The Handshake not Seen Around the World: NBA Finals and Race

At the close of nearly every sporting even in the United States, competitors exchange handshakes. Long recognized as a conventional expression of respect, many take it to be a reaffirmation the ethics of sport, routinely glossed in more sexist shorthand as sportsmanship. Only rarely does the ritual make plain its place within predominant racialized modes of being and seeing. Such neglect, of course, limits our understanding of the limits race continues to place of humanity, precisely because it turns on respect, respectability, and the recognition of a shared humanity and became traditional during an era in which sport, like society generally, endorsed racial exclusion.

The conclusion of the 2011 NBA Finals offers a striking starting point to reconsider the racial significance of the post-game handshake. Amid the hoopla and the ample criticism directed at LeBron James, there has been very little critical discussion of Dirk Nowitzki’s quick exit from the court. Rather than celebrating with his team and congratulating the members of the Miami Heat for a well-fought series, Dirk retreated to the locker room. Responding to Hannah Storm’s question about his post-game activity, he explained his decision as such:

I had to get a moment. I was crying a bit. I was a little emotional. … I actually didn’t want to come out for the trophy, but the guys talked me into it.

While others noted this to be unusual and out-of-step with protocol, little has been made of his decision in a critical way. Some even described it as touching, while Skip Bayless on 1rst and 10 linked his decision to his justifiable anger against Wade and James for “mocking his illness.” Stacey King, on the same show, dismissed the issue since Dirk is “a classy guy, this is a guy with humility.” These reframings of the series Most Valuable Player championed his character, simultaneously affirming his humanity, while revealing a racial double standard.

What is curious here is how this silence can be read in relationship to past media discourse about (black) players leaving the court without the requisite hugs, handshakes, and pleasantries. In 2009, after the Magic defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James exited the court in such an “unsportsmanlike” way. James explained the situation:

I’m a competitor. “That’s what I do. It doesn’t make sense to me to go over and shake somebody’s hand.

His explanation was unsatisfying to many, leading to an avalanche of criticism directed at him for his lack of respect, sportsmanship, and maturity. “There’s not much debate to be had there. You’re not likely to find anyone who would seriously argue that snubbing the Magic was a classy move on King James’ part,” wrote Phil Taylor.

But so many athletes are now cut from that cloth. They think the inability to deal with defeat gracefully is a sign of competitive fire, when it’s often a sign of immaturity. A real competitor gives every ounce of effort to win, but is enough of a man to give respect to an opponent who does the same and prevails.

David Aldridge concurred, chastising James for poor sportsmanship:

Not one word of congratulations to a team that beat yours fair and square, after a tough series. That was poor sportsmanship, LeBron, no matter how you or any of your followers, acolytes and media protectors say otherwise.

Others were not so constructive with their criticism: While Ann Killion identified him as “the definition of a poor sport.”
Not surprisingly, sports writers took the moment to lament the lack of desired values in sport and the ways in which contemporary athletes were teaching kids the wrong lesson. “Every kid in every sports league—soccer, Little League, field hockey, lacrosse, football, you name it—from kindergarten to college has to shake hands with their opponents,” noted Mary Kate Cary.

Many times the coach will bench them if they refuse. So why don’t the adults have to do the same thing? I guess good sportsmanship is just for kids these days. It’s certainly not for the adults who make it to the top of their sport.

LeBron, who is no stranger to controversy and media “haterrade” (see Dave Zirin’s column on LeBron’s post game comments), is not alone in facing media criticism for failing to shake hands at the end of game. During the 2011 playoffs, Russell Westbrook faced a similar level of criticism for walking off the court without congratulating the Dallas Mavericks at the conclusion of the Western Conference finals. Described as like “LeBron,” as “Westpunk” and a “classless chicken shit” and otherwise criticized, the instance (as with LeBron) was used to once again question his emotional make-up, maturity, and respect for the game.


  1. jonas67

    I’m not going to comment on whether there was a double standard here or not, but in comparing LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki it doesn’t seem like the authors of this post have sufficiently drawn the comparison between these two guys in order for there to be a double standard. DN, in victory, walks to the locker room without a hand shake. When called on it, he says he was too emotional and “crying a bit”, but is not defensive and does not make negative comments about his opponents. In the example provided about LJ, he, in defeat, does not shake hands and, when called on it, is defensive and explains that competitors don’t shake hands, which, of course, is just the opposite position most would take when discussing aspects of sportsmanship. In these examples, LJ’s comments are unsportsmanlike, by definition, while DN’s comments on his behavior were neutral at worst. If you take both men at their own words then LJ looks like he has more of a problem and perhaps deserves more grief from the press.

