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.

Go Zags.

**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.


18 Responses to “Race and the Gonzaga Basketball Fan”

  1. The problem with Pargo was not related to race or leadership. The problem with Pargo was that he was part of Few’s experiment in recruiting superior athletes and not superior basketball players. Pargo was likely one of the fastest, most explosive point guards in Gonzaga history. He was also one of the poorest and most inconsistent shooters from the guard spot in the last ten to fifteen years.

    A reason Morrison wasn’t derided as a ball hog is because: a) Gonzaga won; b) he led the nation in scoring; and c) there was no one else on those teams that could consistently produce on offense in the manner Adam did – but he happened to be white.

    Defining and spotlighting leadership from an outside perspective is ridiculous when all the information one presumably has is media reports, tv viewership, and blips from social media.

    Are there racial undertones at Gonzaga, most certainly. I spent seven years on campus and it’s a pretty vanilla environment, as is Spokane in general. However, I’d imagine if one day Gonzaga wins the national championship the average Gonzaga fan could care less what race the players are.

  2. Edit: couldn’t care less what race the players are.

  3. Confused how you can admit there are racial undertones at Gonzaga but deny that those carry over to our basketball fandom. Please explain.

  4. Racial undertones in the fact that the minority population on campus is quite low and the basketball team makes up a significant portion of that population historically (relatively). That being said, race has nothing to do with how well you shoot a basketball, as was my point.

  5. Well, what you described are not undertones. “Undertones” means there are hints of an overall racist attitude on campus. Now maybe you see why I was confused.
    And as to your point, that’s fine but it has nothing to do with my argument which you never addressed. I argued that ball hog is an undesirable term, that Jeremy Pargo was called a ball hog when numbers show that he was the furthest thing from one, and that he was called a ball hog because he is a black player from Chicago and therefore was assumed to be a ball hog.

  6. I understand your assertion that you perceive that Pargo was called a ball hog because of his race…my point is that race wasn’t a factor in assessing his performance.

    When you look at the numbers, Pargo didn’t produce as effectively from a shooting perspective as his predecessors, that has nothing to do with race.
    He was a poor overall shooter as a basketball player.

    Look at the true shooting percentages in the chart.


  7. panhandleZagFan Says:

    I think bandying about the R word in this context is a little undeserved and not the root cause of what people are thinking when they write their posts. This area, although lacking many black people, is not as ignorant as Augusta, GA where I spent a couple years a few years back and if there are good non-color reasons for peoples thoughts we should probably explore them first. Therefore I say that Pargo, in cases where fans think he was a ball hog (I don’t), was considered such because of his weakness in shooting the three.
    Guard play is fundamental to good basketball teams. Simply put the guard needs to be able to shoot, penetrate and see the court. Pargo was very good at penetrating, average at seeing the court and below average at shooting. Bouldin was very good at shooting, very good at seeing the court and below average at penetrating to the hoop. I consider a player to be very good at shooting or penetrating if they require more than one player to stop them from scoring. Jjust to clarify, none of these abilities are with the assistance of screens.
    The reason I say Bouldin was very good at shooting is that he had moves that could give him room to shoot. The one dribble crossover, the fade away, the jump shot, there are tons of shots that give the shooter the advantage. Pargo could split defenders, go to both sides of the hoop, had an excellent reverse and could dunk. I think Bouldin was better than Pargo, although Pargo was a better athlete, and both were better than our current guards. If your argument (which is difficult to prove) is that black fans value the individual’s effort in basketball while white fans value the team’s effort, nifty passes and three point shooting, then I disagree and say it is just easier to point the finger at someone who is strong at penetrating, but has a weak outside shot.
    Now Sacre as a leader – Leaders are important because they provide the peer pressure that inspires their teammates to exert more effort. Leadership is not the current Zag team’s problem, there guards are the problem. No matter how good Sacre becomes (he has exceeded my expectations this year), post players need good guards to get them the ball and draw off defenders. Our guards are the problem. Meech is good at penetrating, below average at seeing the court and below average at shooting. His shooting allows his defenders to slough off to the interior which shuts down our post players. This means that even though Sacre is good enough to require two players, teams have the extra player to put on him. The penetration that Meech provides is somewhat wasted because we have a strong post to begin with. Ball handling and ability to penetrate in a guard is always valuable, but even more so on teams with a weak post, or transition offenses.
    Steven Gray, very good shooter (requires two defenders), below average penetration, average ability to see the floor.
    David Stockton, average shooter, below average penetration, good ability to see the floor.
    Marquise Carter, average shooter, below average penetration, average ability to see the floor.
    So… Pargo wasn’t great at the outside shot. That’s likely why he doesn’t play NBA ball, but man was he fun to watch when he juked people out of their shoes. Bouldin was less fun to watch, but had uncanny ability on the pass. I think some considered him to be a ball hog because they are fans of the half court set, or three point shooting, or using the entire shot clock, and not so much because he is black.

