The Importance of Sports


It’s no secret that the Eastern Conference Finals have been fairly boring.  The Boston Celtics lead the Orlando Magic 2-0 and are returning home to Boston where Paul Pierce was quoted as saying, “Y’all hear me?  We’re coming home to close it out!”

The Western Conference Finals have been even less competitive as the Los Angeles Lakers opened up a can on the Phoenix Suns in both games 1 and 2.  With the Celtics and Lakers on an unwavering crash course straight to the NBA Finals, I must look to other topics in the NBA to keep myself entertained.  My quest has led to me to analyze a recent political statement made by Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, and furthermore, attempt to determine whether professional sports can play a role in other facets of American life beyond the limited sphere of entertainment.  My preliminary answer is that sports does play a critical role in almost every facet of America, but you have to keep reading to find out why (reading is achieving!)

Every year the NBA launches the “Noche Latina” program which is essentially a marketing gimmick to either appeal to or attract Latino fans.  NBA teams with a large Latino fan base switch out their standard jerseys for new ones with a unique and spicy Spanish flare.  The NBA apparently needs to invest in an English-to-Spanish Dictionary because the jerseys simply add a “los”, “el”, or “nueva” to the front of an English word.  (Why not actually translate the entire team name instead of just adding a Spanish word?)  But the NBA’s lack of bilingual ability is beside the point, what is more important is the fact that the Noche Latina program usually does not receive as much national recognition as it recently has.

Before game 2 of the Suns and Spurs Western Conference Semi-Final series, Suns owner Robert Sarver decided his team would wear its “Los Suns” jerseys.  The decision initially seemed harmless because the game was to be played on Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday.  When asked about his reasoning for wearing the “Los Suns” jerseys Sarver originally confirmed his innocent intentions, Our players and organization felt that wearing our ‘Los Suns’ jerseys on Cinco de Mayo was a way for our team and our organization to honor our Latino community and the diversity of our league, the State of Arizona, and our nation…” Pretty politically correct isn’t it?  The typical boring response owners give to the media.  If Sarver had shut up here it would not have been a national story, but his mouth kept going and his strong political statement concerning immigration became evident.

A current political hot-button issue is the new immigration law, Senate Bill 1070, passed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.  The bill makes it a misdemeanor for immigrants to be within the state of Arizona without proper documentation.  The original version of the bill required immigrants to carry registration documents with them at all times because police officers could request proof of status based on a “reasonable suspicion” that the individual was in the United States illegally.  However, Gov. Brewer recently modified the bill and police officers are now prohibited from requesting proof of status based on an individual’s race.  Instead, an individual must violate a municipal code before a police officer can request proof of status.

The controversial Arizona immigration law has received both praise and criticism both in the United States and abroad.  The debate and analysis of a new and controversial bill concerning immigration should be expected from sources such as newspapers, U.N. human rights experts, Fox News, or CNN.  When Glenn Beck diagramed the bill on a chalkboard, discussed U.S. History, and began crying, I was not surprised.  When Suns owner Robert Sarver made a strong political statement concerning the immigration bill, I was surprised.

In one brief statement Sarver used sports to impact politics, “The frustration with the federal government’s failure to deal with the issue of illegal immigration resulted in passage of a flawed state law. However intended, the result of passing this law is that our basic principles of equal rights and protection under the law are being called into question, and Arizona’s already struggling economy will suffer even further setbacks at a time when the state can ill-afford them.” In two sentences Sarver managed to bash the federal government, criticize the Arizona state government, and accuse the bill of violating basic principles of equal rights. One owner, one team, one jersey, one sport, and two sentences, brought national attention to a political issue.  The Western Conference Semi-finals became the platform for immigration debate.  For example, during game 2, Reverend Al Sharpton, wearing a “Los Suns” Steve Nash jersey, (shouldn’t he wear a Barbosa jersey?) led a march protesting the immigration bill that began at the Phoenix Suns stadium and ended at the Arizona capital.

American sports are a flexible interpretation of the constantly transitioning culture.  When our culture begins to change or shift, sports is there to initiate that change.    For example, our public school systems were not de-segregated until the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.  But sports remained ahead of the curve as Jackie Robinson debuted on the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  Stressed by the overwhelming pressure to win, owners will do whatever it takes to create a successful franchise.  That results in teams like Dan Haskin’s 1965-66 Texas Western Miners, the first “all-black” basketball team to reach the NCAA Finals.

