On the basketball court, a confusion and profusion of races

 

Steve Nash was chosen as this year’s most valuable player in the National Basketball Association, and other than that he grew up in British Columbia and now plays for the Phoenix Suns, you might ask what this has to do with the West. A fair question, and one I will get to.

Nash is a guard with long, black hair and a frenetic style of play that enables him to penetrate defenses. He is also white, the first white player to be named MVP since Larry Bird 20 years ago.

Bird created a stir last year when he said professional basketball needs more stars who are white. Because most people are white, he said, they will identify with white players. He’s right to a certain extent. All of us like to cheer our homies, however we define them. Millions of Chinese are cheering Yao Ming, Houston’s skyscraper center, while down in Buenos Aires they are fervently following San Antonio’s human razor, Manu Ginobli. Meanwhile, Mexicans have been cheering the renewed fortunes of Eduardo Najera, a forward for Denver who grew up in Chihuahua.

Birds of a feather do flock together. I sort of identified with John Stockton, the now-retired all-star guard for the Utah Jazz. He was white, like me, but also 6-foot-2, same as me, and furthermore he grew up in the West, in his case in Spokane, Wash.

But what I found bizarre about Bird’s statement was his way of defining who is white and who is not. To be white, he seemed to be saying, you must have blond hair or, like Steve Nash, at least straight hair. You must have a narrow nose, or at least one that is not flared, like that of an African-American. You must also talk white.

What about white skin but black, kinky hair? Well, that seems to make you black or, to use the current term, African-American. Black skin but blue eyes? White skin, a shaved head, but flared nostrils? Again, African-American.

Strom Thurmond’s daughter, a teacher in Los Angeles, was regarded as African-American because, in fact, her mother was a descendent of a slave. But she was at least half-white. Why wasn’t she considered white?

In fact, In fact, many of the best NBA players — Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd and Mike Bibby come to mind — look at least as much white as black, at least on my television screen. So why can’t they be what used to be called with no embarrassment, Great White Hopes?

We are already blended more than we sometimes realize. A study of the DNA of students in a class in race and ethnic relations at Pennsylvania State University yielded some surprises. Some students who thought of themselves as black had ancestors who came from Europe. A few were surprised to learn they were half-white.

Indeed, the Thomas Jefferson family reunions have enlarged considerably since the descendents he fathered with the slave Sally Henning are now included. They had to exume Jefferson and pluck some of his DNA to get those with kinky hair in the door, but the deed has now been done. Some African-Americans can now trace their ancestors to the writers of the Declaration of Independence. Collard greens and apple pie on the Fourth of July?

Even the Census Bureau has acknowledged the futility of our white and black and red and yellow thinking. There is too much rainbow, which the agency concedes with its check-off boxes for "other."

In the West, our largest minority is often a majority. "Hispanic" is the term generally used, although it’s an umbrella that awkwardly stretches too far. It can be used to describe an Argentine with German heritage who speaks Spanish, somebody from Chihuahua, Mexico, with much blood of the Maya, and the baseball player Sammy Sosa, who is black and comes from the Dominican Republic.

To be Hispanic means only that you come from a Spanish-speaking country. It’s not an improvement on the West of my youth, where anybody with dark skin, black hair, and a Spanish accent was a "Mexican," even if their ancestors had been U.S. citizens longer than me and my ancestors.

It’s heartening that many young people today want to identify with a culture of mixed races. It won’t happen in my lifetime, or in yours, but I root for a time when the races become pureed. For the present, I hope we move past the stage of defining our heroes on the basketball court by the shape of their noses. How ridiculous is that?

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes near Denver, Colorado.