  8. BJ, Pargo took the least amount of field goals on that list you provided (by far, actually), and had the second best shooting percentage. At this point, I’m not sure what else to tell you.
    Panhandle, if the misconception that Pargo was a ball hog is based on the fact that he was a poor three point shooter, then the numbers are even more telling. In his senior season, he took well under half the number of threes as Bouldin, Raivio, Dickau, Stepp, and Morrison, and shot 36%. Not great, but also only a half-point under Bouldin’s percentage during his own senior season.

  9. panhandleZagFan Says:

    It is difficult to compare Bouldin and Pargo since I’m sure different things were expected of each. Pargo did not take many three point shots his senior season. Probably a result of going 22 for 83 the previous year. He had a higher percentage in his Senior year, but when you look at the shots he took, they were probably when he was wide open. Bouldin, who shot the ball 156 times in his Senior year was not wide open all of the time and required doubling by defenders, or a box and one. I personally want a guy who wants the ball in his hands. Pargo was not the outside shooter Boulding was. My point was that people might perceive his strength slashing and Bouldins strength shooting differently. I’m getting my numbers from espn if others want to look. All the players you mentioned have good stat sheets, but for my money I want a guard that can both slash and shake a defender to shoot the three. Now, as I said before, I don’t consider Pargo a ball hog, but for those that do, my guess is that race isn’t the reason. Even if it is the reason, give it until the current generation grows up and it will cease to be. Racism is slowly but surely on its way out the door, and it most deffinitely has no place in sports. Sports is about whether you can or you can’t. (period).

  10. panhandleZagFan Says:

    I’ve looked at the stats and extrapolated them for all players mentioned p(and Gray, Goodson, Carter and Stockton) across 40 minutes (stat/minutes played*40). This gives numbers that you would hope to see if the player played the entire game. Relative to this post, Pargo holds three of the five worst ranked performances of any of these guards with respect to turnovers. Worst is Carter, then Pargo, Pargo, Pargo and finally Stepp’s 02-03 year. Not to hijack the post, but points, assists, rebounds and turn overs speak volumes to how bad Meetch is doing. Each year worse than the last. Not sure why he is regressing instead of getting better? No self confidence?

  11. Not sure who “they” are that only called Pargo a ball hog, but here are my thoughts about this. Morrisson was an outstanding college player, obviously since he was co-player of the year his Junior year. But he had the ability to drive, shoot the mid-range, and shoot from half court with a better pct than Meech will ever know from even 12 feet. Did Adam take over games? Yes. Did he ball hog? Yes. But the team deferred to him, because he would likely score when they did, and Few let him do it. The same thing then happened with Pargo, and with Bouldin. Were they ball hogs at times? Yes. The thing is, they couldn’t actually take over a game like Adam. As has been stated, Pargo was not a great shooter*, and Bouldin wasn’t good at penetrating.

    I think the problem really comes down to the fact that when the team needs to score at critical times, instead of drawing up plays that actually lend to players’ strengths, Few has developed the gameplan: who is the “best” player…okay, take over and make something happen. It worked with Adam (and often with Dan), it will keep working. You constantly see how when we get down to another team, the offense seems to stop moving and shots usually get forced. Players defer to one guy, because that’s how they’re coached, and they don’t know what else to do. Clear roles are not defined, nor adequately assigned, no matter how much the team may mention them in interviews. For instance, Gray thinks his role should be to create offense this year, take the “crucial” shots, etc., but these do not play to his strengths. But that role has been assigned to him, and so he appears to be struggling. Like you have referred to, does that mean that Adam was a great Leader and Steven isn’t? No, it just means that Adam was a hell of a lot more talented offensively. And it means Gray should be assigned a different role.

