Greg Stiemsma, Race, and the Making Of a Cult Hero

At first glance Greg Stiemsma doesn't seem like a player who would create a stir every time he comes within ten feet of a basketball court. But there is a "buzz" when Stiemsma steps on to the parquet floor of the TD Garden, and most other NBA courts it seems. To look at him, there is nothing particularly amazing about Stiemsma in a basketball sense. His height (6' 11") would be incredible dinner conversation for the average person, but in a world where 6'3" means "average point guard height", that isn't as overly impressive as it could be. Despite this overall normalcy, Stiemsma has taken on a Bunyan-esque sense of mythology surrounding him. This happens every so often to select players. The difference with Stiemsma and those other players who were turned into seldom-seen demigods by the fans, is that Stiemsma might just have enough skill to contribute regularly.

I am sure by now that the reader has figured out what I am referring to, when I say that Stiemsma is "a fan favorite" who is "different". Yes, Greg Stiemsma is whiter than death's light. He's a former D-League Defensive Player of the Year, and has raised the relevance of the blocked shot for the first time since Ben Wallace swatted shots with his afro in Detroit. He also has shown the ability (at least for one game) to hit a baseline jump shot and spread the floor. He's basically everything his modern Caucasian mythical predecessors were not.

The reason why Stiemsma garnered so much attention initially was because of his skin color. There aren't many American born white NBA players anymore, and most of them become the bearded lady of their team. They are given double-takes, cheered boisterously when they do something correctly, and usually possess some kind of unfortunate facial hair (Behind door number one -- Adam Morrison!). The Celtics, like most long-standing NBA teams, have had a history with talented white players (Bird, Cousy, Havlicek, McHale, etc, etc). Eventually, that kind of died out, and the white American basketball player became an anomaly. Luke Harangody, was given mild attention in Boston but failed to live up to the romantic towel-waving phenomenon of his predecessor, Brian Scalabrine.

Scalabrine recently had his name chanted, again, as the Chicago Bulls were blowing out the Memphis Grizzles on New Years Day. Blowouts are the rare instances that Scalabrine sees the court anymore, and he saw six minutes during the Memphis game. Why were people pleading with Tom Thibodeau to allow Scalabrine to play? Simply because he's white, has orange hair, and takes unintentionally hilarious pictures. He's the opposite of what the current basketball player should look like. I saw Scalabrine play once, a few years back when the Celtics played at Madison Square Garden. He hit a corner three, and I don't think I cheered louder at any point during the game then that.

The difference between Scalabrine and Stiemsma is that the latter has tangible basketball skills that can actually be used during gametime situations. Scalabrine's best quality is that he makes fans stay late and buy concessions during out-of-reach games. But both were initially viewed the same in the eyes of Celtics fans, and that is because we expect our white basketball players to be gawky, uncoordinated, and rarely seen. If Stiemsma were African-American, he would be viewed as another great shot blocker who has marginal shooting abilities. But he's white, and this is Boston and the NBA, so that works as a huge plus in his favor in terms of attention. Eminem -- a man who currently lives on in Stiemsma's unfortunate hairstyle choice -- once said "If I was black, I would have sold half" during his song "White America". He wouldn't have received the same inaugural attention had he been black. American parents and Congress saw Eminem as a threat to their children (who were white), and unwittingly helped blow him up and catapult him to stardom. He would have found it without their help eventually, due to his exceptional skills and shock value lyrics, but would have been seen as less of a "threat" if he was African-American.

The other thing Stiemsma has unknowingly had to confront is Boston's historically porous civil rights record. In other words, schools didn't become desegregated until the mid-1970's. White players always seems to carry more weight in Boston, as it is a city that previously fought against progression, and a small minority of people view the Celtics' annual white player as a cherished relic from the past. Race may always be an underlying part of Boston, whether it shows in sports or in any other walks of life.

I have a theory about white basketball players, at least the ones who are mediocre at best, that may explain the perpetual initial fawning. White NBA fans watch Brian Scalabrine play, and think "Heck, I could do that", "I could put on loose fitting shorts, fetch Derrick Rose water, get paid millions, and go three point line to three point line when I do play". These players -- the Morrison's and the Scalabrine's -- we some of us see ourselves in. We can see ourselves doing what they do, as unrealistically and absurd as it sounds. We could never dunk from the foul line, but what Scalabrine does seems easy enough, right? Once that player reaches say, a Kevin Love status, that ridiculous fantasy is gone, but still lingers somewhat.

We many are fascinated with these players because, at least in the beginning, we envision ourselves stepping onto the TD Bank court for warmups, and then sitting back down, occasionally standing to return blood to our legs. We saw this with Stiemsma, in the beginning at least. He looked awkward and confused, the same way we would. We were just cheering for ourselves. Stiemsma has since left (or was never even in) that stage, but we still gawk and ogle at the white professional basketball player. And it's oddly natural.

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