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In search of colorblind NBA commentators

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NBA analysts should follow Sean Elliott's lead and desegregate player comparisons

During the November 12 edition of the ESPN show "Fast Break," NBA analyst Sean Elliott did something that basketball experts rarely do: He compared a white player to a black player. Elliott dared to say that Dallas's Eduardo Najera and San Antonio's Malik Rose are so alike in their abilities and style of play that, were it not for skin color, he'd be hard-pressed to tell the relentless hustlers apart.

Elliott is right about Najera and Rose, and it speaks well of him that he's open to the possibility that forwards of different hues could have near-identical games and tools. But an insightful essay by Daniel Greenstone demonstrates that, in the NBA universe, open-minded Elliott is the exception to the close-minded rule.

In "White Men Can't Pass" (available online at www.poppolitics.com/articles/2002-04-05-basketballandrace.shtml), Greenstone documents and decries this annoying habit of scouts, coaches, general managers and commentators: keeping player comparisons within the color lines. "This phenomenon," he writes, "is most obvious in the annual evaluation of college players that occurs prior to the NBA draft in June. With remarkable consistency, draft analysts compare white prospects only to other white players and black prospects only to other black players."

Greenstone, who teaches American history at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Illinois, shows that this occurs even for players who don't fit into the rooted-in-racism "style" categories into which white players (methodical, fundamental, heady) and black players (athletic, instinctive, expressive) are squeezed. He cites Trajan Langdon, a black man with the game of the stereotypical white shooting guard (deadly accurate when open, but lacking the quickness, elusiveness and jumping ability to score on his own), who coming out of college was compared not to white pros with similar attributes (e.g., Steve Kerr or Eric Piatkowski) but to Dell Curry, who is black. The aging Curry, having lost the semi-elusiveness of his youth, was an apt choice, but why the instinctive reach for matching pigment?

Keith Van Horn is a slender white player who combines the leaping ability and quick first step of the black stereotype with the lateral slowness and deadly outside shot of the white stereotype. When he worked out for the Utah Jazz before the 1997 NBA draft, Greenstone reports that "Jazz officials named three players who they thought he resembled: Tom Gugliotta, Detlef Schrempf and Toni Kukoc, all of whom are white."

The Jazz brass must have been blinded by the white. In my view, only Kukoc - a smooth, unmuscled finesse player who lacked Van Horn's impressive hops but was a far superior passer - was even close to being a reasonable comparison. Before age caught up with Schrempf and injuries with Gugliotta, both were superior all-around athletes with larger, chiseled frames. A far better comparison would have been Eddie Johnson, who, like Van Horn, was a slender, shoot-first forward with a sweet stroke, unlimited range and the inability to guard his own shadow. But Johnson is black, and his name never came up.

Closely related to the practice of intra-color comparing is the inability of many basketball people to give black stars credit for their smarts and dedication, while at the same time downplaying the athleticism of white stars and chalking up their achievements to brains and hard work. This tendency is not as prevalent today as in the 1980s, when Isiah Thomas erupted one afternoon after hearing, for the thousandth time, how Larry Bird had supposedly outwitted opponents who ran faster and jumped higher than the hick from French Lick.

Few commentators in the Eighties seemed to notice that Bird was the most coordinated 6-10 guy - regardless of race - the world had ever seen. Those who did notice acted as if coordination, agility, ambidexterity, reflexes and touch were not dimensions of athleticism. Darryl Dawkins' impressive hops led to him being mislabeled a "great athlete," but the truth is he would have been better off as an athlete and a hoopster had he been "saddled" with Bird's physical gifts. To be sure, Bird developed his natural abilities to a far greater degree than slacker Dawkins developed his. But when all the dimensions of athleticism are taken into account, it's obvious that Bird had far more to work with than the leaper from Lovetron.

These days, commentators are more likely to acknowledge the smarts and devotion to craft of black stars (particularly those named Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan), but many still can't recognize a great white athlete when they see one.