    That might not answer the question about any racial bias towards Pargo, but I just don’t really think about it that way. I just think Pargo was put in a situation by Few where the team deferred to Pargo to score any way he could, instead of running effective offense. Gray is now put in this game changer role Few has developed, with often negative results. Gray will remembered less as a ball hog though, because really, what other guy could the team depend on to score in a pinch? My answer…the guy who would be wide open if we ran cleaner offense.

    *Your Pargo/Bouldin shooting comparison. Don’t like it. I would much prefer 36% of 1000 shots over 36% of say, 400. My guess is if Pargo took as many 3’s as Bouldin, Pargo’s pct. would be less. But it’s just a guess.

  12. I think one thing the comments here point to is the multiplicity of variables in a single case like Pargo-love vs. Bouldin-love. It’s hard to get persuasive argumentative leverage on one variable (race) to the exclusion of all others. I for one tend to think there’s a good deal of truth in your contention that negative assessments of Pargo (not just in terms of ball-hoggery or leadership but also in terms of “basketball IQ”) are in some way indicative of unconscious undercurrents of race issues. Pargo was way more “street” in style than any other GU guard, and people tend to associate that with a certain style of play that you won’t get branded with if you have floppy hair and come from the pacific NW.

    That said, I wonder if the past decade of Gonzaga basketball (particularly 2000-2006) hasn’t itself structurally reinforced this racialized perception (in an unwitting fashion). In other words, its star guards have tended to be (as if often noted) floppy haired white dudes (Santangelo, Frahm, Dickau, Stepp, Bouldin… I lump in Raivio and Morrison while recognizing they lack hair and guardness, respectively), while black recruits have generally been the athletic / defensively minded role players (Reason, Alex Hernandez, Tony Skinner, Knight, Gurganious… recognizing that I’m selectively leaving out guys like Winston Brooks and PMAC). I admit plenty of flaws in the specifics here, but maintain a general pattern holds that would condition the Zagfan’s to expect star Gonzaga guards to look a certain way.

    I’m not sure how much I buy my own argument, but I think there might be something in it.

    Also, as noted above, I don’t think Few did Pargo any favor when he decided that the go-to play in any crunch time situation was to have Pargo dribble around until he got triple-teamed and time expired.

  13. Panhandle, if racism is indeed on the way outs, it’d be amazing…and also a miracle. Maybe I’m a cynic.
    BW, honestly the lack of evidence of any “theys” was a sticking point as I drew up the column in my head. (And if any of my grad professors ever read this, they’ll take turns nailing my nuts to the wall.) I remember people on GUBoards (enough that I still remember them) calling Pargo a ball hog, and the comment I posted from TSSF just used code words to do the same. As for the numbers, yeah, I suppose it’d be better to have a guy shoot 37% on a thousand shots than a hundred, but that doesn’t make him a better shooter or the other guy the worse shooter. The point is that people thought/think Pargo was a heist when he wasn’t. I think the comment on TSSF shows that mindset is still there, which is where my problem lies.
    Hoft, what came first, the typical floppy-haired white GU point guard or the people who get all excited when point guards (who are increasingly less and less white) are floppy-haired and white?

  14. Also, the argument that Pargo was thrust into the Dickau role is pretty valid, and something we should look at with every GU player who gets deemed “the guy.”

  15. Caveman Lawyer Says:

    All I know about this subject is that Pargo was not utillized in a way that best fit his skill set. I wish he was apart of the current team, I think the current team dynamics fits his style of play. The 2010-11 team is missing a hard nose point that drives and dishes to the open player when not making the easy bucket. I have to get back to studying your hiways and byways…

  16. By “hard nose point…” you mean “leader,” right? RIGHT?!

  17. Caveman Lawyer Says:

    Um I have no idea what a leader is other than the mofo with with biggest club in his hand. I meant a “point” who actually drives the lane with some initiative. Caveman out!

  18. Ha! Nice.

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