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A Tale of an N.B.A. Icon and a Journeyman

April 4, 1999

Michael Jordan wishes to own a team. Oliver Miller wants a team to own up. These two basketball heavyweights of different classes were in the news last week, challenging old-line typecasting from opposite ends of the pro sports spectrum and getting all-too-predictable results.

Jordan's bid to purchase a 50 percent stake of the Charlotte Hornets from the team's embattled owner, George Shinn, was reportedly being blessed and brokered by the National Basketball Association commissioner, David Stern. Miller's complaint against the Phoenix Suns was filed to the league to little acclaim by the players' union director, Billy Hunter. Two distinctly separate tales of leverage and weight remind us again that barriers fall much faster for those with a healthy reservoir of celebrity, connections and cash.

If Stern can help it, we should expect Jordan to make his most socially significant leap, from jock icon to black owner. But no matter how much noise Hunter makes in the name of Miller, the player's complaint against the Phoenix Suns is likely to fall on deaf or insensitive ears.

The Miller story dates back to Feb. 9, when the journeyman center, whose well-publicized weight problems have all but destroyed his seven-year career, pulled into Phoenix with the Sacramento Kings. In front of a sellout crowd that included his in-laws and children, Miller was cruelly parodied by a court jester in a gorilla suit. The Suns' longtime mascot stuffed a tube under his costume to dramatically increase his girth, donned a Miller jersey, pretended to gorge himself on popcorn and then fell to the floor, unable to get up.

The tape of the incident shows Miller looking on, practically in shock. His agent, Jeff Blakely, would later claim that a subsequent binge, which forced Miller off the Kings' active roster, was the result of this sad spectacle. After Blakely threatened a lawsuit, a Suns vice president, Harvey Shank, apologized for Miller's being "affected detrimentally," but justified the routine by calling it "one in a long line of 18 years' worth of parodies of coaches and players performed by the premier mascot in all of team sports."

To compare such an act with, say, a mascot wearing a slicked-back wig, a la Pat Riley, is an unfathomable stretch. It would have been bad enough had the Suns' mascot been a duck deliberately humiliating a man who has struggled visibly, painfully, with an eating disorder. Hunter looked at the tape of an overwhelmingly white crowd whooping it up over the depiction of a troubled black player as a "fat, lazy ape" and, with good reason, saw something worse.

"Because of the history of this country, because blacks have historically been portrayed as monkeys and apes, not only did they disparage Oliver but they disparaged me and, based on what a lot of players have told me, a lot of other people in our league," Hunter said. "It was in poor taste, inflammatory, and especially because of what that vice president said."

Then Hunter said what many African-American players undoubtedly think when they pass through America West Arena.

"I don't know what a gorilla has to do with the Valley of the Sun," he said.

This might be a good question for Stern to answer, when he finished typing up statements on the suddenly promising Charlotte ownership matter. If he can't have Jordan as a player, then Stern assuredly recognizes the value of welcoming him back as the first African-American owner with a controlling interest. Stern gets points for trying to mediate the deal, but he loses them for being asleep at the cash register on the Miller story, for doing nothing.

That is hard to accept from a commissioner who fines players for the slightest criticism of referees, for not hemming their shorts. Not long ago, Milwaukee Coach George Karl took a hit in the wallet for perpetuating his silly but hardly offensive feud with Wally Walker, his former boss in Seattle.

The Suns' owner, Jerry Colangelo, has waded into dangerous social waters before. Several years ago he demanded that Richard Dumas, a player suspended for using drugs, apologize to the city of Phoenix before being reinstated. If Colangelo was so concerned about Phoenix's fans, he would have reconsidered his end run around them to get public money for an expensive baseball park. The Dumas incident was nothing more than a grandstand play on a vicious stereotype, a variation on this Miller theme.

"People get into a ball park or an arena, they pay the ticket price and psychologically, they can justify anything," said Dr. Jonathan F. Katz, a New York clinical sports psychologist. "They have thoughts about fat people, black people, gay people. And now they are in a venue where they think these thoughts are acceptable."

Stern can't control what fans think, but he can do something when one of his teams panders to those thoughts. Oliver Miller is no future owner, no star, no Jordan. Inside one of David Stern's arenas, he is entitled to the same decency, and respect.