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Great White Hopes

By Matthew Yglesias

"Great White Hopes"

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I’m nearing the end of Jeffrey Lane’s Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball. One of his chapters is about Larry Bird, “The Last White Superstar”:

Regardless of what was real and what was imagined about the Celtics, the NBA happily pushed the same plotline for the team: the Celts were the guardians of old-school team basketball. In an NBA-produced segment summarizing the Celtics’ 1987 first-round playoff series with the Bulls, which aired during game 5 of the Celts’ second-round matchup with the Pistons, the NBA highlighted the (implied) racial difference between a legitimate team–the Celtics–and a one-man show–the Bulls. The narrator of the segment billed the series “a classic battle: the athlete against the team,” in which the athlete (Michael Jordan), through spectacular individual play, managed to leave his mark on “the fabled parquet floor” of the Boston Garden but failed to oust the hometown Celts. Ultimately, the “Celtic tradition … and … old Celtic magic” proved too much for one person to overcome, and “while the athlete got his record [scoring an unprecedented 63 points in a single playoff game], the team got its win.”

This, I think, is mostly true. On the other hand, the timing for proclaiming Bird the “last” white superstar seems pretty bad as we actually have several white stars nowadays. The proviso one has to make is that Bird is the last white American superstar, and it’s certainly true that considerations of nationality put Bird in a different context than, say, Dirk Nowitzki, who’s pretty aggressively German. Steve Nash, however, while not in fact an American still doesn’t have any “foreign” qualities that would make him difficult for your typical white American fan to identify with. Nevertheless, I think you did see a palpable yearning for more white stars evident in people’s willingness to suspend disbelief and convince themselves that Adam Morrison was going to be an NBA star and J.J. Reddick was worth a lottery pick.

Nash arguably plays with too much flash to be the vindication of white hoop dreams. David Lee, fresh from dominating the Rookie Challenge and conveniently located in the media supercapital of New York City seems well-positioned. He’s a “hard-working” player who does the “little things” — he’s even undersized at the four. It’s somewhat striking that, as best I can tell, he’s actually a somewhat underrated player.

UPDATE: It’s also worth noting in this context that the black Tracy McGrady is starting in the All-Star Game over Nash thanks to the voting strength of the Houston Rockets’ large following among Chinese fans.

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