Friday, February 6, 2009

100% of Nothing is Everything

Hamed Haddadi might be the worst player in the NBA, and he gives me incredible hope for basketball. I should back up.

I’ve often found it easy to forget that the world is rapidly shrinking. With a shrinking planet comes an increased tension between parts of the planet. As planets get smaller, potential border conflicts are escalated, and non-bordering nations become far more capable of border-like conflicts.

It’s well known in world history that the softening of tensions between America and China in the 1970s stemmed in large part on the actions of, of all things, two champion ping pong players who decided, amongst themselves, to stop acting like assholes whose countries hated each other and to start acting like people. On a cosmic scale, that action is essentially meaningless, but within the confines of international politics on this island, Earth, it was a catalyst for the path that lead to two world leaders meeting for the first time in decades.

For all the problems I have with David Stern, and there are a great many, and for all the things he does that make me believe him to be largely a buffoon, and there are a great many, one thing I’ve always appreciated and admired about the man was his foresight regarding the expansion of the game to a global level. While some really goddamn annoying Canadians might try to argue that their country invented basketball, which conveniently ignores the fact that the Canadian who invented the game did so at a YMCA in Massachusetts, no one could dispute with any credibility that the game of basketball is, at least in terms of the sports mythology, an American sport. The game is historically, mythologically described through the lens of the great American basketball folk hero. Wilt scoring 100 in a game. Jerry West hitting from half-court at the buzzer in the Finals. Russell dominating the paint. Kareem shooting the sky hook. George Gervin and the finger role. Dr. J and the greatness/lunacy of the old ABA. Magic vs. Bird. Michael F&$@!*g Jordan. Shaquille O’Neal, with his dominant play in the paint and his god awful movie career. And now we’ve seemingly entered a new era, one that will be dominated by players named Lebron James, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Dwayne Wade, and Deron Williams: all of whom are great, all of whom are marketable, all of whom are American.

And if I was trying to write some Toby Keith inspired, “pour some America on that sumbitch and watch the freedom rain!” crap, I’d likely stop writing after that paragraph, but my intentions are much more malicious. I actually want MORE non-Americans in the NBA, and I want more non-Americans interested in the sport as a whole.

Sports have always been and will always be a language that speaks largely universally because it’s a language spoken almost entirely through body language, intensity and emotion, a fact known to anyone who’s ever played a pickup game with strangers. Within minutes of the game’s start, racial connotations of your teammates and opponents will slide away, and you’ll be left rapidly reforming opinions and annotations for those players based off their games and what they bring to the table. Who cares about a person’s race, religion or creed as long as they’re rebounding well and can hit open shots? In basketball, as in most sports, your value to the team and to the game as a whole and your identity are largely intertwined. Styles are often stereotyped through the races that often practice them (i.e. blacks play more athletically, whites shoot jumpers and play fundamentally, Euros play efficiently and flop like fish, etc), but the constant building up of those stereotypes almost makes it that much more fun when those same stereotypes fail utterly (Pau Gasol is a somewhat stereotype Euro big man; his brother is not). And still the game expands.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the original Dream Team, besides giving us one opportunity to see what it would look like if maybe the three greatest players ever played on the same team (it looked awesome), was the almost Biblical inspiration it provided for opposing teams. Stories have been repeatedly told about opposing teams would, before and after the Barcelona games against Team USA, ask for autographs and pictures with the American players. It was the crux of the matter in that day: these were the greatest players in their respective countries, but what good is being the best player in Lithuania when you’re staring at Larry F&$@!*g Bird? Every single player on those teams knew the Dream Team players. They got to see first hand what basketball as a sport can be, not just what it is, or rather was for them at the time. Anyone, or at least any basketball fan, who thinks that that inspiration, that that experience, that that moment, that that Olympics didn’t matter for basketball far more than America saying “Yeah, our pieces are still the biggest” is stupid.

Is it really a coincidence that the boom we’re seeing now of Europeans playing in America (and Americans playing in Europe) began in the years following those Olympics? Dirk Nowitzki was 14 during those Olympics. Manu Ginobili 15. They were kids who played basketball, and were given an opportunity to see, on a world stage, what basketball could mean and what basketball could become. And then they came, and they changed the game again. The “Euro style” that people like Bryan Colangelo love was created outside the NBA, and now world competition and the shrinking planet have forced the two into an unholy marriage of…something. Dr. J and the ABA changed the NBA forever, combining new rules with old rules, and forcing the game to evolve. Now, foreign players like Andrea Bargnani, whose style matched not at all with the prototype American, NBA style playing style become contributors of sorts by finding ways to mesh one with the other, and the game evolves again. New ideas are created, pushed, and absorbed into the consciousness of the game, but the mythology stays constant. Jordan is still Jordan. Wilt is still Wilt. But 20 years from now, we’ll also be having conversations about these proto-shooting bigmen like Dirk. That’s awesome.

That’s why Hamed Haddadi excites me. I’m fully cognizant of the fact that he’s, fundamentally, a big, slow, American styled big man who moves like he’s running through molasses with cinderblocks strapped to his feet, and I don’t care. He’s an Iranian playing basketball in the United States. Independent of everything else, that means nothing. But outside the realm of independence, it means that citizens of two countries whose leadership seems locked in a perpetual pissing contest since the 1970s can, if only for 48 minutes on a given night, put aside years of ethnic stereotyping and play basketball. That matters. There are Americans playing in professional basketball leagues in Iran. That matters. There are now street basketball groups in the Middle East. That matters. It matters because it’s a window. If one Iranian basketball player and one American basketball player can get along, why can’t 10 each? Why not 100? Why not everyone? Basketball in Tehran represents an opportunity both for basketball as a sport and the world as a whole. Basketball, as I said, has within it, its own language, and if that language can become dialogue between Iranians and Americans, then well, lets just stand back and say “F%$* yes!” Iranians playing basketball can, should, and most likely will change the game, and basketball will evolve again. And then, maybe years from now you'll be playing some pickup game at your home in Nowhereville, USA, and you'll see some young kid who tailored his game after Manu, or Dirk, or Jose Calderon, or some other foreign player yet to come, and it'll force you and your perception of what basketball is to evolve. And, fates willing, the world will evolve too. And that’ll be ok.

And maybe, if all that happens, people will look back on Hamed Haddadi as a catalyst for positive change in both basketball and the world as a whole.

This is the sort of the thing I think about while driving home from a coed rec league game at midnight when the only thing my radio will pick up is a soft rock station playing Bette Midler's "From A Distance", which really is the creepiest goddamn song I've ever heard.

Credit for the photos

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