  2. David Leonard Author

    This is part 1 of our piece so stay tune. That being said, your comments are not so much on the handshake or even the media’s reaction but the differential responses to the media. Just because Dirk says he was emotional and LBJ said it was about competition that doesn’t change the very different media responses. In both cases, we can say that each player was emotional — as with the other cases. My question would be: Who gets to define what is sportsman and what isn’t and how do larger narratives/frames regarding race, nation, class and gender operate in this regard??

  3. Nicthommi

    Well, I’m curious to see what Part II says because I’d have to agree that Lebron James antics in general put him at a disadvantage when people are talking about sportsmanlike and gentlemanlike behavior, and he’s shown a lot of hubris in the media and gave a very ugly exit interview to boot.

  4. David Leonard Author

    Not sure what “antics” you refer to here: his decision to leave his team in free agency; his decision to announce that Decision on ESPN (raising over 2 million dollars for the Boys and Girls Club); his decision to challenge the bitterness and hatred directed at him; his decision to question why people are focusing so much attention on him. I think it is really important to unpack the ideas of “sportsman” “gentleman” and even “hubris” fits into larger narratives of race, class, and gender. Just today, Boyce Watkins powerfully reminded readers:

    “Mind you, it’s incredibly rare that a white athlete is convicted of the crime of arrogance. But at least once a year, there is some black male athlete who is treated like a common criminal for showing a little too much confidence or doing what’s best for himself and his family. The white male-dominated sports media places irresponsible and destructive value judgments on young, hard-working men as if they are dastardly, dysfunctional, sub-human savages who don’t deserve an ounce of the public’s respect. Before LeBron James, there were other athletes like Terrell Owens, Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds, Michael Vick and the long list of NCAA athletes who (gasp) have the audacity to request compensation for their own labor. If NCAA athletes were to stand up and demand even a fraction of the billions earned by their coaches, commentators and corporate sponsors, they too would receive the arrogant and ungrateful negro label that was given to LeBron James. The bottom line is that LeBron James is not a criminal. He’s not a deadbeat dad, thug, wife beater, or drug addict. He’s a young father who loves his family, cares about his team and badly wants to win an NBA title. All of the value judgments that come from media and fans who’ve been trained to express consistent disdain for African American males are reflective of the poisoned psyches that produce this kind of hatred. LeBron James is NOT the devil.” (

    Beyond understanding the demonization and its connection to broader racist narratives, the question remain why is James not entitled to be “emotional” and overcome by the moment, yet Dirk is celebrated because he is “emotional” and just “keeping it real” — he is allowed to be human whereas James isn’t.


    • Nicthommi

      Actually, I’m not talking about the Decision at all.

      And to call his actions into question is not trivializing the very real issues of race and class that exist in the realm of professional sports.

      For the record, I am black too, and when I look at how Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, and some of the other major sports stars act, I’m comparing them to the athletes that were idolized when I was a kid. Michael Jordan. Walter Payton.

      I’ve heard Michael Jordan was a prickly pear. Ditto with Bill Russell. But I would never call into question the way that they act in public, during interviews, or towards competitors.

      For some reason, the standards of behavior for young black males has fallen a LONG way, and it goes beyond them being rude and arrogant during interviews. There is just this pride that they have in keeping it real (“real ignorant” in most cases) that I have a lot of trouble understanding, and that no amount of racial pride will allow me to endorse.

      So I’m not even saying that I agree with letting Dirk off of the hook, but I also haven’t observed the same kind of behavior from him.

      I think there are probably better examples of “white boys behaving badly” that would better illustrate the point. I feel as if I can remember historical examples, like Christian Laettner or Bill Lambeer that might be comparable, but just don’t pay enough attention to the NBA to know most of the current white stars. Clearly, extending things to ALL professional sports makes it easier.

      I’ve not been trained to have disdain for my own people. But I’m really disappointed in the direction in which we seem to be moving. And the whole system exploits young black men in my opinion, because it makes them ignore the importance of getting an education to make a grab for a very big prize that 99% of them will never get.

