Monday, June 16, 2008

"EURO" is the new "BLACK" redux

January, 2001: George W. Bush is sworn into office, promising the return of American isolationism. He also reminds the world that ignorance and specifically ignorance of geography and the lives of non-Americans is highly valued in the U.S. of A. American basketball fans, still clinging to the dominance of the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics, mimic the attitude. The NBA finals champions are referred to as the "World Champs."

Meanwhile, the defensive tactics developed by the Bad-Boy Pistons and the Riley Knicks/Heat teams of the 1990's have been widely adopted and resulted in the (temporary) end of motion in the American half-court offense. With teams unable to make cuts or dives without being grabbed or shoved, a strategy of basketball isolationism, starring "Next-Jordan" scoring guards, arises. The trend towards isolationism is pushed along also by the Jordan effect on the amateur leagues that feed the NBA, as they, under the grips of the shoe companies, have gotten into the business of developing and nurturing scoring superstars.

In this era of isolationism (in both basketball and the country), Allen Iverson becomes an effective weapon -- quick and skilled enough to create a shot without the help of a screen, small enough that contact that might be ignorable for larger players is called a foul when committed against AI.

Summer, 2001: Allen Iverson and his cornrows vs. the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Iverson scores 35.6 points per game in a losing effort. Despite the loss, the series leaves us with the lasting image of a dominant Iverson, all swagger and sneer, stepping over Tyronn Lue en route to handing the Lakers their only loss of the postseason. AI comes to represent something -- an uprising, a futile but necessary struggle against empire. He was UNIX to L.A.'s Microsoft, an F-U to Bush's stolen America, an alternative to Michael Jordan's strategy of appeasement. White suburban America is aghast, longing for the days of West and Cousy and short shorts.

Fall, 2001: Planes fly into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Brown people everywhere hope that it was the act of antoher McVeigh white supremacist. Flying While Brown (FWB) joins Driving While Black (DWB) and Checkpoint-crossing While Palestinian (CWP) in the "[Traveling] While [Color]" section of international crime. Congress passes the PATRIOT Act.

Spring, 2002: AI gives the famous "practice" speech. AI vs. Larry Brown. Black vs. White, flashy crossover vs. right-way hustle. The moment is a reincarnation of Sprewell vs. Carlisimo, or OJ vs. the LAPD. The geography of feelings regarding the practice speech line up perfectly with Karl Rove's red state-blue state monster.

At this point, the Euro vs. Black American dichotomy is still characterized as "Skilled" vs. "Athletic/Raw", "Polished" vs. "Thug", etc. But all of this soon changes --

Spring, 2003: U.S. Invasion of Iraq. The escalation of xenophobia and isolationism at home. An attempt by congress to officially change the name of "French Fries" to "Freedom Fries." A hostile American basketball fanbase watches skeptically as a small Frenchman named Tony Parker plays the point for the NBA Champion Spurs. Despite his success, American fans find superficial reasons to hate him while secretly longing for the more innocent days of Iverson -- at least he didn't speak French.

Meanwhile, the era of isolationism in basketball enters its "last throes":

1) The NBA Draft is nearing the peak of the "Era of Potential," (a 10 year period officially beginning with the drafting of Kevin Garnett in 1996 and ending with the institution of the 1-year rule after 2006) which sees the rise of not only unknown high school stars, but also of unknown foreign players. For Euros, the Era peaks with the drafting of Darko Milicic in the summer of 2004 (the arrival of Andrea Bargnani and Yi Jianlian can be seen as the very beginning of the next generation of foreign players and the logical forebears of Tiago Splitter, Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio, et al -- they compete in the draft not against high-schoolers but against all-American NCAA Final Four stars, and with the rise of European and Chinese leagues along with the weak dollar and strong Euro, they, for the first time, actually have to consider the financial option of not coming to the NBA at all).

2) In what is interpreted as the failure of Black American Individualism against White European team fundamentalism, the U.S. is repeatedly humiliated in international basketball competitions. Even anti-war Americans see this as the success of UN-style cooperationism over whatever you call Bush's foreign policy.

3) Bryan Colangelo (who later goes on to GM the mostly European Raptors (embraced by Jose Calderon, rejected by Steve Francis) -- the only NBA team located outside of the USA), GM of the Phoenix Suns, having just acquired a Canadian point guard named Steve Nash, pushes for rule changes allowing for greater freedom of movement on the perimeter. The eventual effect of these rule changes is to reintroduce motion to the NBA, which radically reduces the need for the isolation offense.

The sudden influx of European (and Chinese and South American) players, along with the rule changes which favor skilled finesse players over Oakley-style enforcers, arrives against a backdrop of the worsening situation in Iraq and domestic immigration raids, especially in California. Armed militias patrol the Mexican border and the newly named ICE conducts workplace raids throughout California while foreign students and recent graduates are denied student and working Visas and are forced to leave the country. American sit-coms are once again dominated by hokey family-unit comedy, characterized by Everybody Loves Raymond. Americans become skeptical of foreign accents, moving screens, and smooth jumpshots.

As there was a code for talking about black players (Thug, Selfish, Doesn't know the fundamentals, NOT LARRY BIRD), there arose a new code to discuss the Euro. "Flopper" "Soft" "No Defense" and so forth. It doesn't matter that Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson, and Tony Parker all fall down a lot, because the first two are tough and the latter is a flopper. Etc.

The Euro vs. Black American dichotomy is now expressed as "Soft" vs. "Tough," the old manichean logic inverted.

Hence: "Soft" is the new "Thug"

And Lakers-Celtics is the ideal context to explore our changing relationship to xenophobia and racism. The Ainge-Bird(Hick)-McHale Celtics of the 80's, known for being the Jazz before the Jazz were the Jazz (ie mostly white team) and for their racist fanbase who occasionally took dumps in Bill Russell's bed (blahblah they were the first team to have black players and black coaches blahblah) have given way to an almost all-black team led by a black head coach and driven by a Pan-Africanist ideology, while Magic and Kareem's Showtime Lakers have given way to a pale-looking crew including Walton, Farmar (.5 white), Vujacic, Gasol, Radmanovic, Mihm, et al. But the real story isn't the black/white flipflop, it's the continuation of old binaries in new containers. The Celtics, 100% American-born, are discussed using the language of muscle and toughness. The Lakers, and particularly Gasol/Vujacic/Radmanovic, are finesse and softness. Even Kobe was raised overseas.

Meanwhile, Gasol scores in the paint and KG scores with 20-foot jumpers, but Gasol suffers from a lack of KG's toughness. Sasha's pity-party after he and Gasol were burned by Ray Allen in Game 4 shouldn't have been any more embarrassing than Paul Pierce's short wheelchair ride in Game 1, but the latter was treated as a triumph.

These dichotomies aren't a reflection of game, they're a reflection of us.

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