Consider John Stockton, a 40-year-old white man who holds his own at the most athletically challenging position in basketball: point guard. Before Stockton, there had never been an above average playmaker at 37, let alone 40. To hear the commentariat tell it, Stockton's secrets are off-the-charts hoop smarts and craftiness. But only by trying real hard can one fail to notice his (barely eroding) gifts: huge, strong, lightning-quick hands; impressive end-to-end speed (back in the day no one was faster); a long, quick first step; effortless jumpshot elevation; great reflexes and coordination. Granted, his diminished lateral quickness now makes him an easy mark for primetime penetrators, but as a help defender he's still a steal-happy whirling dervish. At 40!

By all means, let's salute Stockton's smarts and unsurpassed work ethic. But let's also acknowledge that, as an athlete, he's one in a billion.

For an immortal such as Stockton, it's hard to find anyone of any hue to compare him to. But NBA mortals are another story. In support of the efforts of Greenstone and Elliott to tear down the color-coding wall, I offer three comparisons of current players - one black, one white - who to my eyes look an awful lot alike. Readers, put your thinking cap on and come up with your own cross-color comparisons. They're out there, and by going public with these matched sets we can show basketball people the light and make our world a better, less pigeonholed place.

- Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce. No player more closely resembles Pierce in style, physique and results than the gent from Germany. Not Kobe Bryant, not Tracy McGrady, not even Tractor Traylor. Granted, Nowitzki is taller and Pierce is quicker, particularly on defense. (Every 7-footer comes up short in the lateral-quickness category.) But that is where the differences end. Both are long, lean, graceful and super-coordinated. They've got the same great hands, the same sweet stroke and the same loping gait. Each has a great first step, loves to drive and can finish with either hand. Each lives at the line and makes his free throws. Each drains 40 percent of his treys, scores from mid-range and can post up. If it weren't for Nowitzki's blond locks, I'd swear they were separated at birth.

- George Lynch and Matt Harpring. Although Harpring is a few years younger, this comparison should be an obvious one, given that Harpring took Lynch's old job in Philly when Lynch left for Charlotte in 2001. Harpring got to shoot a bit more in Philly than Lynch, but otherwise pretty much duplicated Lynch's 2000-01 numbers. These "small" forwards are tenacious, bruising defenders and excellent rebounders. Each has the same outside-linebacker physique, and good speed, quickness and jumping ability. Neither entered the league with a dependable outside shot, but both have worked hard to become respectable shooters from the floor and the stripe. They say good things come in threes, and the aforementioned Najera, the first man of Mexican heritage to play in the NBA, need only improve his ballhandling a bit to become a barrel-chested chip off the Lynch-Harpring block.

- Andrei Kirilenko and a very young Scottie Pippen. Like the young Pippen, Kirilenko is long, lean and quick. He's everywhere on defense, guarding everybody. If he's not swatting shots, he's making steals. (He gets the edge as a swatter, Pippen as a thief.) Like the young Pippen, Kirilenko has an undeveloped offensive game. His jumpshot comes and goes, but he accumulates hustle points in bunches on half-court cuts to the hoop, put-backs, fastbreaks and breakaways. If he follows Pippen's footsteps by honing his stroke and learning to create shots for himself and his teammates, watch out. Kirilenko, too, may become an all-time great.

Come to think of it, at this developmental stage Kirilenko is even more reminiscent of Bobby Jones. No, not the 1930s golfing great who kept blacks off the Augusta National course and out of the Masters tournament, but the long-stridin', high-flyin' brother who played in Denver with "Skywalker" David Thompson and in Philly with Dr. J.

Jones was black, wasn't he?

Dennis Hans is an aging lefty playmaker whose snakey skills would draw comparisons to Tiny Archibald and Kenny Anderson if we lived in a colorblind world. His essays on basketball - including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting - have appeared in Dime and online at the Sporting News, Slate, InsideHoops.com, and The Black World Today (tbwt.com). His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu


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