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Perception, not race, factor in MVP choice

Wilt Chamberlain once said that nobody roots for Goliath. Apparently they don't often vote for him, either.

Shaquille O'Neal has won the NBA's Most Valuable Player award once in his career.

Now, so has Steve Nash.

In balloting among 127 writers and broadcasters in the United States and Canada, Nash -who led Phoenix to an NBA-best 62 victories in his return to the Suns after six seasons in Dallas - received 1,066 points. O'Neal, who left the Los Angeles Lakers for Miami and helped the Heat to the best record in the Eastern Conference, received 1,032.

Nash called it a team award.

Stan Van Gundy, coach of the player he bettered in the fourth closest margin of victory in the history of NBA most valuable player voting, called the result "beyond ludicrous."

The NBA assist leader, Nash led his team to more wins than any other team. The Suns improved by 33 games over last season, which officially was a greater improvement than Miami made (17). The Suns averaged 110 points a game, more than the Heat averaged.

"I definitely won this award because of my role on the team," Nash said. "I didn't win this because I overpower people or I'm dominating people with physical ability, whether it's jumping ability or strength or height."

I think Nash isn't thinking big enough here.

I think he won this award not only for his role on the team, but for his role in this league.

Bird was the last white guy to win the award, in 1986. Given the current climate, it is natural to ask, as many already have: Was this choice at all about race?

"If you went and asked any general manager in the league for the past dozen years who's the one player they'd want to have, they'd say Shaquille O'Neal," Van Gundy said. "And he's been selected by you brilliant people in the media, selected as the most valuable player in the league one time. Once? Only once?"

Shaq, after all, has the edge over Nash in every statistical category other than assists and free throws. Where the lines merge is in the intangibles and immeasurables. Shaq made Dwyane Wade better. Nash made a starting four better.

Maybe even more so.

No, this isn't as much about black and white as it is about perception.

No, this isn't about black or white as much as big and small, new vs. old. We take Shaq's impact for granted, whether it is in Los Angeles or Miami. He is this generation's Wilt. Nash, meanwhile, caught many of us by surprise this year, maybe even reclaimed and rejuvenated that old premise that unselfish play wins games.

Even in the NBA.

Sam Donnellon is a sports columnist with the Philadelphia Daily News.