Wednesday, December 3, 2008

White Men Can't Jump: The Disappearing White NBA Player.

[Editor's Note: Warning! Very long sports post ahead.]

Many have argued that the NBA's relative lack of popularity (compared to say, MLB or the NFL) is due to the sport's hip-hop influence and it's inability to connect with middle America. Anyone who's been to an actual NBA game knows this is total BS. With the exception of DC and probably Atlanta, most NBA fans in attendance are overwhelmingly white.

If I had to take a stab at it though, I'd say that the NBA's overall cultural appeal is hurt by the lack of an American born white superstar. Yeah, I know Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are white dudes, but both or foreigners. One's a Mountie and the other is a Euro for crissakes. Given the choice between a blue blooded Southern boy like Brett Favre and some tall Spanish meterosexual like Pau Gasol, most folks are gonna gravitate toward #4.

Don't believe me? Go to an actual NBA game, and tell me which player the home crowd cheers for loudest. 9 times out of 10, the sole American born white guy on the team in a cult favorite, whether he's a decent player or not. Laker fans love Kobe, but they really looove Luke Walton. When I went to a game in Toronto a couple of years back, the fan fave wasn't Chris Bosh, it was little used forward Matt Bonner. The most popular pre-Big Three Celtic? Paul Pierce? Nope. Try 15th man, Brian Scalabrine. No, seriously.

For a sport that's American as apple pie, currently only 12% of the NBA's players are American-born whites. This is amazing because the NBA was a whites-only league for decades, the last of the 3 major pro sports to integrate. The league has really had this problem since the heyday of Larry Bird and the Celtics in the 80's. The Jordan Years gave the NBA a reprieve in the 90's. Shaq and Co. kept the flame alive, but now the wheels are falling off. Last year's Celtics championship team didn't even have a single white guy in the rotation.

As economic times wreak havoc on people's disposable income, the trickle down effect is NBA tickets becoming radioactive. In some cities, you can't even give away seats to an NBA game right about now. Franchises from New Jersey to Charlotte are having real issues putting actual butts in the seats. When the Timberwolves, who actually have some white guys that can play, offered a gimmicky $41 season ticket promotion, I knew we had a problem.

It's not like white guys don't play basketball. They do, and many quite well. A trip to any rec center in the burbs' will prove this. Hoops is a universally playable sport because it doesn't require much equipment and it's one of the few you can actually sorta play by yourself. But one thing I've noticed in coaching youth basketball in a large, majority white county is that white kids don't play ball as much as other sports. Perhaps soccer is more socially popular right now, or just easier to succeed in. I'm not sure if this ties to the lack of players further down the road, but soccer's appeal definitely seems to take away from the pool of white kids playing ball.

Our league of 6th graders is majority black. You'll find the occasional all-white team (you can sign up your own team or get a roster of 'free agents' that the county assigns you, I do the latter), and boy, lemme tell ya', they usually get walloped!!! My kids (our team is very racially mixed) salivate when we see such a squad enter the gym. We only won 2 games all season, but one of our wins was against an all-white team, and we beat those kids like a rented mule. Seriously, it was like the Lakers vs LASC.[1] The other win was against a mostly white team with one really good black kid. I'm just sayin', maybe there's a pattern here.

Thus, I suppose white athletes tend to gravitate towards baseball and football eventually, but the NCAA has a bonafide American born white star seemingly every year. From Christian Laettner, to Bobby Hurley, to JJ Reddick, to Gerry McNamara, to Raef Lafrentz. The players are there, and they often dominate at the collegiate level.

Something happens once these guys go pro, however. The game becomes too fast, the other players become too strong, and their shots become too difficult to get off. Year after year, college standouts like Wally Sczerbiak, Mike Miller, Nick Collison, Spencer Hawes, and Chris Kaman enter to league as high draft picks whom some lucky team hopes will become The Real Great White Hope: A White Guy Who Can Ball And Sell Tickets. And inevitably these guys either flame out or simply become role players with little upside. Even those who go on to become marginal all-stars lack the star power of a Lebron.

Just so nobody reads this the wrong way, I want the NBA to have a star caliber white player more than anyone. Great players who attract a different audience are always good for sport. Tiger Woods hasn't seen his impact translate into more black pro golfers (there are fewer now than when he went pro), but there's little doubt he's expanded the profile of the game. Ditto for the Williams sisters, who dominate TV ratings for tennis, even when neither is playing particularly well. As soon as they figure out a way to make a heated ice rink, people of color will find a way to make inroads in hockey too. Could you imagine the Puerto Rican Alex Ovechkin? Me neither, but I'd sure tune in.

This year's NBA draft bought two more high profile GWH's to the league. Minnesota's Kevin Love and Milwaukee's Joe Alexander were both bigtime collegians and lottery picks with the sorts of games that were expected to translate into jersey sales and TV ratings. Love can't stay on the floor long enough to score double digits. The high-flying Alexander (cooly nicknamed Vanilla Sky) can't even crack the rotation. Epic Fail yet again.

Next year's contestant is UNC's Tyler Hansbrough[2], who's as dominant a four year college player as you're gonna see. He's a manic force on the boards with good footwork, decent athleticism, and unparalleled intensity. The guy is so intense that he allegedly wouldn't even allow Barack Obama to get off a shot when the then-candidate scrimmaged with his Tarheels prior to the NC primaries.

So why's he expected to be a late first round pick at best? Call it the curse of The Great White Hope. NBA scouts (and fellow sports bloggers like Inquisitive Mind) pay more attention to what he can't (ie: jump really high) do than what he can (virtually everything else) do. And that's a shame. I'm not saying I think Hansbrough will be a good pro just because I bleed Tarheel Blue. If you look at his game and can get beyond the color barrier, you'll see a player similar to NBA All-Star David West of the New Orleans Hornets. Both were undersized post players in college who relied on strength, manic intensity, and hard work. West developed a good faceup game to compliment his uncanny knack for drawing fouls. I see no reason why Hansbrough can't do the same, provided he lands on the right team. My Wizards sure could use him.

Who knows, he could be The Great White Hope I'm waiting on.

Question: Do you think the NBA would be more universally appealing if there were more American-born white players? Why don't more white guys make it to The League? What do you think of Tyler Hansbrough's pro future? 14th man/scrub or legit NBA star?

The Top 20 White American Players of the Last Twenty Years [Jones On The NBA]

The All-White American Team [RotoEvil]

[1] Only my Los Angelenos will get that one.

[2] Speaking of odd names, why does the University of Minnesota have a star white dude named Jamal Abu-Shamala? Go figure?

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