Steve Nash, the South African-born and Canadian-raised point guard who joined the Phoenix Suns this year and led them from 29 wins to a league-high 62 wins, edged out Shaquille O'Neal for the National Basketball Association's Most Valuable Player Award. Dirk Nowitzki from Germany was a distant third. Nash is the first white guy to win the top individual honor since Larry Bird took the MVP award three times in a row from 1984-1986.
While only one data point, this reflects the general decline in African-American basketball performance over the last decade, best exemplified by the U.S. Olympic Team's poor performance in Athens last summer. Along the same lines, Kobe Bryant, who is probably the league's most talented player, was not even one of the 16 players who received any points in the MVP voting -- an apt reflection of his role in destroying the Lakers dynasty by forcing out Shaq.
As I wrote after the Athens Olympics:
Darryl Dawkins, the former NBA center who called himself "Chocolate Thunder," has become an insightful minor league coach. "Black basketball is much more individualistic," he told Charlie Rosen of FoxSports. "With so many other opportunities closed to young black kids, … if somebody makes you look bad with a shake-and-bake move, then you've got to come right back at him with something better, something more stylish… It's all about honor, pride, and establishing yourself as a man."
Dawkins, whose showboating Philadelphia 76ers lost to Bill Walton's Portland Trailblazers in an epic 1977 NBA Finals confrontation between the black and white games, now says, "The black game by itself is too chaotic and much too selfish… White culture places more of a premium on winning, and less on self-indulgent preening and chest-beating."
Arguing that the best teams combine both styles, Dawkins pointed out, "In basketball and in civilian life, freedom without structure winds up being chaotic and destructive."
Of course, white Americans remain underachievers at basketball, with foreign-born players providing most of the new spark in the game.
This raises a more general question about the state of African-American culture. On a variety of measures, blacks are doing better than in the early 1990s: crime is way down, illegitimacy is down, and abortion is down.
But, African-America's flagship, the NBA, is culturally stuck in the gangsta rap era that began about 1988 with NWA's "Straight Outta Compton" album, which spread the crack dealer's ethos nationwide. The typical NBA star in his prime today was an impressionable adolescent during the worst years of the crack era, about 1988-1994, and his selfish play and squabbling demeanor reflects the culture of that era. It will be interesting to see whether African-American players with better attitudes are coming along. Perhaps Lebron James, who finished sixth in the voting at the age of 20, is a hopeful harbinger.
Miami Herald sports columnist Dan Le Batard protested the award, writing:
How much of this has to do with race?
Or ''zero,'' as Miami Heat president Pat Riley said before the little white guy beat the big black guy for MVP?
I don't pretend to know these answers. There is no good way to do these measurements with science or math. And I, too, am tired of seeing racism thrown like a Molotov cocktail into discussions where racism doesn't exist.
But don't you have to ask these questions when confronted with something unprecedented?
Or do we just continue laughing and making noise at our playoff cocktail party while ignoring the pinkish elephant standing in the middle of the room in a Nash jersey?
No one who looks or plays like Steve Nash has ever been basketball's MVP. Ever. [Uh, how about Bob Cousy?] In the history of the award, a tiny, one-dimensional point guard who plays no defense and averages fewer than 16 points a game never has won it. But Nash just stole Shaquille O'Neal's trophy, even though O'Neal had much better numbers than Nash in just about every individual statistical measurement except assists, so it begs the question:
Is this as black and white as the boxscores that usually decide these things?
Nobody is suggesting voters made their selection while wearing Klan hoods. Today's racism rarely is that overt. It tends to be hidden better than that, as it is with the NBA's proposed age restriction, a rule that would ostensibly affect all creeds and colors but really affects only one...
The book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, explores how these measurements aren't made by a conscious part of our brain. Very few people would admit to themselves or others that, yes, as the puppets sing happily in the Broadway show Avenue Q, ''everyone's a little bit racist.'' We don't like what it says about us, or makes us feel. But Blink gives example after scientific example of, say, car dealers in Chicago giving a worse deal to black buyers even though A) white men and women were sent in to the same dealers dressed the same way and giving the same background information and, B) every car dealer in Chicago probably isn't racist.
The car salesmen weren't doing this with a conscious part of their brain any more than the MVP voters might have been. But if you need a tiebreaker (and Shaq and Nash could have certainly been co-MVPs), ''different'' and ''underdog'' might work for you as a rationalization better than, ``I'll take the white guy.''
Ah, Malcolm Gladwell, the guru of politically correct idiots everywhere.
It's not like Shaq had a great year statistically. He was 14th in scoring at 22.9, seventh in rebounding at 10.4, and sixth in blocked shots at 2.3. He was second in shooting percentage at 60.1%, but he shot a lousy 46% from the free throw line, one of the worst performances in the league. Everybody always says that Shaq is better than his numbers indicate, because he makes the other team change its strategy to stop him, but the point is that the other teams can come up with a strategy to stop him (such as Hack-a-Shack: foul him constantly and make him shoot free throws). Still, Shaq was a good team player this year who improved his new franchise a lot and deserved to finish second.
Nash led the league in assists by a mile at 11.5 (compared to the runner-up's 9.0), was one of only two guards in the league to make over 50% of his shots, and was in the top 10 in free throw shooting at 88.7%. The crucial fact, though, was that Nash's arrival suddenly made Phoenix the best offensive team the NBA has seen in years, and that's what the NBA has to get better at: team offense.