Furthermore, sports give us a sense of peace and normality in the face of fear.  One of my most treasured sports memories occurred just days after the horrific tragedy of 9/11.  After the towers fell, Americans stood up, brushed off the dust, wiped away the tears, and sports took center-stage.  On September 21, 2001, the New York Mets played the Atlanta Braves in the first professional sporting event in New York City since 9/11.  With one man on and the Braves leading 2-1 in the bottom of the 8th, catcher Mike Piazza crushed a home run lifting all New Yorkers into ecstatic cheer.  For one brief moment, while Piazza slowly jogged around the bases, sports served as an escape and brought a little joy to those who were so deeply affected by 9/11.

In America, sports play an integral role in every facet of our lives.  The stadiums are buildings where relationships develop and life-long memories are formed.  America wasn’t ready for integration, but Jackie Robinson was.  America wasn’t ready for an “all-black” basketball team, but Dan Haskins was.  America was afraid and sad, but one swing of a bat brought a smile to everyone’s face.  Perhaps Latino’s in Arizona were uncertain about their future, but Sarver and the Suns let them know the hometown team cared.  I could not disagree more with the statement that sports are simply entertainment.  In my opinion, sports are one of the most vital parts of American culture.  As our culture transitions, sports carves away at the fear and animosity associated with change.  Sports are whatever we need them to be, and in many circumstances, we need more than entertainment.

Race and the NBA


Disclaimer:  This post deals with the topic of race within the NBA.  So before reading, please put your race card, whatever color it may be, back in your pocket, and attempt to objectively consider the analysis.

Let me begin by stating that I am an American Caucasian male who enjoys watching NBA basketball.  In addition, I am color-blind, both figuratively and literally (seriously it’s a problem, I really struggle with colors).  I’m born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas and I could care less if the Mavs win a championship with players who are white American, African American, Hispanic, Spanish, German, French, or anything.  I do not care.  But that being said, one would have to be completely blind to not notice the ever-widening gap between blacks and whites in the NBA.  More specifically, the large difference between the amount of white American born players and African American players currently in the NBA.  I don’t think this is a problem; I just find it interesting and am curious as to why.  Therefore, I’ll present you my tentative answers as to why so few white Americans play in the NBA.

In case you haven’t been watching the NBA recently, white American players are increasingly dwindling in numbers. In fact, the white American player has nearly transformed into the slow, bad at defense, 3-point shooter who shoots over 85% from the free throw line (i.e. J.J. Reddick, Jason Kapono, and Adam Morrison).  Or the option, the big, stiff, unathletic center or power forward who plays minimal minutes during the regular season and wears a suit while sitting on the bench for the post season (i.e. Brian Scalabrine).  Think about the 5 players you see on the floor during the 4th quarter of the playoffs this year.  Boston Celtics = Garnett, Rondo, Pierce, Perkins, and Allen.  Cleveland Cavaliers = James, Williams, Shaq, A. Jamison, and D. West.  Orlando Magic = Howard, Nelson, Carter, Lewis, and Pietrus or Barnes.  Trust me, I could keep going.  And the only white players you see in a “4th quarter 5” are Pau Gasol (from Spain), Dirk Nowitzki (from Germany), or Steve Nash (Canada).  The only white Americans with a chance are Kirk Hinrich or J.J. Reddick.

The best way to display discrepancy is to attempt to fill out rosters…except by race.  If the all-white American All Star team played against the all African American All Star Team or even the All International all stars, the white American is going to get their butts kicked.  Allow me to play this out.  (Spoiler alert!  The white American team is terrible…except for the coach).

White American Team:

PG: Kirk Hinrich

SG: J.J. Reddick

SF: Mike Dunleavy

PF: David Lee

C: Brook Lopez

Bench:

Chris Kaman, Kyle Korver, Mike Miller, Steve Blake, Robin Lopez, Chris Anderson, Troy Murphy, Tyler Hansbrough, Adam Morrison, Louis Amundson (he’s from CA, I thought he was French.  Go figure.), and Luke Ridnour.

Coach: Phil Jackson (even Phil can’t lead this team to a championship)

White International Team:

PG: Steve Nash

SG: Manu Ginobili

SF: Hedo Turkoglu

PF: Dirk Nowitzki

C: Pau Gasol

Bench:

Andrew Bogut, Mehmet Okur, Marc Gasol, Andrea Bargnani, Andrea Kirilenko, Omri Casspi, Rudy Fernandez, Marcin Gortat, Peja Stojakovic, Andris Biendrins

African American Team:

PG: Deron Williams

SG: Kobe Bryant

SF: LeBron James

PF: Chris Bosh

C: Dwight Howard

Bench:

Dwayne Wade, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and this list goes on and on.

