Race and the Gonzaga Basketball Fan
“I’ve been wonderin’ why/People livin’ in fear/Of my shade/Or my hi-top fade.” –Public Enemy
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Gonzaga fans’ tendency to use an intangible (leadership) to rate players (namely at the time, Steven Gray). It is unfair, in my mind, to decide a player’s worth based on something that is both unmeasurable and completely subjective. So no, I didn’t think leadership mattered when I defended Steven Gray against the Leadership Police back then, and I don’t think it matters now that it has somehow wriggled its way back into the Great Zag Discussion. Just the other day, with timing that can best be described as baffling, a commenter on the Gonzaga hoops blog The Slipper Still Fits worried that the Zags didn’t have a leader. How ever this is still anyone’s concern is beyond me, but I’ve railed against leadership’s validity for too long to do it again here. But another issue became apparent from the ensuing comments: that Jeremy Pargo’s Gonzaga career has never been fully appreciated.
If you don’t remember, Pargo was a four-year point guard for the Zags. He won West Coast Conference Player of the Year honors as a junior (and probably should have won it as a senior as well), and during his career, his teams won 103 regular season games and went to two Sweet Sixteens. His resume is great, or at least as good as any other player in the Mark Few era, but during his career, I don’t think he was ever as beloved as the others who came before or after him. Instead of thanking their lucky stars that Pargo took over games when everyone else on his team was all too willing to stand and watch, Zag fans called him a ball hog. Instead of marveling at a player who could get to the rim and dunk on anyone, they called him a showboat when he ran back down the floor with his tongue hanging out. Instead of cornily saying he has “Zag Hair” when he showed up for a Tournament game with his name cut into his hair, they wrote him off as a sort of anti-Zag with a me-first attitude. So what, though? Opinions are opinions, and there’s no rule saying Zag fans had to like Jeremy Pargo the player as much as I did. But what happens when they start comparing Pargo’s career to those of other Zags and determine that the things they disliked about him were the exact things they liked about the other guys? What if subjective terms such as leadership stop being just meaningless and become instead a window into ourselves? Better yet, what if Jeremy Pargo was and is underappreciated because he’s black?
Let me first say that I understand discussing race is a complex issue, but I don’t understand why it has to be such a divisive one. Just because I think race affects your perceptions doesn’t mean I think you’re a racist; it just means I think you’re a human. It’s when we continue to hold on to our conceptions in the face of arguments that show them to actually be misconceptions that we become racist. Now, to Jeremy Pargo. Though I’ve long thought Pargo was never fully appreciated because he was black and from Chicago and played unlike any other Zag under Mark Few (and was thus scary), a comment in the above-mentioned discussion on leadership at The Slipper Still Fits brought the issue back to my attention. I’m going to print the comment without the commenter’s name because I don’t think he or she meant anything malicious by it, but I’m going to print it in its entirety and then analyze one of its key arguments because it shows not only an important way in which we look at the Zags of the past, but also how we will look at them in the future. The comment (emphasis is mine, and consider the whole thing [sic]):
“[Rob] Sacre is leading this team on the floor when he’s out there. I know some of you aren’t happy if he doesn’t get 20/20/10 but not too many players put up those kind of numbers for a single game much less every game. I wish I knew what you want outa these guys. Frankly when Pargo was here you saw such a deferential bunch on the floor that no one could figure out who was in the driver’s seat. I thought Matt did a nice job last year but some of you never accepted him as a leader until he was gone. (don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you got till its gone). Sheesh — open your eyes and see what is out there to be seen. You may not like the style of leadership but . . . there’s about as many ways to lead as there are styles. For my money, what Rob did at Baylor sent a statement to everyone and he’s been at it ever since. Oh, might I add, we have had some small success since the time he asserted himself. One guy does not a team make — even if Matt came close sometimes last year. I for one am very happy with Rob and the leadership he provides. You can embrace things the way they are or you can dream on. If you ever had anything to do with a basketball team you should know every year is different even if the players are exactly the same.”
