- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2000

Poor Fred Hickman. He dared to disagree. While all the other experts voted for Shaquille O'Neal for NBA Most Valuable Player, the CNN/SI anchorman cast his lonely ballot for Allen Iverson. So naturally, everybody's talking about the one vote Shaq didn't get the one that deprived him of being the league's first unanimous MVP instead of the 121 he did.

Hickman offers a perfectly good rationale for his decision. Take away Iverson, he says, and "the 76ers are a lottery team." Take away O'Neal, and "the Lakers still make the playoffs, maybe even win one round."

But some of the Lakers aren't buying it. Owner Jerry Buss reportedly was none too pleased Shaq hadn't gotten all the votes (a unanimous MVP, after all, has so many more marketing possibilities). And Glen Rice huffed, "Yeah, it matters to us. To us, it was no contest. I don't know where that one vote slipped away." Maybe Rice and his teammates will start boycotting interviews with Hickman the way the New York Yankees did with Jim Gray during the World Series.

Look, I would have voted for O'Neal, too. The guy was the best player on a team that won 67 games. But aren't we getting a little carried away here? I mean, when exactly did it become a crime in this country to go against the flow, to beg to differ? Isn't that the American way?

Besides, Iverson ain't exactly Cesar Tovar. You remember him, don't you? He was the utilityman who kept Carl Yastrzemski from being the unanimous American League MVP in 1967. One voter that year actually thought Tovar's .267 average, 47 RBI and ability to play several positions for the Twins trumped Yaz's Triple Crown for the "Impossible Dream" Red Sox. And you know what? Nobody got too bent out of shape about it. It was Just One Vote.

Frankly, I like to see the votes spread around a bit even if the price is the occasionally off-the-wall choice like Tovar. The way I look at it, Hickman's vote for Iverson was a kind of consolation prize for a season well played. O'Neal still won in a landslide, but Allen has the comfort of knowing that at least one person out there thought he was the most valuable player. And after averaging 28.4 points a game and carrying the Sixers on his scrawny back for six months he probably deserves that.

Let's be honest, Shaq had a very good season in a very down year for the NBA. It was hardly a season that deserved to be immortalized by a unanimous MVP vote. The league has made a big deal of the fact he finished in the top three in points (first, 29.7 average), rebounds (second, 13.6), field-goal percentage (first, 57.4) and blocked shots (third, 3.03) something no player has done in 23 years. It bears mentioning, though, that the last player to accomplish the feat, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, wasn't a unanimous MVP.

Neither was Wilt Chamberlain in '66-67. And if Wilt wasn't a unanimous MVP after the season he had nobody should be a unanimous MVP. Not only did he lead the Sixers to a then-record 68 wins (and the championship), he also finished in the top three in four categories points (third, 24.7), field-goal percentage (first, 68.3), rebounds (first, 24.2) and assists (third, 7.8). (And it would have been five if they kept track of blocks.)

But according to my records, at least 25 MVP votes that year were cast for players other than Chamberlain (15 for Nate Thurmond, five for Bill Russell, three for Oscar Robertson and two for Rick Barry). Four years later, Abdul-Jabbar had a season that almost matched Wilt's 66 wins, 31.4 points (first in the league), 57.7 percent shooting (second), 16 rebounds (fourth) and yet at least 20 MVP votes went to other players. Of course, things were done a little differently back then. Until the late '70s, it was the players who voted, not the media.

And now it's the players O'Neal's teammates who are suggesting Shaq got dissed because one vote in the MVP balloting went to someone else. (As if they could do a better job.) Pretty comical, huh? And pretty sad, too. I'm not sure exactly what to make of it, but I will say this: There seems to be not just in basketball but in baseball as well almost a unanimity craze.

Consider the recent voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Last year Nolan Ryan, a pitcher with a lot of strikeouts but barely a winning record, received the second-highest vote total in the history of the Hall (he was named on 98.79 percent of the ballots). In fact, five of Cooperstown's eight highest vote totals came in the '90s (Tom Seaver, Ryan, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton).

What does this tell us? That the media are becoming better voters more knowledgeable, less inclined to hold a grudge, etc., etc.? Or that there are fewer and fewer independent thinkers like Fred Hickman out there?

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