NBA Geo-political semiotics #432

Gasp as need be, but I don't think it should come as a surprise to any of our readers that FreeDarko is a blog of leftitude. Or, lest I try and overstate my own political credentials or assume too much about what my esteemed colleagues' innermost idelogical zip codes, we know what's what in this country today and who would, in a more perfect union, hold the sodden reins of conviction. But, FreeDarko has already played house for some memorable debates of policy and wisdom, I'll try and keep this as localized as possible.

As some of you may have heard, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez does not like our dimpled wank of a president. And Bush, whether in reaction to Chavez's tough talk or out of a quaint determination to eradicate all things Red, would probably not mind if Pat Robertson got his way. At the risk of insulting anyone's intelligence any further, the two are both in Argentina for the Summit of the Americas, with Bush playing the heavy and Chavez taking a break from the official festivities to rally protestors (mostly of the regional persuasion, thank god). If the two should come face to face, Bush has vowed to "be polite, because that's what the American people expect of their President." Personally, I was hoping for diplomatic, professional, or hell-bent on making headway in this most important of international deadlocks, we know by now how that goes.

What makes this more than just another forgettable case of Bush being Bush (and, to be fair, Hugo being Hugo) is the gigantic and invincible role that sports have played in their respective discourses of outreach. Huge struck first, bringing national legend Diego Maradona on-stage with him during his appearance in the Mar Del Plata stadium. For those of you unfamiliar with this whitest elephant of Latin American sport, our very own Big Baby once dropped the following knowledge on the subject:

"Let me introduce you to a country known as Argentina, where the national sports hero for the last twenty five years has been a fat, cocaine addict with a Che Guevara tattoo, named Diego Maradona, who in a world cup game scored one of the famous goals in sports history, not with his foot, but with 'the hand of god'. The point here is that in the rest of the world (i.e. soccer), scorer's are supposed to be insane, cheating is acceptable, and 'the flop' is an art form. If your leading scorer isn't falling flat on his face while doing a spread eagle and screaming in pain at the slightest tickle from a defender, something is wrong."

Simple equation here: soccer, and more specifically Maradona, have real estate on the doorstep of the heart and soul of the Agrentine people. By trotting out this all-important sports figure, Chavez confirms that he acts in the best interest of the nation's people, and the people writ large. He knows they want Maradona, and he delivers; from there, why not assume he does the same with policy?

This should have been a coup of boundless decisiveness, and until a few years ago, it would positively flummoxed the folks in Bush's cabal. Luckily, as I'm sure our readers know, there's a new organized game sweeping the planet and setting up shop. Thusly, the Associated Press reported Bush busting back, and replete with the means to do so:

But Bush clearly sought to stress common ground. He mentioned Manu Ginobili of Bahia Blanca, Argentina, a star guard who has helped the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association win two titles in the past three years.

"He's made a vital contribution to a basketball team from the state in which I live," Bush said. "But he's also a good ambassador for your country."

Let's rewind a second here: faced with all the socio-cultural significance of a national hero who made his name in the sport that, for Latin America, is more life itself than bounded game, Bush offers up a scruffy two-guard who's not even the best player on his own team. Yes, San Antonio is the NBA dynasty for our age, and Ginobili, according to all sorts of polls that Association broadcasters like to refer to, was recently voted Argentina's favorite person, period. Wake up Chavez—–the country wants its roundball, and whoever wields the name of Ginobili shall have the last, and most authoritative, chuckle.

But this goes beyond mere popularity. It has to with the message the President sends with the invocation of le ball du basquet, which as recently as a decade ago would have been taken as a gesture of ignorant imperialism. Now, it smacks not only of national identity—many European and Latin American nations now invest their country's hoops with a fervor once reserved for soccer, so much more than a sport that it often seemed, at least to outsiders, to cease to be one.

But whereas soccer smacks of nationalism, blood feuds, and long-simmering political tensions pantomimed on the field of play, the ultimate measure of basketball is international cooperation—happening, not accidentally, under the watchful paternalism of the U.S.-based Association. International competition may have captured the fancy of previously soccer-centric nations, but it's the ones who make it big in the Association—Manu, Dirk, Yao—who now achieve to acclaim once reserved for the chauvinist lightning rods like Maradona. And while overseas pro leagues are nothing to scoff at, the most respected of these feature players for all over, and pride themselves on serving as a showcase for the best and brightest, no matter what colors they rep.

Missing from this version of things, though, is the role that the Euros and international competition played in making the Association what it is today. If you remember, it was not so long ago that the NBA was thought of as hood beyond repair, the game having deterioriated into an expression of very specific attitudes and aesthetics that had little to do with the perceived universalism of the sport's first ninety years (of course, as this and the Euros have shown us, there is no play that is not without style, and no style without its politics). Like the belief that high school players hurt the league, the perception that international players helped "fix" the game is a matter of bias, not basis.

But whether it happened or many people out there just wanted to believe that it could, without this return to the purity of fundamentals no one would be looking toward the NBA as the place where nationalism graciously subsides. According to Bush's myth, it's here that internationalism is, at least in theory, truly realized——nationhood maintained, but suspended in the interest of merit-based, for-its-own-sake winning and losing. It's violently simplistic to argue that the league has been Euro-ized (which country?), or that it remain a thoroughly American league. But to claim that the Euros have made the infrastructure or power dynamics of the Association more European, international, whatever, is ridiuclous, and so the specter of American control looms large even as it opens its arms to foreign influence on some levels.

The fact remains, though, that when left to its own, American devices when it came to players and strategy, the NBA became something unwatchable and unfathomable for a sizable slice of sports fans. In short, it became for "the hip-hop generation" what soccer was for each non-American nation; only when it stopped claiming anything in particular did it revert to something less partisan, something with a broader appeal for its target audience. Euros may done some of this, but it was hardly out of some conscious mission; if anyone did anyone's bidding in this case, the Euros played right into the hands of exactly the same interests that have succeeded in making the NBA overtake international competition.

All I'm saying is this: they've done a great job of un-soccer-ing the NBA. Don't let them take the soccer nations.


At 11/06/2005 6:26 PM, Anonymous aug said...

Hugo is crazy but funny. One minute he's offering oil and free eye surgery to America, and the next he's cursing the US. He's always so paranoid that the US is going to invade him. A couple weeks ago he had a big statement about how he knew that Bush was planning to invade his country and that he'd basically give us hell when we did. Then he said that Bush might not do that, but he's definitely plotting to assasinate him. He's a crazy dude and i'm not just saying that because i have a bit of venezuelan in me.

good call on the word verification

At 11/08/2005 12:02 PM, Blogger emynd said...

This was a truly fascinating piece.

Regrettably, that's all I can say.


At 11/08/2005 12:47 PM, Anonymous brickowski said...


At 11/09/2005 1:55 PM, Blogger The Electric Zarko said...

Maradona is a tool. Although he's Boca, so at least he's a tool 'of the people'.

The flopping is hardly universal, although it certainly is a major part of Latin American soccer. The English, for one, have a had an anti-diving bias for quite some time (stiff upper lip and all that), even if that's become diluted because of the influx of Continental players.

Good piece.


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