When I was growing up in South-Central Los Angeles, "Paul" was one of my closest friends. In grade school and junior high, he and I spent countless hours together. He helped me become a slightly better athlete, and I helped him with math and biology. But when I returned home from college, Paul had become "Muhammad."
But pre-Muhammad, Paul starred on the high school basketball, baseball and football teams. As the basketball team's starting point guard, he was a prolific scorer and a tenacious defender, a combination college recruiters drool over. Big basketball power schools -- UCLA, Notre Dame, Marquette and others -- scouted him. Paul talked incessantly about the destiny to which he felt entitled ... the NBA, the money and the glamour.
But Paul had a problem -- temper and arrogance.
His father and mother separated when he was in kindergarten. Paul was the first boy I knew who did not live with both mother and father. Today black kids raised by single moms are the norm, but back then it was rare. Paul rarely spoke of his father, and saw him infrequently.
Paul routinely came to basketball practice late, and then practiced halfheartedly. Come game time, however, he performed brilliantly. For this reason, despite being, as his coach described him, a "hot head," Paul was never benched. Once when Paul came to practice late, the coach finally had enough and for the first and only time scolded him in front of his teammates. But during this long-overdue lecture about responsibility and respect for fellow teammates, Paul removed his jersey, balled it up ... and threw it at the coach. He started the next game.
But when the college recruiters asked about Paul's rumored "attitude problem," the coach was honest. Paul, he told recruiters, was a "coach killer." This means a player so irresponsible and disruptive that you're better off without him, no matter how gifted. Bye-bye, UCLA. So long, Notre Dame. Farewell, Marquette. Hello to an un-prestigious, non-basketball-powerhouse school.
Paul was angry. He felt robbed. Did he use his disappointment to redouble his efforts to show that he could, in fact, make it? No. He played indifferently and spent most of his time smoking dope in his dorm. I was never sure if the coach finally cut him or whether Paul just left. The story kept changing.
I didn't see Paul for a few years after that. But when I did, he told me to stop calling him Paul. My name, he said, is "Muhammad."
He'd thrown away all of his trophies, awards and newspaper clippings. All of that "nonsense," he insisted, is now in the past. He called himself an "activist," on a mission to right America's racial wrongs. He'd converted to Islam and stopped eating pork. Putting down dope and women, however, was a much more difficult assignment.
Christianity, he informed me, was a "slave religion." I told him that Arab slavers took more blacks from Africa than did European traders -- and that the Arab slave trade in Africa continued long after the Europeans stopped. He said I'd been "misled by the 'White Man's' history books."
He proceeded to tell me about how the "White Man" oppresses black people and works to "hold us back." No matter how hard you try, Paul said, you're "still black in America," an insurmountable impediment. On he went about "slave-owning" Founding Fathers, Jim Crow and "racial oppression."
I couldn't take it anymore.
"My turn," I said. "You're talking to someone who's known you since second grade. I know what you went through, your experiences. We grew up in the same neighborhood, attended the same schools, had the same teachers. Whatever the 'White Man' did to you, he did to me. Why am I achieving?
"Kids hated your arrogance. You didn't just beat your opponent, you taunted and ridiculed him while doing it. Remember in elementary school, when the kids voted for the starters for our kickball team? I was voted on. But you were not -- even though you were far and away the best player in the class.
"Do you remember what I did?" I asked. "After class, I told the teacher it was unfair that the best athlete in the class did not make the team. Could I give my position to Paul? She should have said "no," that Paul needed to learn that his personality could get in his way. Instead, the teacher said, 'OK, I'll give him your slot.' Looking back, this is exactly the kind of special accommodation you got time and time again.
"I know this -- 'The Man' had nothing to do with your lack of success. I was there. I had a front-row seat. You gave up on yourself. You became a victicrat. Rather than assume responsibility for your own choices, you found a scapegoat, an excuse, someone to blame.
"And for that purpose, the moustache-twirling 'White Man' will do nicely, won't he, Muhammad?"