If you, like me, love basketball and are hungry for smart, thoughtful, respectful and thoroughly entertaining commentary about the intersection of politics and basketball, you've got to tune in to the "Death at the Wing" Podcast, created by an extraordinary team, headed by host Adam McKay (The Big Short). The nine-part series takes on the Reagan Revolution, slamming it up against the tragic deaths of NBA players (Len Bias, who died before ever playing an NBA game, Terry Furlow, Drazen Petrovik, one of the greatest of all Euro NBAers, Ricky Berry, who committed suicide, and Benji Wilson, the Chicago high school phenom who was gunned down in the streets of Chicago). The series tackles mental health issues, social justice activism, the courage of such NBAers in the 80s as Craig Hodges who presented a handwritten letter to President George H.W. Bush during a Chicago Bulls visit to the White House, urging him to do something about racism and poverty, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a truly talented player who was blackballed by the league for actions around the playing of the National Anthem.
In a where-are-we-going-now wrap up, the next-to-last episode features the thoughts of Bomani Jones, a brilliant commentator on sports, pop culture and social topics, and the legendary Chuck D, of Public Enemy. From the Pod's website: "At the dawn of the 1980s, the world was moving faster, the media was growing bigger, and greed was finally good. For the NBA, it was a chance to finally step into the spotlight. But all that wealth and stardom came at a deep cost. This is the story of how basketball reflected a moment when Reagan’s America doubled down on some of its core values: selfishness, violence, and racism -- and the players who paid the price."
The following episode descriptors come directly from the “Death At The Wing” podsite (podcasts.apple.com/…):
1. The Invisible Revolution
In the late 70s, basketball was changing rapidly, as was the country. The ABA, a start-up basketball league showcased a faster style of play that captivates fans and introduced a 3-point line to professional basketball. But it was struggling financially. The NBA was just the opposite -- gaining a foothold but lacking that “cool” factor. After a merger, and the rise of satellite TV, everything came together -- Dr. J, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s highlights reached fans across the country. Cable and satellite TV would showcase a revolution in the rest of America as well -- and no politician was better equipped for the moment than the movie-star-turned-president, Ronald Reagan. A new era of superstardom and fast living was on the horizon -- one that would also leave many behind.
2. Terry Furlow and the Crash After The Party
Flint native Terry Furlow, a Michigan State legend, was a mentor to Magic Johnson, and was primed to make it in the new run-and-gun NBA. But Furlow struggled to adjust to the league, and bounced around from team to team, just at the same moment that a party culture was taking over the NBA and the country. Stories of rampant cocaine use plague the league, and what was once a fun party drug reveals a darker side. In the end, the league and the country decide to react not by supporting their own, but by framing drug use as a personal failing through three simple words: “Just Say No.”
3. Len Bias and the Crack Panic
A cocaine overdose claims the life of collegiate superstar and ‘can’t miss prospect’ Len Bias before he ever plays in the NBA for the Boston Celtics. This causes a moral and political panic. Weeks after his death, the Reagan administration, with overwhelming Democratic support, passes the "Len Bias Law," installing mandatory minimum sentences and a system that prioritizes incarceration over rehabilitation. As one writer put it, Len Bias became the “Archduke Ferdinand of the total War on Drugs.”
4. Benji Wilson and Chicago’s Flood of Guns
The ‘next Magic Johnson’ gets murdered after an argument outside a Chicago High School. Chicago residents had been scapegoated by politicians and cut off from social services for decades, leaving a vacuum for a flood of guns and violence in the 1980s. Benji’s death was a product of that neglect, but his legacy may provide a path to hope.
5. Ricky Berry and the Pressures of Fame
A shooting guard considered 'Reggie Miller with a handle' commits suicide, at a time when the country is ill-equipped to talk about mental health.
6. Drazen Petrovic and Basketball’s Cold War
Thanks to the 1992 “Dream Team,” basketball becomes a truly global brand. Overseas stars begin to make it in the United States, the land of opportunity, even as US foreign policy leads many parts of the world to fracture.
7. Hodges, Abdul-Rauf, and a Lost Protest Movement
As the 1980s turn to the 1990s, the Jordan-led NBA is big business. Amidst it all, two players try to use their platform to speak out about police violence, racism, and American imperialism. In turn, their careers are cut short.
8. Roundtable: Chuck D and Bomani Jones
Last episode, we left off with one big question: If the NBA has been able to learn from its mistakes and start to engage with the world in a more humane way, can America do the same? Adam sits down with legendary MC, activist, and basketball fan Chuck D; and Bomani Jones of ESPN, to discuss the intersection of sports, politics, culture and more.
9. Roundtable: Crafting the Series
Adam McKay and the “Death at the Wing” team reflect on the scope of the series, and discuss some of the other story lines of how the NBA and politics intersected in the 80s and 90s, from Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement to Ronald Reagan’s personal relationship with basketball. Hosted by Jody Avirgan, series editor and former host of “30 for 30 Podcasts.”