At Princeton, five faces of touchy issue

March 14, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Princeton's a basketball team, a really good men's college basketball team, but that doesn't fully explain its popularity.

Princeton's a basketball team, a really white basketball team, and for too many, that's part of its appeal, too.

"I guess it's got to be out there, right?" Princeton center Steve Goodrich said yesterday.

Oh, it's there.

It's there right under the surface.

It's always there in this racially charged society.

Goodrich is writing his senior thesis on "Changing Representations of the Black Athlete in American Society," comparing media coverage of Jesse Owens and Joe Louis in the '30s to the coverage of Muhammad Ali in the '60s.

Thirty years from now, he and his teammates might be the subject of a similar thesis, one that focuses on the misrepresentations of white athletes in the '90s.

Too many see the Tigers as five slow white guys outsmarting their faster, blacker opponents.

Too many see them as the answer to the Sports Illustrated cover question, "Whatever Happened to the White Athlete?"

Too many see them reclaiming the sport from the blacks who elevated it -- quite literally -- to its current form.

Don't buy it?

Then take it from the NBA's latest Great White Hope, Keith Van Horn.

"I know people notice that I'm white when I walk out there," the New Jersey Nets rookie told The New York Times Sunday Magazine. "It's part of society.

"When I was in college and watched an NBA game with people around, there would always be some comment when a white guy did something.

"It shouldn't be that way, but it is."

And so it is with Princeton.

A victory today over Michigan State, and the Tigers are in the Sweet 16. A victory today, and they likely would face North Carolina, a team that relies largely on six players, all of them black.

As racially divisive NCAA games go, it won't be Texas Western versus Kentucky in 1966.

But to many, it still would be White David vs. Black Goliath.

Never mind that this is a far more athletic Princeton team than any Pete Carril ever coached.

Never mind that Princeton guard Brian Earl said: "If we had Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter here, you would see backdoor cuts for reverse dunks."

Does anyone want to hear it?

Stereotypes are black and white with no gray in between.

Princeton coach Bill Carmody, in an interview with Basketball News earlier this season, attributed his team's popularity to its unique style, but did not dismiss the racial element.

"It's not just that we're winning," Carmody said. "Penn went three straight years recently without losing an Ivy game and never got this attention. Maybe it is we're a 'white men can't jump' fantasy."

The question was posed to Armond Hill, the black star of Princeton's teams in the late '70s, and now Columbia's coach.

"It's possible," he said. "But I'd like to think that if you're a purist, you like to watch the game being played with passing, cutting, shooting.

"Those are the staples of the game. Hopefully, everyone can enjoy and respect that more than look at them mostly as players who are white."

Hopefully.

But reading the newspapers, watching the TV broadcasts, deciphering the racial codes, it's clear we're not there yet.

Black players are athletic. White players are scrappy. Black players are talented. White players are smart.

It isn't just Princeton, either.

Through no fault of his own, perhaps no college player is more of a white myth than Duke's Steve Wojciechowski.

Wojo, a senior from Cardinal Gibbons School in Baltimore, has worked hard to become an adequate college point guard, but was he worthy of an SI cover?

Of course not.

Yet, TV analysts gush about the way Wojo dives all over the court, conveniently ignoring his deficiencies.

Princeton, meanwhile, is frequently portrayed as athletically challenged but intellectually superior.

Towson Catholic's Sydney Johnson, a black guard, started for the 1996 Princeton team that upset UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Earl, a white guard, played summer ball in the Sonny Hill League in inner-city Philadelphia.

But the misconceptions continue.

"You talk about the system. Yeah, the system is tremendous," Nevada-Las Vegas coach Bill Bayno said after his team's 69-57 first-round loss to Princeton. "But these kids can play."

Or, as Carmody put it: "The system is overrated. If you've got guys that are fast, guys that can cut, guys that are fundamentally sound, then you're going to be pretty good."

Princeton has such players now.

Take Mitch Henderson, who has a lightning-quick first step and was drafted out of high school by the New York Yankees.

Just as it's insulting to view a player like Jamison as merely an athletic wonder, it's insulting to view Henderson in stereotypical white terms.

"I don't think we carry a banner for un-athletic play," Goodrich said. "We try to play hard. We play together. I don't think that's a white thing."

It certainly isn't for the Chicago Bulls, who run a fairly complex offense of their own, and seem to win their share of championships.

Yes, Princeton is white. No, it does not define them.

Senior forward James Mastaglio put it best:

"If you're rooting for a team because of that, there's something wrong. That's not the reason to root for a team. That's ridiculous."

Pub Date: 3/14/98

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