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All of the Silly Things From the ‘American History X’ Basketball Game

Revisiting Ed Norton’s improbable takeover of a pickup game, 20 years later

Ringer illustration

You know what I’ve always wondered about? In American History X—a 1998 movie about a neo-Nazi named Derek who gets sent to prison for three years and ends up deciding that it was a bad idea to be a neo-Nazi because, among other things, he gets attacked and raped by other neo-Nazis—there’s a scene where Derek and a few of his neo-Nazi friends play a game of basketball against a team of black players.

The way it happens: Derek is sitting in some bleachers at an outdoor court watching two teams play. One of the teams has a guy on it named Seth, and Seth is this very hefty, very aggressive, very basketball-confident neo-Nazi. Seth goes down into the post on one play, calls for the ball, gets it, then shouts, “This one’s for you, boy!” as he spins away from his defender—Lawrence, played by Antonio David Lyons—and fires up a shot. Lawrence jumps up, swats the shot away, then shouts back, “Who you calling ‘boy,’ motherfucker!?” at Seth. They get into an argument that starts with them yelling insults at each other and ends with the two agreeing to wager $100 on the outcome of the game. (They’re playing to 10. Seth’s team is losing 6-8.)

Seth, it turns out, doesn’t actually have the $100 that he bet, so he walks over to where Derek is sitting and asks him and the neo-Nazi group he’s with to give him the money. Derek chews him out a bit (both for betting money that he doesn’t have and also for betting at all, because he knows that Seth is shit at basketball), thinks on the situation for a second, and then says, “I’ll take care of this.” He stands up, removes his sweater so that everyone can see the giant swastika he has tattooed on his chest, then walks out onto the court and arranges a new deal.

Rather than the original $100, Derek proposes they play for something more valuable: territorial ownership of the basketball court. He says that he’ll come into the game and the score will stay the same and they’ll still play to 10, except he wants all the white guys on his team and all the black guys will move over to the other team. “If you win,” Derek says to Lawrence, “we’ll walk away. But if we win? No bitching, no fighting, right here in front of everybody you pack up your shit and get your black asses out of here. Eight to six, our ball.” Lawrence accepts the deal, and so the game begins.

But that’s where the thing I’ve always wondered about comes into play.

Because before Derek intervened, the two teams were already established, right? So that means there were already 10 people out on the court, right? And that means if Derek entered the game, then someone had to have exited the game, right? So who was it? Who left the court? Who heard the terms of the bet and was like, “Hey, guys. I’m gonna go ahead and sit this one out”? My best guess: the Mexican. This guy:

(Obviously, I don’t know that he is specifically Mexican, but he is clearly Latino. Also, there’s a chance that it was that guy in the tank top at the left of the screen between the two white guys. He also looks Latino. Also-also, there’s an overhead shot of the blacks vs. whites game as it begins, and it looks like both of the Mexicans are missing from it, which means they probably both had to sit down to make room for neo-Nazi players, which is very symbolic.)

There are a bunch of silly things like that from the blacks vs. whites game.

For example, Seth is wearing his neo-Nazi suspenders while he’s playing, meaning he either (a) always plays basketball in suspenders, which is weird in its own right; or (b) he was just hanging out around the court not expecting to play and then someone asked him to jump in on a game. I think it has to be the first option, mostly because he’s also wearing a shirt that has a jersey number on the back (it’s likely the 88 is a reference to the “Heil Hitler” thing that neo-Nazis love because they’re idiots). I think that’s proof enough that he showed up to the courts ready to play.

Another Seth thing that’s silly to think about is him being so basketball-confident that he believed he could carry his team to a victory when he agreed to the original $100 bet. His team was already losing (strike one), and also he’d just gotten his shot blocked into another zip code (strike two), and also they were playing a full-court game, meaning he was going to have to run up and down the court a minimum of three times, which seems unlikely (strike three). But none of that mattered to him. And that’s very wild to think about when you realize that this is how Seth shoots a basketball:

(Seth’s confidence is likely the sports actualization of the way that neo-Nazis believe themselves to be superior to all non-whites in all capacities, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.)

Another silly thing: Do you think any of the white guys who were out there playing before the blacks vs. whites game was arranged saw Derek with his swastika tattoo and heard his proposal and, same as the Mexicans, were like, “Oh, no thanks. Y’all got it. Y’all can play without me”? Like, was there a guy out there who was just trying to enjoy a game of basketball and then he nearly got drafted into a race war? There had to have been, right?

Another silly thing: Derek inbounding the ball at the start of a play from inside the 3-point line:

Inbounding the ball from inside the 3-point line during a pickup basketball game is only slightly less offensive to me than Derek’s swastika tattoo.

Another silly thing: I mentioned this when I wrote briefly about Derek in Basketball (and Other Things), but it’s very funny to me that prior to joining the game, Derek was mad because he thought one of the black players was being a showboat, and then as soon as Derek got in the game he started throwing behind-the-back no-look passes and pulling off And 1–style moves in transition.

Another silly thing: The neo-Nazis give up an alley-oop on their first defensive possession, which Derek immediately blames on Seth, who didn’t even bother to go down to that side of the court to play defense.

Another silly thing: Seth demanding that a player should’ve passed him the ball after said player had just scored a layup. It’s like that part in the basketball episode of The Office where Dwight buries a jumper and Michael gets mad that Dwight didn’t pass it to him, except instead of it being Michael Scott here, it’s Seth, a neo-Nazi.

Two more silly things: With the score 9-9 and the black team in possession of the ball, Lawrence, positioning himself down in the post, elbows Derek square in the teeth. Derek springs to his feet, declares it a cheap shot, then walks over to the neo-Nazi section of the bleachers to gather himself and clean the blood out of his mouth. His younger brother says that he should’ve called an offensive foul there, and Derek scoffs in response. “Not on game point, Danny,” he says, then he takes a drink out of a sports water bottle. His vile girlfriend urges him to call the foul in an extremely racist way and Derek reiterates his point, saying, “Honey, it’s game point.”

And so the two silly things here are: (1) I refuse to believe that neo-Nazis are forward-thinking enough to bring sports water bottles to a basketball court; and (2) I refuse to believe that a neo-Nazi would not call an offensive foul there. The whole existence of a neo-Nazi is centered on, philosophically speaking, calling offensive fouls on things. There’s no way Derek doesn’t make that call there.


A final silly thing: The Derek dunk is ridiculous, clearly, obviously, plainly, patently.

The whole scene is silly. Neo-Nazis are fucking dumb.