Importing archived interviews from original TSF site to current site.

In Part 2 of this conversation, Jemele and I converse candidly about some issues that need to be addressed in sports. I really appreciate her honesty. It’s unusual to hear someone voice their true thoughts in such an arena. She deserves mad props for understanding the true meaning of what The Starting Five is all about. My wish is that all writers would be this forthcoming because only then will sports fans truly learn through a writer’s extensive experience as well as the sports they cover. We see sports differently than fans. The levels and layers of understanding are vastly different because its our specialty. These interviews have that in mind, so begin to see a little more objectively and open up your perspective of sports in general.

Michael Tillery: Are you comfortable with the way MLB is celebrating the anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking into the major leagues? What’s your opinion or earliest memory of Jackie Robinson?

Jemele Hill: I think Jackie Robinson is probably one of the most underrated athletes of our time. His place in history is also underrated. Reading what he went through is just like a Hank Aaron story, it literally brings a tear to your eye. It makes you respect him that much more when you see what he had to endure. I have read his story many times. I have interviewed people in his family and I am stunned every single time at how he did it. It makes me almost embarrassed when I hear certain athletes talk about how they face racism. They use this word lightly. They don’t really understand what racism is until they take a peek at what Jackie Robinson had to go through. I believe that MLB plans to have everyone wear the number #42 on April 15th to celebrate his anniversary, which I feel is a fine tribute. I think his place in history has been solidified. He was just an amazing man. Someone wrote a book about his impact on integration—which I think is something for a far deeper conversation. What is interesting is how integration affected the inner cities and not always in a good way. Obviously a great door was opened but at the same time it is interesting to me that a great door was also closed when you look at what happened with the inner cities regarding culture and sports.

MT: This is a hypothetical question. David Wilson, also of the Starting Five, and I talk about this all the time. Do you think that MLB would be different if say, Josh Gibson was Jackie Robinson?

JH: Do you mean would the home run record be different?

MT: No, just in terms of how everything is portrayed.

JH: You mean the difference in Jackie and Josh’s personalities.

MT: Yes.

JH: That is a good point. Then again, you got to look at it like, well Muhammad Ali was at the time one of the most vocal and boisterous people ever in American sports and his place in history wasn’t nullified by what I am sure at the time was a very contentious attitude. Ali had the Nation of Islam behind him—which America was definitely threatened by. So, if America can accept Muhammad Ali, I’ve got to think that Josh Gibson could definitely be accepted.

MT: I think he was one of the most unnecessarily nullified athletes in the history of sports. I truly think so.

JH: What would have been interesting, from a records perspective, is what the difference would be if Josh Gibson were allowed to play in the major leagues. People don’t really talk much about who Jackie Robinson was as a player and I think he would have been the first to admit at the time that there were better Black baseball players than him. He was a good player but there were other guys that would have had a ridiculous impact had they been allowed to play.

MT: Satchel Paige for example.

JH: It would have been interesting to see how that might have played out if Josh Gibson and some of the other Negro League greats had been let in.

MT: What are your thoughts on Eddie Robinson? I was very surprised that there was a lot of coverage on his death—coincidentally on the 39thanniversary of MLK’s death at 39—because I personally thought major news outlets should have led off their programming with his death because of his positive impact on society. Throughout the day and the next day there started to be an influx of commentary on his death. I just don’t understand why outlets lead off with Pac Man Jones. What did Eddie Robinson mean to you?

JH: It is one of those situations where it took me a while to figure out why he was a great man–not that he hadn’t shown it. I didn’t understand—and it’s something you can attest to my age—how he truly paved the way. John Thompson was someone I grew up idolizing. If you are Black, John Thompson was someone you wanted your Dad to be like. That led to Blacks appreciating him more. James Brown (sportscaster) put it best when he said that Mr. Robinson was the Vince Lombardi of Black coaches because he was someone who really was at the forefront of educating our Black youth at a time where there were limited opportunities for African American athletes. He not only gave a sense of pride to Black men, but all HBCUs in general. I’m not going to say that you were shamed in going to a HBCU, but it was looked at kind of oddly. He gave those schools credibility and is one of the best sports teachers to ever live—Black or White. So, like you, I was very happy to see his death get the recognition he so honorably deserved.