  5. Blaque Swan

    First off, I’m no Lebron fan and I’ve never been. Nobody fresh out of high school should be nicknamed the “King.” I’m all about the Black Mamba, Kobe Bean Bryant.

    The “Decision” was just stupid. I’m glad he raised the money, don’t get me wrong, but nobody else has had a “Decision” show. I didn’t watch it because I thought it was stupid. But still, there’s a lot he could’ve done differently to make the “Decision” more palatable.

    Of course, the media just took it way, waaaaaay to far in their criticism of the “Decision.” As for Vick? There’re people who’ve killed other people and gotten lighter sentences than he did. So is there racism in sport media? Yep.

    As for Skip, I’m a fan. I think he was wrong in condemning Lebron post-game comments rather than the repeated questions that provoked the comments. I think it’s odd that he takes pride in Blake Griffin’s whiteness (you know, the way black people would cheer for James Blake). But generally, Skips all right with me. He pretty much treats everyone the same, uses the same adjectives (athleticism vs intelligence) for everybody. Even his pride in Griffin’s whiteness makes sense, at least logically, in the context of there being only two white stars in the NBA, neither of whom, Dirk (German) or Steve Nash (Canadian), or US-born.

    That said, the difference between the media responses have more to do with the fact that Dirk won the game. It’s not incumbent upon winners to shake hands so long as there’s no taunting, and there was none with Dirk. He didn’t do anything to show up the Miami players.

    Neither do I think it’s accurate to say he’s been “celebrated.” Most of the coverage I’ve seen has focused more on Miami losing after having had that post-Decision celebration than it’s focused on Dallas.

    So I’m interested to see what part 2 has in store. I agree with your theory, I just think there have to be better examples. If Lebron had been so upset with losing to Orlando that he was starting to cry and so didn’t shake hands, you’d have a point. But, you can tell Dwight Howard expected to slap five at least. Then Lebron’s excuse was that he’s “a winner,” rather than that he was just that hurt. So, I’m not sure this is a good example for the point you’re trying to make. Or, at least, it’s not the best.

  6. David Leonard Author

    Whether “The Decision” was stupid or not, ESPN (and the advertisers) saw value in this programming. LeBron took the opportunity and used it to sell airtime for the Boys and Girls Club all while trying to capitalize for the advancement of his own career/brand. If we are going to condemn LeBron, why so little outrage for an entire sports-media complex that was integral to its occurrence.

    It is interesting that the prominent comment here is as follows: Dirk said it was about emotions and LeBron said it was about being winner. I find it interesting that in this instance we choose to accept words at face value even though so often we doubt the sincerity and meaning of such public pronouncements (and not think about how race and gender impacts the performance of identity). It is important to think about how identities are performed and what identities sanctioned and subjected to surveillance. For example, when Chris Bosh cried after Game 6 and when the Heat’s coach talked about players crying during the regular season, many folks used that as an opportunity to comment on their toughness. Then consider the condemnation of James’ comments as that of arrogance, hubris, and his not caring. So, Bosh cries, he is dismissed as weak, soft, and a wimp; James “fights” back and he is rude and arrogant; Dirk cries and doesn’t shake hands and he is being human.

    I think it important to think about and unpack the comments, providing them with context. I am not saying that either comments reflect a lack of truthfulness of sincerity, but also how race, class, and identity impact the reception of those words.

    Just this week, there has been ample debate about the sincerity of LeBron’s post-post game comments and Terrelle Pryor’s apology. The discussion shouldn’t just be about the explanation but the meaning and the public discourse of a transgression of a ritual and how that transgression is explained, rationalized, provided meaning and otherwise highlighted/erased from the public discourse.

    Finally, yes a lot of this does have to do with victory versus loss and the broader issues issue.


  7. David Leonard and C. Richard King Author

    Joe, thanks. I hope readers take a look at part 2 because there we emphasize the material consequences of the denied humanity afforded to African Americans: evident in the demonization of LeBron James and the minimal punishment afforded to the murderer of Oscar Grant (not to mention the lack of national attention given to the sentencing of an activist in Jena, LA —, amongst many other examples. We also reflect on how a victory versus corresponds with access to privileges and denied opportunities, not surprising given the hegemony of militarism and mythologies surrounding meritocracy.


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