Professional sports are at the heart of American culture. Many of us grew up playing some kind of sport, and still have childhood memories of serene, summer evenings, shooting hoops in the backyard, counting down the invisible game clock as we dribbled the ball around fantasy defenders until we got the final shot off at the buzzer. At least, that was my experience with basketball. The love for my home team, the Golden State Warriors, was real. Warriors basketball is almost tribal in Northern California. Bay Area sports fans are some of the most devoted and lively people to their teams, and I was no exception.
Warriors basketball has been a tumultuous journey for the team's die-hard devotees. For millennial fans like myself, the team was a laughing stock for most of the 1990s and 2000s. But after several grueling years of patience, player development, and the addition of an exceptional staff the team became one of the greatest in NBA history, most recently winning the 2017 NBA Championship. But that's not the only triumph of the Warriors. There's something more at play with this team that goes beyond the competition of professional basketball. We are not only witnessing a historic assembly of athletic talent and organizational success; we are beholding a transformative moment in the identity of professional sports as they relate to American culture.
The Warriors have taken on toxic masculinity in sports. With gay professional athletes like Jason Collins and Michael Sam coming out of the closet to play openly as who they are, we have seen magnanimous strides in the right direction for what professional sports can accept and subsequently, achieve. But what about the work of straight allies in professional sports? That's where the Warriors come in.
NBA basketball has been on the front lines of political speech as a league. NPR's Michel Martin points this out in how players are now more confident in their rights and abilities to speak up and speak out on what's on their minds. From the league's Latin Night's Program, featuring player jerseys with team names in Spanish, to players' speeches on police brutality and gun violence at the 2016 ESPY awards, the NBA has demonstrated the caliber of its membership. But what is it about the Warriors that has set them apart on political speech? Some would argue it was the news of the team's potential plans to skip a Trump White House invite after their most recent championship win. Some would argue it's the way Coach Kerr and two-time MVP, Stephen Curry have personally, criticized President Trump. I would agree, but I still think this goes even further.
The answer is in the Warrior haters. When you have fairly popular sports commentators like Jason Whitlock dissing the Warriors as an "extra-suburban, soft basketball team... [with] Rick James and Tupac tatted all over... I ain't really feelin' that", clearly, the team has struck a chord with some. Hypothetically, what is wrong with a man having a tattoo of another man on his body? What about that idea makes Jason Whitlock uncomfortable to the point he has to publicly assert that he "[does not] feel that"? God knows Whitelock isn't the only Warrior hater in the world, but his criticism speaks to the root of what I feel many have against the team.
The Warriors don't play beat-you-over-the-head-with-brute-strength-basketball. There is no Shaq backboard breaking going on and no Lebron post-up bulldozing either. The Warriors are the epitome of finesse, grace, and measured skill. Watching Steph Curry with the basketball is like watching a ballet dancer paint the stage with magic through movement. This is antithetical to the "hard" and butch aesthetic many professional sports try to embody, particularly ones like basketball and football, so it makes sense that someone uncomfortable with being challenged on their idea of masculinity in sports, would call the Warriors "soft".
So yes, there is definitely something less macho about how the Warriors play which is exactly why this team is so special. Stephen Curry, as the team's leader, has embraced this completely. He's not afraid to be silly and cute when he celebrates one of his science-defying, three pointers. He always manages to balance out the competative monstrosity of Draymond Green with a suave wink to the crowd that never feels smarmy, but genuinely goofy in the most endearing way, and he knows it. The guy posts videos on social media of him lip syncing songs from musicals with his wife. He sang a duet with James Corden on his Carpool Karaoke series. Unbelievable! Steph Curry singing a love song with another man? I wonder if Whitlock and the haters would not be "feelin' that" either. Curry had also recently joked to reporters that when it came to questions about his Finals MVP teammate, Kevin Durant: "I feel like I'm on a dating show". This may seem like nothing to some people, but imagine someone in the NBA making that joke thirty years ago? Even ten years ago? Most people wouldn't even make jokes like that now without injecting the "no homo" nonsense, you know, to make sure we all know they aren't actually gay. Not Curry. This is a man who seems quite comfortable with who he is, and didn't feel any threat to his sense of masculinity in jokingly putting the image in our heads that he is on a dating show with another man, his teammate! A special someone he probably has seen without clothes on in a locker room. Yeah, that's how cool Steph Curry is. What makes this so important is how popular Curry is. He is one of the greatest players ever, some have even said he is the greatest, or only second to Michael Jordan. Many might disagree with that, but there is no denying his contribution to basketball, which is why acknowledging how he carries himself is so important, because he's so visible in professional sports.
How about when Warriors' top bench contributor, Andre Iguodala made a similar joke during the team's championship parade speeches, on another player "James Michael McAdoo... rubbing off on me... pause"? Iguodala literally said "pause", as if to facilitate the audience taking in his innuendo. Some might have thought this was inappropriate; others might have thought it was offensive as if physical affection between two men is funny. But ultimately, it is important to note that a joke like this would never have been made in the past. As a queer man, I was not personally offended by what Iguodala said. Perhaps I should have been, but something in the way he said it made me feel included somehow. I felt this way not because he made a gay joke, but because he was willing to put himself at the center of one and seemed unafraid of how it would make him "look". It might have been a microaggression to some, and I would understand that, given how what he said was problematic, but I still feel like there was love at the root of it.
And let's not forget about the big anti-toxic masculinity move the Warriors made in bringing in Rick Welts as the team president after he came out as gay. Most of us remember the NBA standing up to discrimination and hate when it moved the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte, NC when the state passed an anti-LGBT bathroom law. Many aren't aware that while a lot of people in the NBA supported this decision, it was the Warriors' Rick Welts who certainly drove the league to act.
Professional athletes aren't perfect, but we love and idolize them because they're winners. They not only triumphed to get to the pro level of sports, they make a living off of beating the bad guys on the other teams once they've arrived. It's an American recipe for major fandom and a multi-billion dollar industry. For people like me who love basketball but sometimes feel sports culture has no place for us because we're queer, the Warriors are beating the bad guys in another way as well. There is a place for us at the table of fans when the players we cheer for, see us. Maybe it's because the Warriors are the premier San Francisco/Bay Area basketball team, and you know, San Francisco is super gay. Or maybe it's because people in pro sports are just changing with the times. Either way, when the Warriors do things like embrace being "soft" while winning championships, it makes people like me, who have been called "soft" because we don't adhere to toxic masculinity, feel included and vindicated. We need all the straight allies in sports we can get, and that is the embodiment of strength in numbers.
*Photo from CSN Bay Area