Sean Proctor for The New York Times
The War on Drugs, the New Jim Crow and the Story of Jonathan Hargett
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Most basketball fans have never heard of Jonathan Hargett. A basketball legend with immense potential, Hargett never fulfilled this promise. In a recent piece, The New York Times sought to explain this unfulfilled potential, chronicling his story as not just tragic but a cautionary tale.
Pete Thamel’s story is one that begins and ends with the basketball court. It replicates the popular narrative of the African American baller whose immense talents and endless potential were derailed by pathological behavior, a lack of discipline, and a system that did little to curtail these bad behaviors. In an effort to highlight this tragic story, Thamel imagines the tragedy through his greatness on the court, seemingly reducing Hargett’s story to one of talent left to rot in the fields.
Noting how Amar’e Stoudamire, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony have noted his greatness, Thamel uses their assessment to not only authenticate the wasted potential but to make clear the American Dream that could have been; yet, his life is more nightmare and according to “‘What Happened to Him?’” that isn’t because of a lack of talent or opportunity:
His signature move was his ability to freeze an opponent with a crossover dribble, then blow past him toward the basket, lobbing the ball off the backboard and catching it and dunking it with one hand. It became known simply as a Hargett.
“Especially when you’re talking about memories and things like that from high school basketball and A.A.U. basketball, he’s definitely one of the names that comes up,” Anthony said. “What happened to him?”
The answer is jarring and sadly predictable. Hargett, who turns 30 this weekend, is an inmate at the medium-security Indian Creek Correctional Center here, serving the final months of a nearly five-year sentence for drug possession with intent to sell.
Thamel’s answer is rife with simplicity and stereotypes. We are told over and over again that Hargett ended up in prison rather than the NBA simply because of his own demons and the failures of those around him to save him. Having lost his father, who died of pneumonia, Hargett grew up with his mom and 6 siblings.
Hargett’s mother, Nancy, worked multiple jobs to help support her six children. With his mother often working and no father figure around, Hargett began to form bad habits. Lancaster said that after Hargett’s ninth-grade year, he began showing up late to practice, and Lancaster noticed an entourage beginning to form around him.
In other words, the death of his father, the failures of his mother, and the influences of the street derailed Hargett’s greatness on the court. Lacking the necessary discipline, focus, and ability to see beyond the present, Hargett spent more time smoking marijuana than honing his craft. He eventually became addicted to marijuana, leading him on a path to prison rather than the NBA. For Thamel, Hargett’s own personal failures and demons are only part of the answer as to “why” or “what happened” to Hargett, as the other part of the story rests with the culture of sports.
A story about agents, handlers, and others who saw Hargett as a dollar sign, as an amazing talent who could line their pockets in the long run, Thamel (and others) treat Hargett as an expose about the pitfalls and dangers of contemporary sports. At its core, it really frames the narrative along these lines (in the words of Hargett himself): “The moral of this whole story is to help someone not to make the same mistakes.” In other words, the story that is offered here is one that imagines him as someone who made bad choices because of a lack of discipline and values (“culture of poverty”). Worse, his own failures are exacerbated by a system that never held him accountable. His fate wasn’t simply the result of his own failings but that of a system based in the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable young men like Hargett, whose talent insulates from the necessary discipline. These personal and institutional failings end with his incarceration.