LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal during their MVP seasons (Getty Images)
LeBron James will be awarded the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award sometime next week. I don’t have a vote nor any inside information on the voting process, but it’s as easy a call as expecting May to provide warmer weather as the month moves along, or predicting that Kelly Dwyer will probably give some stupid hipster in a hat a withering glare around last call this Sunday morning. It’s going to happen.
What is nearly as assured is the potential for LeBron James to become the first unanimous MVP selection in NBA history. After a season like LeBron’s it’s entirely possible, and certainly appropriate. And it’s also unprecedented due to the work of one man, former CNN and ESPN anchor Fred Hickman, who decided to cast an MVP vote for Allen Iverson in 2000, denying Shaquille O’Neal a deserved unanimous voting record.
“It was crazy,’’ Hickman remembers about the fallout. “I got death threats.’’
Hickman, now sports director for WVUE-TV in New Orleans, doesn’t have a ballot this season. If he did, he said he would vote for James and believes the Miami Heat star should be a unanimous pick.
“The morning it went public (that O’Neal won the MVP), I was taking my son to school,’’ Hickman recalls. “My former agent called and said, ‘We’re going to have a busy day.’ ’’
Hickman did acknowledge voting for Iverson and provided his reasoning. Still, a firestorm ensued that included the sports anchor receiving death threats.
“About three or four people called and left messages,’’ Hickman said of those threats. "They said, ‘How could you not vote for Shaq? You should be dead.’ I reported them to (CNN) security. That was before the Internet being what is now. Can you imagine if they had Twitter back then?’’
And why did Hickman go for Iverson, over O’Neal?
Kobe Bryant by his side. It happens. This is why teams like the 1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers win 67 games.
“I certainly didn’t mean to be the lone one,’’ Hickman said. “I picked the guy who was the most valuable to his team. Philadelphia without Iverson was a CBA team, and if the Lakers didn’t have Shaq, they would have still been a pretty good team.’’
What’s strangest amongst all this is the fact that Hickman – whose most notable accomplishment during that particular season was to lead CNN’s coverage of the 1999-to-2000 New Year’s crossover telecast – was given a vote in the first place.
Why was Fred Hickman – a very good television journalist with heaps of credibility in his own industry – given a vote for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award? What part of that job made him an NBA analyst of any sort? Remember, this was back when CNN (and not the fledgling CNN/SI Network) had its own weekly NBA show on Sunday nights, and that wasn’t even hosted by Hickman. Instead, Andre Aldridge, Bob Lorenz, and a series of others hosts ran that particular weekly highlight program, with featured analysts including Mike Glenn, Kevin Loughery, and a very loud Philadelphia Inquirer columnist named Stephen A. Smith.
Presumably things have changed. Not only has the influx of basketball journalists on the internet (we think; some pretty prominent NBA voices have no vote) made it so a series of high-end television cats have been bumped from the rotation. Well, we hope. Nothing against ABC/ESPN’s studio crew, but do you get the feeling Michael Wilbon (who has to speak effortlessly on all sports both amateur and pro five nights a week on ‘Pardon the Interruption’) gives off the scent of a guy that is all over NBA League Pass on the same night The Big Football Game is on? Or the newspaper general columnist that is asked by his editors to basically ignore the NBA until the All-Star break?
The internet, and Twitter in particular, has changed things. Just by following the right people, a local broadcaster who doesn’t have the time to hunker down in front of all 30 teams throughout the week can stay reasonably caught up just by staring at his or her phone for a few hours while waiting for yet another flight. And the shaming aspect, frankly, plays a part. When a stray vote brings up the Twitter ridicule, fans start sleuthing. This is why, for years, both fans and some journalists have been calling for transparent votes, with each voter’s ballot going on the record.
This year’s MVP vote won’t need to be as transparent. LeBron James, even after gliding through the season’s first two months, will win with a unanimous vote. Arguments about where Tony Parker’s placement over Russell Westbrook or Kobe Bryant’s overall worth on a 45-win team will be relegated as pointless, and we’ll just have to steel our just-as-pointless-though-I-can’t-help-it outrage for the All-NBA and All-Defensive Team votes.
And because nobody will give someone like James Harden a “look how valuable he is to his team!” vote this season, Fred Hickman will still be the answer to that trivia question. His choice, his call, his vote, his Wikipedia entry.
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