A leader, he/she argues, is the one that carries his team on his back, asserts himself, is “in the driver’s seat.” Fine. Whatever. I don’t think leadership exists in sports, or at least if it does, it’s not as important as talent, so what do I care if someone thinks a leader also drives the team bus? But here, the commenter claims that Matt Bouldin (and Rob Sacre**) drove his team’s bus, so to speak, while Jeremy Pargo just plowed through all the stops as his teammates ran alongside knocking on the door and begging to be let on. He didn’t lead so much as the other players deferred to him. (Indeed, the term deference only describes the way Pargo’s teammates treated him, because Bouldin’s followed him willingly.) Deference here implies that everyone stood around and watched while Pargo did his thing, regardless of the coaches’ game plan or what was best for the team. In basketball parlance, this makes Pargo a ball hog, and in a sport as team-centric as basketball, a ball hog is the worst kind of player. He’s an individual in a game that needs all five players working in synch. He’s heisting shots even when he’s double-teamed. He’s refusing to pass to an open teammate, let alone create offense for a checked one. And this tag was with Pargo during his playing days as well. Fans called him a ball hog even in the middle of a senior season during which he had, by far, the highest assist rate on the roster and took less shots than every starter except for Steven Gray. Even in the face of numbers that argue to the contrary, to some Zag fans at least, Pargo was nothing more than a streetballer. This is a stunning double standard; white players don’t get called ball hogs if they shoot too much but are instead celebrated for driving the team bus.
Before considering the Matt Bouldin example, consider Adam Morrison. We all know that Morrison never saw a shot opportunity he didn’t like. He was plenty successful as a scorer (28.1 points per game his last season), but he was never accused of being a ball hog, at least not pejoratively, even though his 617 shots from the field in 2005-2006 accounted for a full 49.5% of the Zags’ total shots that season. Instead, any would-be critics praised his “knack for scoring” or laughed about his single-minded focus on offense. Did Morrison get let off the ball hog hook just because he scored a lot of points? I doubt it. (And if so, how come Allen Iverson doesn’t get let off the same hook?) As for Matt Bouldin, I’m a huge fan. All the things people liked about Bouldin’s game at Gonzaga I liked as well. (Plus, we’re both from Denver and if you know anything about me, you know that goes a loooong way.) But to say he carried a team on his back while Jeremy Pargo didn’t is simply not fair. And to argue that Pargo was a ball hog if Matt Bouldin wasn’t is just not right. (In his senior season, Bouldin had a lower assist rate and took nearly 100 more shots than Pargo did in his, for example.) If anything, neither was a ball hog, but this idea that Pargo somehow was is based on the idea that players “like” Pargo are always ball hogs and are never leaders. That’s a problem. And in the end, it’s the problem with leadership overall. Because the term is subjective, we have preconceived notions of what a leader is and what a leader is not. Leaders have to be some version of a person whom we would like to follow, and for a lot of us, this isn’t a black player, and it’s certainly never a player we think plays streetball. In this sense, Jeremy Pargo never had a chance.
Again, I say all of this not to call Zag fans racist because that would be, I think, untrue. My goal instead is to get us to consider the fact that for Gonzaga basketball to make the next big step (whatever that step may be), it will need players like Jeremy Pargo. It will need guys who came up hard in tough neighborhoods and who had to battle every day to make sure they didn’t become another stereotype and bring a corresponding level of toughness to a program that doesn’t right now have it. If and when that happens, all Zag fans everywhere will need to come to terms with players who, for the most part, don’t look like them. What becomes of the beloved Zag Material myth then? What happens to quaint ideas of leadership when we can’t look out at the court and see the Matt Christopher novels that first shaped those ideas in the first place? I hope we at least start thinking about it.
**This space is far too small for me to get into it here, but the difference in the way white fans perceive an athlete like Sacre (happy-go-lucky, engaging, from Vancouver, etc.) and the way they perceive one like Pargo is as important as the way Pargo is viewed against his white counterparts. WEB Dubois wrote of an “unforgivable blackness” in reference to boxer Jack Johnson. That term may be more accurate in this case than we are willing to admit.