This headline surely got your attention whether you’re pro-Bargnani, anti-Bargnani or simply pro-Neil Young — if you’re anti-Neil Young, I don’t want to know about it. Believe it or not, this isn’t another Bargnani-bashing post. There are plenty of those out there, and I can’t imagine there is anything I could write about him at this point that somebody already hasn’t put into ink or pixels.
Whether or not Bargnani deserves the criticism he receives isn’t of particular interest to me right now. What fascinates me is the ongoing backlash against Jonas Valanciunas due to factors outside of his control. There is a faction of Raptors Nation that is determined to label him and virtually every other European player as “soft” regardless of the evidence as hand. Whether it’s fair or not, Andrea Bargnani is primarily responsible for the festering of this extreme prejudice by Raptors fans against all basketball players from an entire continent.
As the first European player to be picked first overall in an NBA draft, Bargnani was doomed to be a lightning rod for anti-Euro sentiment unless he blossomed into a perennial All-Star. It would be one thing if his career had been derailed by injuries or if the Raptors had simply misjudged his talent. Neither has been the case — Bargnani’s underachievement hasn’t been due to a lack of ability, but moreso because he doesn’t exhibit an obvious willingness to do whatever it takes to win like most Canadian sports fans expect from their professional athletes. As much as it makes basketball fans like me roll our eyes, there’s no denying the hockey-derived prevalence of “lunchbox mentality” among Canadian sports fans that leads us to admire players like Jerome Williams and Reggie Evans over players who are significantly more talented.
For all that Bargnani does well, the things that he doesn’t do well are perceived to be based on lack of effort — and rather than come to the logical conclusion that he’s part of a rich history of supremely talented players from various backgrounds like Vince Carter and Derrick Coleman who failed to maximize their basketball potential, certain fans have decided to use Bargnani’s shortcomings as an excuse to nurse deep-rooted xenophobic sentiments about European basketball players who supposedly don’t play the game the way it’s meant to be played.
Meanwhile, the true MVPs on each of the last two NBA champions were European. Obviously, nobody disputes Dirk’s bonafides, although it took one of the greatest post-seasons in my lifetime to overcome an unfair softness label. But Pau Gasol’s bed-soiling in the 2011 playoffs has clearly made a significant number of NBA fans forget how dominant he was in the 2010 Finals. If Kobe Bryant wasn’t Kobe Bryant, Gasol would have rightfully received that Finals MVP award.
Regardless, Bargnani’s failure to live up to so many of our expectations lingers like a fog over any European player who is brought into the Raptors organization. Thus, Jonas Valanciunas is faced with a segment of Raptors fans who not only doubt his ability to succeed in the NBA, but appear to be actively rooting against him to succeed based on their twisted need to feed the righteousness of their prejudices.
If you’re unaware of this lingering stench of xenophobia, then it’s unlikely that you’re particularly active on popular Raptors message boards, blogs, and on Twitter. These anti-Euro roots are deep-seeded, and some impressive performances by Valanciunas in a FIBA under-19 tournament will do absolutely nothing to dig them up. When I’ve watched Valanciunas interviews with English-speaking media, I’ve witnessed a kid who is overwhelmed by the attention he’s getting, who is trying to be careful to not say the wrong thing in this adopted language, and who is excited about the opportunity to display his skills on the largest, brightest stage in his sport.
Sensing this about Valanciunas, I’m increasingly saddened by this hateful contingent of so-called Raptors fans who not only doubt his ability to succeed in the NBA, but appear to be actively rooting against him. I’m not predicting that Jonas will be a future All-Star at this point and I would mock anyone who would make this assessment at his current stage of development. But why don’t we all take the opportunity to watch his development over the next year, free of prejudice? Is being right more important than the Raptors getting it right (for once) with a European player? If that’s the case, that says a lot more about you than it does about Bryan Colangelo. And neither Andrea Bargnani nor Jonas Valanciunas are truly responsible for planting that seed in your mind.