Learning to love the NCAA's annoying white guys.
Like any good Syracuse alum, I enjoyed last week's Big East tournament run, an astounding turn of events that saw L'Orange go from a Big Dance maybe to a No. 5 seed, thanks to four wins in four days by a combined eight points. A great moment for any fan—and yet I was dogged by a nagging unease I couldn't shake.
The problem was Gerry McNamara, the gutsy guard who practically won the tournament single-handedly, sinking huge 3-pointers, dishing off for game-winning assists, and providing the kind of leadership seldom seen on the Madison Square Garden floor these days. Now, I love G-Mac, but as the national media, weary of NFL labor talks and Barry "CVS" Bonds, turned up the "that's why we love this game" theme, I became a little squeamish.
McNamara, you see, is a runty, goofy-looking white guy. More specifically, he falls under the collection of college basketball players known as "Annoying White Guys," or AWGs for short. You know the stereotype—the gym rat who shot 500 jumpers and 1,000 free throws a day growing up. Had his own key to the gym made so he could work on his game after hours. Wins unlikely scholarship to big-time program. Is a second coach on the floor. Sports problematic facial hair. Beloved by the media, who he reminds of a better time that never really existed. And, after a streak of good games, is the guy who gets the biggest doses of hagiography from the sportswriters. As the New York Post put it, "The son of a postman, a marine wounded in Vietnam, he is Wayne Chrebet, the Everyman of Scranton. He is what used to be right with college basketball, the kid who stays four years."
In other words, he's a player who's easy to hate. But now the Annoying White Guy plays for—and is the iconic figure of—my team. I can't hate him, of course, but can I truly love him unreservedly?
Part of the resentment, I think, stems from class. Many superb AWGs come from at least comfortable backgrounds, especially those who seem to matriculate at Duke. This cuts sharply against what I've come to know, and appreciate, about basketball—that it serves, for better or worse, as a way out of the 'hood. Former Princeton coach Pete Carril once said, "The ability to rebound is in inverse proportion to the distance your house is from the nearest railroad tracks." So, why are these guys from the suburbs in there?
Then there is the envy. The Annoying White Guy awakens in the Annoying White Fan (me) the feeling of "that coulda been me!" Watching the scrawny kid playing at the D-I level sits awkwardly in the gut. "Maybe if I'd only worked a little harder at my game, shot a few more free throws, thrown the ball against the gym wall a few more times ... " Gerry McNamara has more basketball talent in his left shoe than I do in my entire body, but, well, he looks like some of the guys I regularly own at the YMCA.
The first AWG to make my life miserable was Kyle Macy, the point guard in charge of Kentucky's 1978 championship squad. All you need to know about how irritating Macy was: He is still the career free-throw percentage leader in Lexington. The cursed names came in a slow tick after that. Randy Wittman. Harold Jensen. * Chris Mullin. Steve Alford. Hated them all.
The ACC in the mid-to-late 1980s was to AWG activity what Seattle was to grunge in the 1990s, as Chris Corchiani, Quin Snyder, Craig "Noodles" Neal, and Mark Price all made legions of enemies. But soon the epicenter of all AWG activity settled in Durham, N.C., when Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner arrived on campus. Hurley and Laettner were the Martin and Lewis of AWG—they took the act to new heights. Between them, all the bases were covered. Hurley was the skinny coach's kid who always made the big play just when his team needed it the most. Laettner was the rich dork blessed with a sublime shooting touch and a petulant streak, capable of shooting lights-out against Kentucky in 1992 (including his famous game-winner) and stomping on Aminu Timberlake's chest in the very same game.
This year, of course, the two best players in the nation are sort of juiced-up Annoying Whites Guys, with one of them, J.J. Redick, playing for Duke. The other, Adam Morrison, toils for mid-major darling Gonzaga. The two may be in a tight race for the Wooden Award, but on the AWG scale, it's no contest. Redick wins by a mile, mainly because of the AWG corollary that states that a true AWG must play for a traditional powerhouse. The Zags may be building a solid program in the Northwest, but until they hit a Final Four, their WGs won't seem so A.
I know this sounds a little ridiculous. I should love Gerry McNamara unreservedly and stop hating him and his brethren just because they don't quite fit with my basketball worldview. Syracuse's other starting guard is Eric Devendorf, a freshman who is, among other attributes, an Annoying White Guy. He has three more years of AWG-ness to foist upon the Big East and the nation. I hereby pledge to embrace Devendorf without reservation and maybe show a glimmer of love to his AWG brethren wearing colors other than orange as well. Except the ones that play for Duke.