The Mix Is the Message #1: Nader Hits B-Ball Courts

Many may have laughed when Ralph Nader called for an investigation of the referees' behavior in the 6th game of the Western Division finals of the National Basketball Association, between the Sacramento Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers.

But then many laughed and vilified Rep. Cynthia McKinney ( D-GA) when she called for the Bush administration to tell "what they knew and when they knew it" about the attacks of 9/11, and look what happened.

Shortly after the McKinney statement, a series of leaks began to reveal just how much information the government had about terrorists in our midst, and virtually nothing was done. Thus far these security failures are attributed to a combination of FBI-CIA infighting, bureaucratic ineptitude, misplaced priorities, and the really lame excuse, mouthed by Senator Diane Feinstein ( D-CA), that the FBI was being too politically correct. One revealing argument put forth by Ariana Huffington suggests that Attorney General Ashcroft's obsession with the inane and failed war on drugs left us particularly vulnerable to terrorism.

But whatever the reason for the bungling, the McKinney lesson is that no question is too crazy to ask. The Bush administration's addiction to secrecy and fear of transparency suggest many more dirty deeds may lie at the bottom of the mess.

Viewed in this context, Nader's charge that pro basketball may be less than meets the eye is symbolic of the multitude of charades that substitute for reality in our culture. Major League baseball is on the verge of a huge crisis, with admissions by two former stars -- Jose Conseco and Ken Caminiti -- that they took steroids to enhance their performances. They also assert that huge numbers of other players used steroids as well, as many as half or more. Now baseball is scrambling to hang on to its credibility after several years of successful mind boggling assaults on hitting records long thought impossible to achieve, culminating with Barry Bonds' astounding total of 73 home runs last year.

It seems, slowly but surely, that the shroud is being pulled away from many pseudo realities that have shaped attitudes and behaviors in many diverse realms of society. In Saturday's (June 8) New York Times, a front page story by Louis Uchitelle stated that while "consumer confidence has been a mainstay of economic forecasting for 25 years," often invoked by Alan Greenspan as a source of strength for the struggling economy, "a growing number of researchers and economists say that consumer confidence may be a phantom concept, an attempt to quantify a state of mind that does not exist."

Even more to the point is Kevin Phillips' assertion that the whole concept of the market as a rational, dignified economic tool is a fiction. The ideological myth of the market "is this huge mushroom sitting in the lawn of American politics, waiting for a lawn mower to come and cut it up," said Phillips. On tour for his powerful new book "Wealth and Democracy," Phillips stopped at Oakland's African American Museum, at an event sponsored by the economic reform group, Redefining Progress.

Of course, laws, policy and official behavior based on myths and cultural hysteria go back at least to the Salem witch trials in the 1600s. More recently, the wild imagination that hundreds of day care workers were molesting children and the use of DNA research to free dozens of innocent people from death row, convicted by "impeccable eyewitness accounts," are forcing our society to face the fact that reality is often far different from what our institutions insist is true and what our media presents. The results are that tragic things happen to innocent people, far too frequently.

Getting back to basketball, the truth is that that play in the NBA is incredibly subjective. In any given game, with the benefit of instant replay, the viewer sees dozens of examples of calls by the refs that stretch credibility. What's a blatant foul in one moment is completely ignored in the next. One of the acts that most enraged viewers of Nader's targeted game six was the vicious elbow superstar Kobe Bryant threw into the face of Sacramento's Mike Bibby in the last moments of the game, bloodying his nose and effectively derailing him. No foul was called on Bryant and the defending champs shot 27 free throws in the 4th quarter, scoring 16 of their last 18 points at the foul line.

A similar argument about the ref's judgments could be made in game seven, when Vladdy Divac, Sacramento's best weapon against super bully, the 360-pound, 7 foot 1 Shaquille O'Neal, was neutralized for much of the game with foul trouble. Divac exited the game with six fouls just before overtime, by another seemingly incomprehensible call again involving the brilliant but sometimes belligerent Bryant, as the two hustled after a loose ball.

Often the NBA playoffs become a game of media manipulation and politics. In one of the earlier playoff games, O'Neal actually fouled out. He immediately went to press and was heavily featured complaining of how unfair the refs were.

"If I only could play my game," was his refrain. This is a little like the U.S. complaining of being victimized by Third World countries in the context of global trade. The result; surprise -- O'Neal was left unmolested by the refs in the next game and pretty much the rest of the series. He significantly increased his scoring output, and never fouled out again, unlike Divac, who sat on the bench at the most crucial moments.

There is no question that O'Neal has incredible talent to match his huge bulk. But in any given game, he's seen bowling over stationary players trying to guard him, without much chance he'll be called for many fouls. He has pretty much free rein as the Lakers have trounced the New Jersey Nets in the first three games of the NBA finals, having only one foul called on him in the third victory and at least 14 fouls called on players trying to guard him.

Why? Because for O'Neal, the superstar, and his costar Bryant, to be out of the game is to let the air out of the ball. All those A class celebs and corporations that pay thousands of dollars a game for seats have no interest in watching substitutes run up and down the court. As a result, no ref is willing to endure the collective wrath, except on rare occasions to suggest that the game is credible.

But as Nader is suggesting, it just ain't that credible.

So, the sly lesson of the Nader initiative is that the pretense of objectivity and fairness often gets stretched beyond credibility on the basketball court, as well as in public life. In fact, Sacramento, whose brilliant season gave them more victories than the Lakers, is actually a better team, though not by much. But they saw their so-called home court advantage, which traditionally means they and not their opponent get the benefit of the doubt, ripped away by the politics of big time sports. Smarts and the talent can only take a team so far. There has to be the crucial element of fairness at play as well.

An interesting subtext in the playoffs against the Lakers was that many feel the tolerance of the bullying dominance of O'Neal is bad for the game. It would have been better if Sacramento won. The highly skilled Sacramento Kings in some ways represent the future of professional basketball, in terms of making the game more interesting. The Kings play a more sophisticated, finessed style of back door passes and quality defense than the Lakers, who tend to depend on the incredible muscle of the behemoth O'Neal and the superstar one-on-one skills of Kobe Bryant.

Only basketball aficionados know that Sacramento's superior playing style reflects the pro version of what is known as Princeton style basketball. The brilliant architect of the Kings is General Manager Geoff Petrie, who starred, along with John Hummer on the championship Princeton basketball teams of (1968-70.) The coach of those teams was the legendary Pete Carrill, who has also been a bench coach for Sacramento, influencing its style of play, as he did in Portland when Petrie helped shaped the Trailblazers into one of the NBA's most successful teams.

In any case, Nader seems to have been interested in having a little fun with the bully analogy, maybe connecting a few dots for the sports fans. Or maybe Nader's protest was simply to stick up for his fellow tigers Petrie and Carrill -- since Nader, too, is a Princeton graduate.

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.org.

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