I remember the LA riots but I shouldn’t.
I was 10 when the riots happened 20 years ago and I lived another world away in Portland. Other events from that time are a bit hazy (the first Gulf War, my parent’s divorce) but I remember the LA riots for some reason.
Why? Sports. Specifically, my Portland Trail Blazers were playing the hated Los Angeles Lakers the night the riots broke out.
Arash Markazi at ESPN has a great breakdown of its impact on the Lakers and Clippers.
But for me at least, it helped underscore the way sports can help people understand the world, current events and even some of the workplace lessons I’ve talked about here.
I was barely aware of what happened to Rodney King or the ensuing trial. I didn’t even have any real concept of what race meant or why people would be upset about the outcome until much later. But in a series where the Blazers had won two games and the Lakers (without Magic Johnson, due to him retiring that year because of HIV) were facing a must-win situation, the commentators pre-game were talking about what was going on outside of the arena.
They cut to a blimp shot. You see the lights from the Forum and you see it pan toward emergency lights, smoke, fire and people out in the street. It seemed close. And while it was still somewhat light when the game started, the night grew darker and darker and the fires seemed to grow brighter along with the amount of emergency lights every time they cut back to the shot.
I don’t know how my dad explained it to me. To be completely honest, I had no perspective to base it on so I doubt I would have understood it. I lived in a place where there weren’t many people from different races. My idea of other races came from a teacher who looked different from me, a couple of classmates and from following the NBA. Even if I had that perspective, I was still 10. Understanding wouldn’t come until later.
Still, there was something surreal about watching the game. From the announcers continuing to make references to it, to fans leaving midway through an elimination game that went down to the wire in overtime. I still remember seeing those empty, ugly orange seats dotting the landscape of the arena while the minutes ticked off the close of a back and forth battle.
Why are people leaving? Don’t they realize that if the Lakers lose, they are done for the season?
I didn’t understand. I may have guessed that whatever was going on outside of the arena was important, but I didn’t know it the same way I knew this game. I knew if I was at a game like this and my team were on the brink of elimination in the playoffs, you’d have to drag me out of there kicking and screaming.
But then I realized something: it must be important. If people are leaving because of what is going on outside, it must be really scary. Or something. And while Laker fans aren’t exactly the model game day fans, they certainly had to understand the importance of the game and chose to leave instead.
Whatever was going on had to be important. I didn’t know why but it had to be.
The Lakers opted to move game 4 to Las Vegas due to their proximity to the ongoing activities and summarily lost badly. Meanwhile, the Blazers made a long run to the finals where they lost to Jordan’s Bulls in six.
As I learned more about the riots, about Rodney King and Reginald Denny, the LAPD and the trial in Simi Valley, and about race in south LA, I was interested in all of it. I wondered what went through the minds of people who left before overtime started. Something trumped sports for those people that night. And on the most important night of that season, people vanished into the night to confront something beyond sport.
I won’t pretend to know all of the issues that erupted that night in LA but that night, sports opened up the world beyond just basketball. If you’re willing to look beyond the superficiality of the game itself, there are a lot of interesting issues that it can bring up. Whether it be HIV, race, feminism, fairness, leadership or compensation, sports can be a powerful storytelling device. When it doesn’t devolve into meaningless clichés or played out story lines, it can transcend the sport itself.