To make my point even more clear here are combined stats for the starting 5 of each team if everyone hit their 2010 average for points, assists, and rebounds:

White American: Points = 68; Assists = 8; Rebounds = 27

White International: Points = 86; Assists = 26; Rebounds = 30

African American: Points = 118; Assists = 28; Rebounds = 39

So in a game where the best white American players went up against the best African American players, and everyone hit their 2010 average, White Americans would lose 118 to 68…not good.

The answer as to why there are so few white American NBA players is just above this sentence in those fictional rosters.  Aside from David Lee, all of the best NBA players are on the International and African American teams.  I mean seriously, the African American team is bringing Dwayne Wade, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony of the bench!  The White Americans are subbing in Kyle Korver and Chris “Birdman” Anderson.

The talent level is not even close between white American, International, and African American players.  Which brings me to my question, why aren’t there more talented white American NBA players?  I believe the answer lies within the difference between the International and American development of white players, and the NBA’s style of play.  NBA basketball is most entertaining when teams are scoring over 100 points.  With a shot-clock only giving teams 24 seconds to score, emphasis has been placed on athleticism, quickness, shot-blocking, and jumping.  The NBA has purposefully evolved it’s style of play to promote the 100 to 115 final score, as opposed to the 78-86 score, because that is what sells tickets, merchandise, and gains higher ratings.  This style of play based on athleticism is part of why white Americans can’t get any playing time in the NBA.  A major reason is because white Americans grow up practicing and training in a style that is difficult for them to compete in.  In junior highs and high schools across America, white American players are attempting to out jump and “out athletic” other players who are simply more talented.  After always getting their shot blocked in the paint, they decide to develop a 3-point shot and never develop footwork or practice on any of the fundamentals of the game (this results in players like Reddick, Kyle Korver, and Mike Miller).  On the other hand, the International style concentrates on fundamentals such as shooting technique and footwork (this results in players like Nowitzki, Gasol, Ginobili, and Nash).  I don’t believe that Manu Ginobili or Steve Nash are quicker or can jump higher than Kobe Bryant or Deron Williams, but both white International players consistently compete on the same level.  White American guards, like Kirk Hinrich or again J.J. Reddick, never develop the higher basketball IQ, footwork, or overall fundamental skills that International players have acquired.

I’m pretty sure I will never watch a white player dunk like Lebron, play defense like Kobe, or fly like Dwight Howard, and that is why white American players need to concentrate on developing fundamentals.  Look at the White American roster; most the players are either outside shooters or big stiffs in the middle.  The International players have the same tools to work with, but they have developed their game by concentrating on the fundamentals.

To further prove my point about the NBA’s style of play and its effect on white American players, compare the NBA to the NCAA.  While the NBA has adopted the athletic/quick style of play, the NCAA hasn’t quite caught on yet.  Take for example this year’s champion, Duke.  The Blue Devils won a championship starting 3 white American basketball players (Kyle Singler, Brian Zoubek, and Jon Scheyer).  And the team with all of the NBA bound African American talent, Kentucky, (Wall, Cousins, Patterson, and Bledsoe) couldn’t even make the final four.  The NCAA has a longer shot clock, the games are shorter, and are typically played in the half-court set.  Consequently, winning in the NCAA is not as dependent on overall athletic ability.  That is why a team of older white American players who rebound and shoot 3’s is able to win a championship, while in the NBA, that will never happen.  In summary, the difference is in the style of play.  And until the NBA distances itself from its current style that emphasizes athleticism, white Americans are going to continue to sit the bench unless they adopt the training style of International players.

I think there also might be an issue concerning the overall popularity of basketball among white Americans.  If you are 5’10 and white, chances are you aren’t going to make the high school basketball team.  So what do you do?  You lift weights and play football, sign up for baseball, or develop footwork and play soccer.  African Americans care about basketball, it’s a part of their culture.  That is why they dominate the game, it’s because they love it more, and quite frankly, they are simply better at it.

In the end, I don’t think we will ever see an NBA playoffs game where 5 white players are playing against 5 more white players, whether American or International, and I don’t think that is a bad thing.  While problems continue to exist, I think our country has evolved to look beyond the color of someone’s skin and appreciate athletic talent objectively.  A few months ago, ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” did a piece on the lack of white people in the NBA and suggested that the NBA needs white American players to succeed.  I disagree.  I know as a Mavericks fan, I’m going to cheer for the Mavs no matter who our best player is, and I think most fans would agree with me.  I don’t care if Dirk Nowitzki (although I do love Dirk), David Lee, or Kobe Bryant is holding the trophy at the end of the year, as long as the Mavericks have won a championship.