My grandfather came from a small village outside of Minsk in Belarus. It was a real Fiddler on the Roof situation. Open farms, horses and hard times. You know anything about Belarus? These are the jokers who were so drunk they shot down an air balloon a few years ago mistaking it for an enemy fly-over. They're also the same people ravaged by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. By anyone's definition, Belarus is an outlaw nation. When my grandfather got to Paterson, New Jersey in 1920-something, the last thing on his mind was football, basketball or baseball. It wasn't even part of his consciousness.
It didn't matter. He spawned two generations of jocks, excelling in all the American games. We were no different. Tough polish kids redefined football in Western Pennsylvania. Men with vowels at the end of their names became legends in the American Pastime. Today, the NBA is chock full of people from every nation. Three of their last four MVPs are "foreign." Major League Baseball is loaded with Japanese, Australians and Latin Americans -- many of them are the best players. And where are all these Nigerian NFL defensive lineman coming from? I guess Nigeria.
This debate on who's American, what's American and what do you have to do to be American -- it's moot on the field of play. Sports offer a language that all immigrants can speak readily. They can show their American-ness immediately. But as we see our so-called American games populated at the elite levels by people from other countries, can't we also see that these sports provide refuge from the trappings of nationality? The game belongs to no nation. It is its own sovereign state, a pure meritocracy -- a place where anybody, with hard work and ability, can come and rise to the highest echelons. Your origin is not important, what you do when you're there is all that counts. Isn't that what should count?
In June 1999, Andrei Kirilenko became the youngest European player ever drafted by the NBA. He is from Siberia. Basketball in Siberia? How in the world did that happen? I'd say it's no more incongruous than the words "Utah Jazz."