MT: Has Adam Pac Man Jones become the next TO? Why is there this fixation with negative stories in sports when 2% of all athletes commit crimes? Why is this guy leading off Sports Center?

JH: It always takes one guy. The NFL has always had an image problem and has somehow been allowed to skate past somehow despite the heavy amount of trouble that athletes get into. At some point, this was going to have to be an issue that the NFL addressed—just by sheer volume. Pac Man Jones because of the details of the crime—a man is paralyzed—and this man has been in the league two years and has been questioned ten times by the police? That’s excessive. In some ways you could call him the next T.O. but he isn’t polarizing. People are just sick of him. I personally am glad that the Commissioner Goodell suspended him for a year. He sent a message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated. At the very least, Jones is guilty of not informing his employer of some of the transgressions he’s been involved in. Unfortunately for him, Jones is just going to be that guy that is made example of. The fascination is people wanted to see what exactly was going to happen to him. That automatically brings him to the center of attention.

MT: What do you think about the LSU situation and Pokey Chatman? Being a Black woman, what are you personally feeling? What does this situation say about collegiate sports?

JH: This unfortunately was a real black eye for women’s collegiate sports. At the start of the NCAA tournament, this was all people were talking about. Certainly, the fact that Pokey has disappeared has added to the intrigue surrounding the situation. Personally, I don’t think this is an issue of homosexuality. If anything, this is about simple trust between coach and athlete. Especially in women’s sports, this is a trust that gets violated repeatedly. We’ve seen coaches that have married their players and been involved with their players. I think that regardless if it’s a heterosexual or homosexual relationship, this needs to be addressed. This is a huge problem for LSU. Pokey is a good coach—look at all the Final Fours she’s gone too in a short time. With the lack of Black coaches in women’s basketball—40 percent of athlete are Black but less than 8 percent of coaches are Black—this was very unfortunate. Once Carolyn Peck and Pokey got fired, there are no Black coaches in the SEC period. That’s shameful. There’s none in the ACC, and only two in the Big East. This is unfortunately going to do some serious damage to the already shameful numbers of Black women basketball coaches.

MT: Much has been said that the present media construct should be changed to allow more dissenting opinions. The media is presently a White male dominated field. I think this is the reason why I get so hot under the collar when I see how athletes like Barry Bonds—regardless of his personal philosophy—get treated by the media like he’s killed a million men. I’m trying to get a sense of why there is such a reason why journalists write in packs. In a perfect world, what would be your definition of journalism?

