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Monday, March 17, 2008
Updated: March 18, 6:02 PM ET
Appreciating Hansbrough isn't a matter of race, just basketball

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

What do Geraldine Ferraro, Tyler Hansbrough and certain members of the sports media have in common? Sadly, more than you think.

Tyler Hansbrough
Tyler Hansbrough and the Heels are the No. 1 team heading into the NCAA tournament.

Ferraro, a former congresswoman and vice-presidential candidate, recently injected a full syringe's worth of race into the veins of the Democratic party's search for a presidential nominee. Even weeks after she made the comments to a California newspaper, you can still see the needle marks.

She told The Daily Breeze that if Democratic front-runner Sen. Barack Obama were white, not black, "he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."

Which somehow brings us to Hansbrough, the junior forward for No. 1-ranked and newly No. 1-seeded North Carolina. All Hansbrough has done this season is average 23 points, compensate for the extended injury loss of point guard Ty Lawson, and play as if his scholarship depended on how many floor burns he gets. This is a bad thing how?

So TV announcers gush about him, because that's what TV announcers do. And sports magazines such as ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated put him on their covers. And awards voters find places for him on their postseason ballots.

Meanwhile, the legend of the bug-eyed, hyper-intense Hansbrough mushrooms to the point at which hyperbole and reality have a nasty breakup. And it is there -- when the gushing becomes too pronounced for some -- that the topic of race somehow squirms its way into the basketball conversation.

An Internet sports columnist, a good one, by the way, recently questioned the slobbering attention paid to Hansbrough. He wrote on his Web site: "America loves a tough white guy. The media loves Tough Whiteness, too. ... And I'm trying to remember the last time a black player was called the face of college basketball."

Then there is the newspaper sports columnist in Chicago, who had Hansbrough atop his "not-to-like list." Asked the respected columnist: "When was the last time you heard a broadcaster talk about the work ethic and intensity of a black player?"

In essence, the columnists are doing a reverse Ferraro. And ... sigh ... I'm sure they're not alone.

To suggest that Hansbrough, a consensus player of the year finalist, wouldn't be in this "position" -- to use Ferraro's word -- if he were black instead of white, borders on basketball ignorance. To suggest he is a media creation because of his whiteness is equally ridiculous.

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Bill Raftery and conspiracy plans? Don't think so.

You might not like Hansbrough's muscular style of play, or his particular brand of facial expressions, or even the Carolina program itself. Fair enough. And I'll be the first to admit that the only fluid thing about him is his sweat.

But if you watch Hansbrough on a regular basis, it's hard to imagine someone playing harder than he does. Maybe equally, but not harder.

So the fundamental question is this: Is Hansbrough praised unnecessarily because he is a white basketball player? And the answer is no, just as it would be if we asked if Kansas State star Michael Beasley, the other POY candidate, is praised unnecessarily because he's black.

The politics of basketball aren't color-blind. But the beauty of the game itself is in its inability to distinguish between black and white. Either you can put the biscuit in the basket or you can't. You can rebound or you can't. You can thrive under pressure or you can't.

Hansbrough's scoring average has more to do with black and blue than it does with white. His rebounding numbers are, in fact, connected to his tenacity, his skill and his competitiveness. His success in the ultra-competitive ACC isn't an accident. And it certainly isn't because his sock color matches his skin color.

Yes, Hansbrough is overexposed. Some news flash there. Let's see: He's the best player on the top-seeded team in the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels spend more time on TV than Oprah. And he's a compelling player to watch. Duh.

But it can't be just that, can it? Instead, we supposedly watch Hansbrough because, "America loves a tough white guy."

Really? I know a year ago that America loved an old-looking guy from Ohio State (Greg Oden), a young-looking guy from Texas (Kevin Durant), a carefree guy from Florida (Joakim Noah), and a true worker bee from Wisconsin (Alando Tucker).

I know that in 2006, America loved a hustling, ball-diving, crazy little team from George Mason. I know in 2000, 2001 and 2002 that America went weak-kneed over the unselfish and emotional play of Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves, Duke's Shane Battier and Maryland's Juan Dixon, respectively.

Most of all I know that Ferraro -- and some sportswriters -- are dead wrong about equating race with blind infatuation.

Ferraro wants us to believe that Obama is "lucky" to be who he is, and that the country is mesmerized by his blackness. Others want us to believe that Hansbrough is lucky to be who he is, and that the media is mesmerized by his whiteness. It is an argument that can't be won, mostly because it is an argument built on wisps of reason and logic.

It doesn't matter if you think Beasley is the better college player, or if he'll be the better NBA pro. I think he's both, but that isn't the issue here. The issue is whether Hansbrough has been rewarded for being white.

Sunday afternoon, in the ACC tournament championship victory against Clemson, Hansbrough scored 18 points and had 11 rebounds. A day earlier against Virginia Tech, he had nine rebounds and 26 points, including the game-winning jumper with 0.8 seconds to play.

As always, the only thing black and white was the box score.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.