The NBA season is right around the corner, and you know what that means: Time for another preseason survey in which the league's 30 general managers answer various questions of varying degrees of inanity. You'll note that, way down at the bottom, the NBA asks an especially weird one:
"Which player makes the most of limited natural ability?"
This year, Kevin Love came in first, with 24.1 percent of the vote. Marc Gasol came in second; Matt Bonner and Jared Dudley tied for third, and J.J. Barea rounded out the top five. In a league where nearly four of five players are black, four of these five guys—Love, Gasol, Bonner, and Barea—are white. (Dudley's biracial.)
"Natural ability" isn't defined here, so we just have to guess at what it means. Are we talking about skills that flow out of a mixture of God-given and player-honed talent, like the ability to pass, shoot, rebound, defend? Clearly not, otherwise Love and Gasol wouldn't be anywhere near this list. They're transcendent big men; their ability to pass, shoot, rebound, and defend trumps almost all other players in the league.
We must be talking about physical, measurable traits, like the ability to run, jump, cut, and lift. So the general managers are just answering the question, "Who does the most with least?" That's how it was phrased in past years, and the survey was rightly hammered for it. Instead of removing the question, though, it seems they just reworded it and got the same answers they always do. It's 2013, and NBA GMs believe that in a league of almost superhuman, mostly black players, hopelessly overmatched Caucasian players are getting by on guts, guile, and wit.
— Kevin Love (@kevinlove) October 22, 2013
Never mind that when Love came into the league his vertical leap equaled that of, say, Dwyane Wade. Never mind that Love and another "most with least" mainstay, Steve Nash, are the children of athletes, and that Gasol is the brother of one, so by definition they have "natural ability." Never mind that even though Barea stands a bit under six feet, he's one of the quickest and most relentlessly physical guys in the league. These guys are outthinking their competition, the poll suggests. Outworking them. They just... want it more.
Here's the problem. A huge reason basketball is so entertaining is that it's a look into the future of the species. We're witnessing giant men so big, so strong, and so graceful that it's almost as if we're seeing some evolutionary endpoint, the ultimate realization of what humans can be. Even among elite athletes, there are just a few with the ability to play in the modern NBA, let alone excel. The worst natural athlete in the NBA is likely a better athlete than anyone you've ever met.
But most of these guys are black. And for centuries, the narrative has been that blacks, males especially, are part-adolescent, part-animal. The idea that the best basketball players—nearly all of whom are black—aren't just supremely athletic, but also understand and manipulate the game better than others, doesn't work with that.
So the question, "Which player makes the most of limited natural ability?" exists as way to work in some back-patting for those few Caucasians among a sea of black faces. And thus do people carve out a silly distinction between the grinds and the "natural" athletes, as if Kevin Love weren't engaging in a prodigy of "natural" athleticism—on par with any LeBron James dunk—every time he clears space in traffic with his "naturally" big ass, pulls in a rebound with his "naturally" long arms, and fires a precision outlet pass three-quarters of the way down the court thanks to his "naturally" keen vision.
The American tropes we've internalized—that we're underdogs, that we always prevail in the face of adversity, that we have some native ability to outwork and outthink the other—aren't for LeBron James, or Kobe Bryant, or Chris Paul, possibly the three smartest players in the league. They're for Love and Gasol, Bonner and Barea, Nash and Scola. What's ironic is that of all the names I just listed, only Bonner and Love were born in the States. And yet it's in those kinds of players so many American fans see themselves, and they cheer as, hopelessly overmatched, the son of Stan Love and the son of John Nash still find a way to excel in a league of elite athletes.
Photo Credit: Associated Press