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The Nash dilemma

A recent post on a Web site called Cosellout raises the point (not for the first time) that the Phoenix Suns' Steve Nash is praised too highly -- by media and fans -- because he is white, and that his skin color probably had a lot to do with the back-to-back MVPs he won in 2005 and 2006.

It's gotten a lot of play, including a mention on TrueHoop, the bible of basketball blogs, so I thought I'd get into it here, if only as a way to talk about the puzzling process of picking an MVP, an ongoing discussion in every season.

Since I hate it when someone summarizes something I wrote and gets it all wrong, let me be clear about a few things. The post (probably written by Charles "Modi" Modiano, the man behind Cosellout) is noninflammatory, cogently laid out and utterly respectful to Nash, giving him his due as a great guy and a great player. I encourage you to read it in its entirety.

Having said that, I think it's wrong on a couple points.

Modiano (I presume) gets into his argument by bringing up a recent Men's Journal cover article on Nash, in which the writer claims that Nash "saved" the NBA from itself, restoring teamwork and brainy ball for all that athletic stuff like dunking and one-on-one acrobatics. In other words, Nash made the NBA "whiter" and the republic is better for it.

I tend to agree with Cosellout on that point. An otherwise intelligent man (I hope he's at least reasonably intelligent since he's a doctor tasked with doing unspeakable things to my body from time to time) once said to me, "Nobody in that league you cover knows fundamentals except that -- what's his name? -- that white player in Phoenix." During a year I spent with Nash and the Suns writing a book (note: obligatory mention), I was urged any number of times to emphasize more strongly the idea that Nash and Company were introducing a different and unique element to the NBA, as if they had invented something never before seen.

Though many no doubt believe I was overly lavish in my praise of the Suns, and of Nash in particular, I resisted that notion. Nash is not the greatest point guard who ever lived, nor are the Suns the first team to be entertaining and fast-break-oriented.

But then Cosellout extrapolates his point about the MJ article to indict the MVP voters, suggesting that race was a factor among the "90+% white sports-voting body." As you can see by the photo above that I'm clearly in that 90+% (I have no idea if that figure is accurate, by the way), I understand the following point may lack weight. But here it is: By and large, we in the basketball press do not see color when we vote.

Understand that we do a lot of things wrong. Some of us make up trade rumors out of whole cloth. Some of us rely too heavily on self-serving missives from agents. Some of us give too much of a break to talkative sources and not enough to press-resistant ones. Some of us do not do well trying to understand young players, and the vast majority of young players are African-Americans.

But one of the few things we do well is vote. We do it extremely well. Cosellout suggests that MVP voting should be handed over to coaches, and I can tell you that coaches are no more objective than writers when it comes to voting. Coaches coach better (though sometimes we doubt that) and dress better (we don't doubt that), but they do not vote better.

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The writers voted Allen Iverson MVP in 2001, and I'd wager that 90% of us 90+ percenters didn't speak two words to A.I. the entire season, not to mention the obvious fact that Iverson does not exactly fit that white-mainstream template. We voted Tim Duncan back-to-back MVPs in '02 and '03, and most of us understand that ol' T.D. wouldn't pee on us if we were on fire. Larry Bird won three MVPs in a row in the mid-'80s, then never won again because Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were better, healthier and more deserving.

Cosellout suggests that the race issue didn't get nearly enough attention in '05, when Nash drubbed Shaquille O'Neal in the voting for his first MVP. It didn't get nearly enough attention for this reason: It's a ridiculous point. I can't remember an easier vote I've ever cast. Nash resurrected a dying team that was almost helpless in the seven games he missed. Shaq was great, but he was possibly not even the MVP on his own team, Dwyane Wade having come into his own by that time.

Nash's victory in '06 wasn't so clear-cut. I didn't vote for Nash -- I went for Chauncey Billups because a) I saw him torch Nash for 28 points in the second half of a late-season game in Detroit and b) I was following the Suns that season and P.J. Carlesimo, then a Spurs assistant, was already calling me "House Boy." But one of the prevailing story lines of that season was the lack of a consensus MVP. Nash, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Wade and Billups were all candidates, and, in the end, Nash won.

Why? Because he was white? Nonsense. Voters have their prejudices, and I think I can speak for the majority of them when I say the following are ours. We're prejudiced toward passers and team-oriented set-up guys. They don't come around all that often, but we embraced Nash the same way we embraced Magic.

Back in the '80s there was a lot of hue and cry about voting for Jordan because he was not that type of player, but, in the end, he was just too damn good not to vote MVP. We're prejudiced against guys who foment discontent on their own teams. That's why Kobe, clearly the best player in the league the last two years, will have a hard time winning an MVP. And we're prejudiced toward guys on winning teams.

Maybe we shouldn't be, but we are. Decades ago I remember having arguments with my father about Ernie Banks. He thought that the Cubs shortstop should be MVP every year, and I kept saying, "If he's so good, why are the Cubs so bad?"

It's not that simple, of course. But since MVP voting is so abstract to begin with -- best player? most important player? player you absolutely can't do without? -- we look for reasons to eliminate candidates, and strength of team is an obvious one. In both of Nash's victory years, the Suns were among the best teams in the league, three games better than any team in '05, year of the easy vote. The fact that Phoenix didn't go all the way either time is irrelevant -- MVP votes are taken before the regular season is over and that's just the way it goes. There is little doubt that Nowitzki beat out Nash last season partly because his Dallas Mavericks were the best team in the league, which they were not by the first week in May.

So, what about LeBron, whom Cosellout suggests has been overlooked in the MVP voting because of race? I don't buy it. I think voters looked at LeBron over the last two years and saw an incomplete player leading an incomplete team. He was, in my mind anyway, a not-quite MVP. Now, was he stupendous in the '07 postseason? He was. Did we perhaps miss something in his game that should've stamped him as a stronger MVP candidate? Perhaps. But it had nothing to do with him being black.

He turns 23 in December. Jordan was 25 when he won his first MVP, Bird was 27 and Magic was 28. Maybe we voters are "age-ists," but we are not racists, and my guess is that LeBron comes into this season as the clear MVP favorite. It's too glib to say that it's his to lose ... but it just might be.

Having said all that, I absolutely subscribe to the belief that, when much of mainstream America looks at the NBA, they do see race. They see -- all together now -- the cornrows and the tattoos and the baggy shorts, and they don't see the player. But the men and women who cover these athletes -- and I know the vast majority of them -- do not fall into that trap. Our imperfections make us blind to many things, but I happen to think that the color of a player's skin versus his worth as a player is an admirable part of that blindness.