The Give and Go
By Charlie Zegers and Chris Liss
RotoWire Staff Writers
Subject: Give and Go
Date: April 1, 2008 9:50 AM PDT
Forgive me for confronting you with deeper-than-usual thoughts this week, Chris... but for a variety of reasons, I've been thinking about the effect of race on how we think about/talk about/write about hoops.
Maybe it's because Barack Obama's campaign has made race such a part of the national discusion for the last few weeks -- in both good ways and bad.
Or maybe it's because of the analysis of LeBron's "King Kong" post on the cover of Vogue.
But mostly, I think, it's the fault of Steve Nash. And Tyler Hansbrough.
Why Nash? Partially, the MVP discussion. It's sort of hard not to notice that the last three NBA MVPs (Nash twice, Dirk Nowitzki) have been white in a league where the overwhelming majority of players are African-American... it's sort of hard not to suspect that their race played a role -- even a tiny, unconscious one -- in the minds of the overwhelmingly Caucasian-American MVP voters.
(Though I guess it's worth noting that neither Nash or Nowitzki are American. I guess race trumps patriotism.)
Check out some of the stories you read about white NBA players. See how often guys like David Lee or Kyle Korver are referred to as "fan favorites." Is that a coincidence? Is Lee popular because he's one of the few members of the New York Knicks who seems to care about what's going on with that team? Or does the media -- and I'm including myself in that group -- portray him as such because he looks like us, and Nate Robinson doesn't?
Why Hansbrough? Seems to me he's in the unique position of having his racial background be a benefit and a detriment in the media -- simultaneously. On the plus side, he's become one of the "golden boys" of college basketball this year. Now, you can easily argue, as Gene Wojciechowski did on ESPN.com, that Hansbrough is appreciated because he's the best player on the best team -- and that last year, all the adulation went to Greg Oden and Kevin Durant and Joakim Noah.
Maybe that's true. But I can't help thinking that he's a little bit bigger of a story because he's a big white kid from the South.
I also can't help thinking that some of the analysis of his NBA prospects -- which seem to put him in the late first-round at best -- is also based on his race, and the fact that several other over-hyped white kids coming out of college (Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick, most recently) have been unqualified busts.
This too deep a discussion for a Tuesday morning? Or too touchy a subject for two white guys to address? Would you rather talk about the Rockets' cold streak or the Sixers' hot streak or whether or not the Mavs will stay in the playoffs?
The floor is yours...
Subject: Re: Give and Go
Date: April 1, 2008 3:11 PM PDT
I think this needs to be addressed because it's getting pretty scary out there. You've got a black man poised to be the next US president, another one dominating golf and as recently as 2007 we had two black coaches in the Super Bowl. And let's not even mention how Floyd Mayweather took Rickey Hatton to school. That was embarrassing.
But seriously, I like Obama because I think he has upside that McCain and Clinton lack. I also trust him instinctively, and for me that matters a lot more than the minute differences in his and Clinton's health care proposals. And I'm not going to lie, I also like the fact that he's black (not only for practical reasons - he might have more credibility among the brown people that we're at odds with), but also - I'll admit it - because I like an underdog.
But when it comes to the NBA, I usually like the white guys for the same reason. They're the underdog in that scenario, and it's cool to see them do well. Am I more partial to them because I'm white? Maybe - I've played ball with plenty of black guys who gave me attitude when I was on the court, assuming I didn't have much game because of the way I look, and in some ways, I identify with Nash or John Stockton, thinking - see, look at that white boy play - think again before you dismiss me.
But the white guys aren't the only underdogs I like - Allen Iverson has long been one of my favorite NBA players because of his size. He weighs less than I do, but he's got four NBA scoring titles and is still playing great ball in his 30s. And I like him because he's a survivor - how many players survive the "street punk" stereotype when they break into the league and go on to become Hall of Famers? Iverson took a lot of heat, and instead of going the Pac Man Jones route, got his act together and became one of the most likable players in the league.
When it comes to the media, I do think they give undue attention to white players in basketball but I think that's because the mostly white audience also wants to identify with one of their own in a sport that's dominated by blacks. You can see the extreme version of this in the Japanese media - the way they go nuts for their major leaguers, or in China's obsession with Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian. They want to see their guys succeed - it gives them a sense of hope.
Now that may seem perverse in the case of white basketball players since white people have plenty of reason for hope in other sports and aspects of society, but I think the same thing is in operation there - white people want to see a white heavyweight champ and white NBA stars. And the media caters to that and hypes up white players to generate interest in its product. Did Nash or Nowitzki benefit from that in terms of the MVP voting? You could argue that, but the Mavs won the most games last year, and Dirk was their star. And Nash's Suns were big winners, too, and Nash was not unworthy. So I don't think there's a great case there.
As for the Vogue cover, well, that's about sex. And ferocity and appetite are linked to sexuality, so you don't want to be too literal about how you view that. Or maybe you want to be more literal. Either way, you can knock it as heavy-handed and politically unseemly, but when you're talking about a fashion/art magazine, I'd have pretty loose standards.
The odd thing about Hansbrough, to me, is that he looks like he's 11 years old. I always thought the way Jim Nantz and Billy Packer gushed about all those college boys was a little creepy. But that's a subject far more taboo than race...
Subject: Give and Go
Date: April 1, 2008 5:10 PM PDT
The "players you identify with" is an interesting angle to me... possibly because my favorite player was always Charles Oakley.
I loved watching guys who were so talented, like Magic and Bird, or freakishly athletic like Clyde Drexler, or immense like Ewing... but I knew I'd never be one of those guys. Even in rec league games I was a step slow, with no handle and no left -- I had to out-work people. And who worked harder than Oak?
It's probably also the reason that I like Renaldo Balkman -- especially after the initial reception he got when drafted. I had actually seen him play in college, and I liked the pick -- though I would have preferred Marcus Williams there and Balkman later. And it's probably the reason Nate Robinson is so popular with Knick fans... "Hey, I'm taller than that guy."
I guess I might have selected a big, slow white guy as my basketball role model... but the NBA isn't exactly heavy on big, slow white guys. I guess I could have modeled myself after Bill Laimbeer... but it was much cooler to hate the Pistons at the time. (And the Celtics, which ruled out McHale.)
As for Hansbrough... maybe he won't be a great NBA player... but it seems unfair to me that that keeps getting brought up in discussions of things like the Wooden Award. Since when is NBA potential a prerequisite for being a great college player? I can name dozens of excellent collegians off the top of my head -- from Redick and Morrison to Mateen Cleaves and Tyus Edney... even back to one of my all-time heroes, Walter Berry -- who didn't amount to anything at the NBA level.
So what if Michael Beasley will be a better pro? That shouldn't take anything away from Hansbrough's accomplishments this season.
Subject: Re: Give and Go
Date: April 1, 2008 10:24 PM PT
Well, I wish I could shoot or pass the way Nash does. My actual game is (was) more like Tony Parker's (just imagine the Tony Parker-type in a game of moderate skill - I could beat people off the dribble and drive to the hole). So I don't identify with Nash on that account, but I do like to see him get respect from the NBA's mostly black players. It's somehow validating to me even though it's ridiculous when you really think about it.
I like Hansbrough fine - he works hard, and he's a good player. And I think he might actually be a decent pro because of his energy level - even if he is white.
Article first appeared on 4/1/08