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By electing Steve Nash the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, the pro basketball media made the day of everyone who plays hoops on Friday and protests the US war machine on Saturday.
First and foremost, Steve Nash deserved this award. He averaged a league leading 11.5 assists a game and shot 50% but that doesn’t even begin to explain his value to the Phoenix Suns. Comprehending Nash’s season with stats alone is like judging the merit of a deep-dish sausage pizza by its calorie content: it’s just more complicated than that. Beyond statistics, the six-foot tall Canadian point guard led the Suns to one of the great turnarounds in NBA history. After signing as a free agent from the Dallas Mavericks, Nash grabbed the Suns and yanked them from a terrible 29 wins to an NBA-leading 62. He took a horrible squad and made it a great one with an Energizer Bunny style of play that led Phoenix to score more points than any NBA team in a decade: over 110 points per game. Nash’s "most valuability" was perhaps most clearly demonstrated during one five game stretch when Nash was injured. Without him, the Suns limped through five straight losses scoring just 97 points per contest. NASH’S play seems inspired by his first athletic love, soccer, and not coincidentally, Nash showed the world that basketball could also be "the beautiful game."
Nash barely won the MVP, edging out Miami Heat center Shaquille O’Neal in a squeaker. His victory shocked some observers because it’s Shaq who fits in with the NBA’s marketing strategy of pushing forward individual superstars at the expense of team play. Nash, on the other hand, invited all of his Phoenix Suns teammates up to the podium with him when he accepted the MVP.
O’Neal’s loss has Miami columnists crying foul, but in fairness, the vote shouldn’t even have been so close. O’Neal has had, statistically, the worst season of his career, averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds while shooting a harrowing career low 47% from the free throw line. Of course, AS with Nash, you don’t measure Shaq’s value by stats alone. He turned the Heat from a middling playoff team INTO a championship contender, but was arguably not even the Most Valuable Player on his own team, that honor going to superstar guard Dwyane Wade.
Despite this, Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard contended Saturday that more insidious forces may have cost Shaq the award. Racism, argued Le Batard, may have played a decisive role in the vote. Le Batard wrote that to discount this would be "to ignore the pinkish elephant standing in the middle of the room in a Nash jersey. "Le Batard goes on to write, "No one who looks or plays like Steve Nash has ever been basketball’s MVP. Even so, it begs the question: Is this as black and white as the boxscores that usually decide these things?"
Any regular reader of this column knows that I leap – some have said too fast – swinging wildly whenever racism rears its ugly head in sports. But in this case, Le Batard’s analysis is not only wrong, it is shallow and pedestrian. Le Batard contradicts himself by making the point that, "No one who looks or plays like Steve Nash has ever been basketball’s MVP." If basketball writers were suckers for plucky Caucasians with gaudy assist numbers, John Stockton would have won TEN MVPs instead of zero. This is not just a question of color. Not Isiah Thomas, Mark Price, Kevin Johnson, Tim Hardaway, or Jason Kidd has ever won an MVP. It’s always been the guy who finishes the break, not who orchestrates it, that gets the glory. The short guard who makes everyone else look good, gets the fuzzy end of the lollypop.
It is great that the MVP voters have taken a step toward OVERCOMING their prejudice against the little guys who set the table.
But that’s not all the writers overcame with this vote. In electing Nash, they have thrown – whether intentionally or not – both spotlight and glory on someone who was an early and vocal resistor to the US occupation of Iraq.
Nash was the first high profile athlete to come out against Dick Cheney’s "war of a generation" showing up at the 2003 All-Star game in 2003 wearing a T-shirt that read, "Shoot baskets not people." When questioned on his incendiary attire, Nash said, "I think that war is wrong in 99.9 percent of all cases. I think [Operation Iraqi Freedom] has much more to do with oil or some sort of distraction, because I don’t feel as though we should be worrying about Iraq." He also showed far more prescience than Bush, Cheney, Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice saying, "I think that Saddam Hussein is a crazy dictator but I don’t think he’s threatening us at this point in time. We haven’t found any nuclear weapons — no matter what anyone says — and that process is still under way. Until that’s finished and decided I don’t think that war is acceptable." He then reiterated his position that, "Unfortunately, this is more about oil than it is about nuclear weapons."
Nash also took issue with the pro-war media. Two years before the New York Times and The Washington Post were forced to issue apologies for their slavish, slothful pro-war coverage, Nash said, "I think a lot of what we hear in the news is misleading and flat-out false, so I think it’s important for us to THINK deeper and find out what is really going on." He didn’t backpedal from this stance despite criticism from his boss at the time, Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Spurs center David Robinson who said, ""If it’s an embarrassment to [Nash] maybe [he] should be in a different country." Nash also was profiled in one mainstream paper earlier this season where he casually mentioned that the last book he read was The Communist Manifesto.
In a country where much of the media, and sports media, have been in a race to the right, Shaquille O’Neal would have been a more appealing choice. Shaq’s main dream after basketball is to become a cop. Already he has completed enough training to carry firearms and go on busts with local police. The Orange County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Department in Orlando has even made O’Neal an honorary deputy. As OC spokesman Jim Solomons said, "He would definitely make an imposing officer, I’d love to see Shaq be the first through the door on a drug warrant."
While news reports on O’Neal’s ambitions are filled with cheeky references to his custom-fitted uniform and "size 22EEE boots," it’s not a laughing matter to people on the other end of those shoes. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Shaq was accused of excessive force, specifically holding a suspect’s head in a toilet and punching him repeatedly. This led to an internal investigation.
It’s possible that racism played a role for some voters in Nash’s selection. But politics also plays a factor. The peace activist beat the cop. For the basketball media to honor a serious anti-war voice like Nash– and to have that player lead a style of play so invigorating is cause for celebration.
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" will be in stores in June 2005. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.