At the start of the current NBA season, Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets walked around the famed parquet basketball court of the Boston Celtics at TD Garden waving burning sage in his hands, orchestrating the smoking plant like a magical wand in order to cleanse the arena. Later in the season, Irving, who identifies as Black and Lakota, chose to sit out several NBA games, partly for personal reasons. His two-week absence began only a day after violent white supremacists stormed Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and he later indicated that systemic racism figured into his decision.
“I’d be lying sitting here and saying I don’t feel what’s going on in the world,” Irving said of his absence in a press conference. “I just have a huge responsibility, I feel, to continue to serve my community and the underserved, and when I’m out here playing, it’s continuing to leave knowledge with these guys and commit to something … bigger than ourselves.”
For the casual observer, Irving’s pre-game ritual and later decision not to play may have seemed weird or even pretentious for an NBA millionaire. But within the larger context of white supremacy, athletes of color have been transforming themselves into choreographers of the basketball court for decades, playing the game in order to express grief, to generate hope, and to resist the harmful effects of racism in American sports and American society.
Take Irving’s sage ritual at the start of the season. Known as smudging, it’s a spiritual technology of the Lakota people of the Great Plains, designed to mark off and protect sacred space from harmful elements. Irving’s late mother was a member of the Standing Rock Sioux, and Irving and his sister were initiated into that community in 2018. By walking around the basketball court, where he played for the Celtics for two seasons ending in 2019, Irving signaled that it’s a threshold, beyond which stereotypical misrepresentations of Black male bodies lose their power and significance.
Black people in the United States often know intuitively that white supremacy is a spiritual experience for its adherents, one which finds exaltation through Black death. The Capitol riot on January 6, for instance, happened in order to overturn the will of millions of Black voters in a fair election. There were numerous religious dimensions to this act of violence. As the insurrectionists fought their way through the people’s house, they also prayed to God and carried with them symbols of the Confederacy and Christianity. The insurrection as a performative ritual to the divinity of whiteness conjures up memories of other routine forms of violence against Black life—the auction block, lynching, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and police brutality—that were symbolized no doubt by the crucifixion-style gallows and noose erected outside of the Capitol.
We are now engaged in a difficult conversation about race and racism in the United States. It is increasingly and abundantly clear that negative cultural perceptions of Black bodies are a hazard to the health of the Black community. But what needs more attention are the religious dimensions of this insidious form of cultural violence. What does it mean for Black people to experience racism not simply as form of social control, but as repeated acts of spiritual brutality? What is it like to experience the storming of the Capitol not simply with a sense of terror but with a feeling of demonic dread? What does it feel like for Black people to live in a world that presupposes a white God who signifies their ultimate status as chattel property and values the sale, spectacle, and scarring of Black flesh, both on and off the playing field?
The negative impact of the degradation of Black bodies as an ultimate concern of white supremacy is only beginning to be understood by researchers. We know, for example, that being Black in an anti-Black world can shorten the caps at the ends of DNA that make for longer life, which may therefore be passed down intergenerationally by our ancestors. We are also aware that the continuous trauma of being Black can make finding the appropriate time and space to properly grieve those ancestors psychologically difficult. But what about the spirit? What does white supremacy do to Black souls as well as Black bodies? Does racism, by chance, follow our ancestors to the grave, where a warped sense of being remains, thereby haunting the living?
By their very nature, empirical answers elude such questions, which is precisely why Irving’s Lakota ritual to his ancestors through hoops carries so much significance. Unlike the decision of Colin Kaepernick and other athletes to kneel during the national anthem, Irving’s smudging ritual was overtly an act of spiritual resistance, a counter-ritual of sorts. By thwarting the hidden harms that swirl around that basketball court, in a league in which Black bodies play not only for themselves but also for a predominantly white ownership, audience, and media, Irving opened up a subversive playing field of meaning and invited his Black and Lakota ancestors in.
“It’s just more or less for us to stay connected, and for us to feel great about going to work,” he explained of his smudging ritual, which he has done before other games. “And for us to feel great about going to work and feeling safe and provided for from our ancestors.” Notice the mutual dependency between the living and the dead implied in Irving’s words, grounded as they are within a Lakota alternative to Christian metaphysics. Irving feels safe, but his ancestors are also cared for by his intention to “stay connected” on the hardwood.
Given the long history of symbolic and physical violence against Black Americans, which stretches back through lynching and slavery, we should not be surprised that ancestors find their way onto the basketball courts of a majority Black league. Less than three years ago, Isaiah Thomas, the guard whom Irving replaced in Boston, sat on the same Boston sidelines mourning his beloved sister’s tragic death in a car accident, with the words “RIP Lil Sis,” “I love you,” and “Chyna” written on his sneakers. He would go on to score 53 points on Chyna’s birthday during the Eastern Conference semi-finials. “It’s my sister,” he said after the game. “Happy birthday. She would have been 23 today. Everything I do is for her. And she’s watching over me, so that’s all her.”
Last year, after a helicopter accident took the life of the Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, LeBron James spontaneously performed the same dunk on the same hoop as Kobe, saying to a reporter after the game: “Ever see the movie ‘The 6th Man’? Kobe came down, put himself in my body and gave me that dunk on that break.”
And recently, a resilient young streetball player at West 4th Street, the hallowed playground basketball court of New York City, shared with me: “For me this place, it would always have a special memory in my head because the day my mom passed away, I had a game here.” He continued, “I had to take a deep breath. I had to really cherish the moment, because I think my mother would have wanted me to play the game.”
He went on to explain that with only a few seconds remaining, he found himself on the free-throw line, his team down by a single point. He thought, “I gotta make these free-throws for my mother. And I sunk the first one to tie the game. I was excited, but you know when you’re in a zone you don’t say ‘what’s-up’ to nobody, you don’t give pound [fist bumps] to nobody. You block it all out … So, it was hard for me, but that moment became sacred on this court in West 4th, ‘The Cage,’ because I made the free throw.”
I wondered what it was like for him to let go of the world outside of the basketball court. “I felt like my body was here,” he said. “But my soul and my mind wasn’t, because I wanted to be with my mother.”
Just like the practice of this young streetballer, placing the harsh realities of death and dying in abeyance—blocking it all out—is a central element of Black hoops in America, especially in a nation of White supremacist hauntings. Black athletes may be overdetermined by their subhuman social status, but they also push beyond it creatively, through basketball as a spiritual practice of reclamation.
Far more surprising than Irving’s smudging ceremony is our collective ability as Americans to forget our repeated failures to protect and defend Black lives, our ongoing inability to create spaces to remember the countless young Black boys and girls, men and women who have died too young. Until we reckon with this tragic history through acts of collective mourning, we will continue to misjudge Black athletes such as Kyrie Irving. And our arenas, from Boston to Los Angeles, will remain haunted by the ghosts of our learned ignorance.
Onaje X.O. Woodbine is assistant professor of philosophy and religion at American University. He is the author of Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball and co-producer of a forthcoming documentary film on sacred space in New York City playground basketball, Hallowed Ground & Cracked Concrete.