Hoops, Europeans and the American Frontier

1213820798Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy takes a lot of hits in this city. But, at least today, he deserves supreme credit for somehow sneaking a positively great line into his lead story about the Celtics’ return to glory. He wrote:

“Kobe Bryant scored 22 for the losers, but ultimately LA just had too many Europeans.”

There was no context or explanation, just a simple statement of fact that the Lakers had too many whiny Europeans. Frankly, we’ve got to agree — those guys are weaker than the U.S. dollar. (Heyo!)

It’s a good rule of thumb to tread cautiously when it comes to broadly characterizing large groups of people. But you know what? After watching Pau Gasol, Vladimir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic gallivant around the court for the last couple weeks, we think Shaughnessy’s right. Those guys are just complete weiners. Or, as their EU neighbors in Bavaria might call them, wiernerschnitzel. (Guten Tag Deutschland!)

But it’s not just them. It’s Dirk Nowitzki, it’s Darko Milicic, and it used to be Toni Kukoc. It’s nearly all the NBA’s across-the-pond imports.

Why are so many European basketball players such caricatures of, well, European basketball players? Why is it that it takes us so long to think of a Euro-star, other than now-retired Arvydas Sabonis, with grit worthy of our admiration? Dirk is a great player yet supremely annoying. And Tony Parker would qualify, but was ruled out when he became Eva Longoria’s arm candy.

The easy explanation is that when those players come to the NBA, they bring a soccer player’s work ethic attitude man purse sensibility. Basically, that means lots of flopping and pretending to be hurt. But we’re not about easy explanations here.

So here’s the, ahem, real explanation: the Frontier. It’s not so much that the European imports are terribly weak, but that American basketball players are bred with especial toughness. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued in his landmark Frontier Thesis that the entirety of our country’s history can be explained by Americans’ westward movement across the continent. Forced into do-or-die self-reliance, Turner claimed that Americans forged a uniquely rugged individualism as the nation moved West into the wilderness. We had to conquer the wild, and therefore became leathernecks. Note that there are no frontiers in Europe. Or leathernecks, for that matter. (Except on German bases — Guten Tag one more time!)

Granted, despite holding status as religious orthodoxy for decades, Turner’s argument ignored a few important factors, like anyone not white and male, for instance, and has since been more or less brushed into the dustpan of history. But it does still contain some illuminating elements, chief among them the elevation of “toughness” as a value in this nation. Obviously, lots has changed since 1893, and there’s a wide variety of other factors that could contribute to what makes so many American NBA ballers such tough SOBs, but core societal values tend to hold steady over time. And thanks to America’s frontier experience—or at the very least, Turner writing about America’s frontier experience—toughness is one of those values.

And that’s why the All-American Celtics beat the Lakers’ junkballing junkers. Also, the Celtics are better at basketball.