JH: This is a serious problem. When you have one voice being represented—and one voice can be tainted by environmental factors—and everyone in the room looks the same, how can you truly have a accurate representation of the people’s voice? I also think that—and people don’t want to hear this, but it is true—there is a need for more people of color to be more prominent in the news room. I’m just not talking about sports either—the entire news room. Blacks speak to a different experience that quite honestly, mainstream America struggles to grasp. Like you said before, no one thinks that maybe Barry Bonds has a contentious relationship with the media because of the way the media treated his father. I don’t think anyone has asked that question. That’s the value of having different people in the room. I am by no means saying that all Black people look the same, act the same, come from the same backgrounds or are all a part of some monolithic group. Because we have to live in the skin we’re in, we share innate experiences and a deep understanding that mainstream America misses. You brought up Kobe Bryant earlier, I think part of his disconnect is because of how he grew up in Italy. He did not grow up around a lot of Blacks and you can see how he relates to his teammates because they mostly did. There are some environmental issues at work here. Every time I write about Kobe I get all kinds of responses. You want to talk about a T.O. like figure? It is amazing how polarizing Kobe Bryant has become. You would think because of his upbringing that Kobe Bryant would be a personality that the mainstream would be totally behind. He’s very well educated, he speaks several languages and comes from such a stable home. Everything about him is “Mr. Suburb”. Yet people feel this hate. Maybe people just don’t want to address that maybe this hatred of him comes from the Colorado situation and who exactly he was caught cheating with. That, in my mind, is a major reason why he’s hated. Ever since that day, Kobe has not been seen the same by White America. Before that day, I think Whites were more comfortable with Kobe than Blacks. Now, it is the total opposite. This brings back the point about shared experience. Blacks can attest to being accused of something they didn’t do so. People can debate about what happened and what didn’t happen, but the charges were dropped. There are a lot of Black people out there who can identify with being outnumbered, cornered and dismissed. It’s so interesting to me how his fan base has changed. There are a lot of important questions that should be asked about where his image problem originated. Those are questions that get asked when you have different people in the room. The media needs to be diversified so we can attack the questions that people are uncomfortable with and only want to address on a superficial level.

MT: Let’s stick with Kobe Bryant for a minute. His father played with Julius “Dr. J” Erving and wore number 23, so the emulation of Michael Jordan was a natural one. Just like I alluded to earlier, sons of pro fathers have a certain level of athletic maturity. Their thought process in a sense characterizes the masses as primitive because of their extraordinary level of instruction. What I mean is that they are already mentally past the questions we ask of them and therein lies the media disconnect. This is probably a good story in itself—The Sons of Greatness. None of any of the fathers (Griffey, Alomar, Manning, Bonds, Bryant, Alou to name a few) I’ve mentioned were great players. I look forward to the day when a talent like Michael Jordan spawns an even greater son because it’s going to open up an even greater conversation about the mental and physical makeup of that unforeseen entity. That all being said, who is the MVP?

JH: This is my next column. I will say this, I don’t think it’s Dirk. In a game deciding situation the ball should be in the MVP’s hands—that’s all I’m going to say about that.

MT: Wow! (Jemele and I laugh)

JH: It’s got to be Kobe Bryant. He is hands down the best player in the league and he’s definitely the most valuable. Number two would be Steve Nash because it’s very obvious. Of all the players mentioned in the MVP talk, Kobe Bryant is the only player whose team would be a lottery team without his talent. They would be the Memphis Grizzlies if he were not on that team. As difficult as the Western Conference is, he pretty much can score at will (50 last night against the Clippers). The one thing that differentiates Kobe from Dirk and Nash is his ability to go on a tean and scoring points in a ridiculous fashion. You ask any player in the league and they will say he is the most difficult player to guard in the league. That’s saying something. I personally think he should have won it last year considering where he single-handedly had the Lakers. You bring up the media and its handlings. I truly feel that because of Kobe’s public persona that he was purposefully kept as far out of the MVP talk as possible. This is taking nothing away from Steve Nash because he is a great player, but there almost was this coordinated effort to award him for his accomplishments. Almost to say, “We’re giving this to you because we’re against this.” Not because he’s a great player. I think Nash has had his finest season this year. If there was any year he deserved to win it would be this year. He won’t get it because people are saying “Well we can’t give him three straight can we?” Are you saying that if he doesn’t win it this year that he really didn’t deserve the award in years past? Maybe his winning the award twice smacks of something besides the game.

MT: Great point. I think Kobe’s dunk on Nash in last year’s playoffs was a statement that both men will never forget.

JH: If Dirk wins, then he backed into it. I don’t think he’s the most dangerous player in the league and I don’t think that in the last two minutes that’s he’s the guy you want having the ball. To me, those are critical elements regarding the MVP. My MVP is Kobe Bryant based on skill, ability, where his team is and because if the ball is in his hands late, you have supreme confidence that he will win the game.

(Click here for Part 3 of the Jemele Hill interview)

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