Slate has been running an email dialogue this week about the NBA playoffs between Paul Shirley, a 6'-10" 230 pound white guy who played bits of three seasons in the NBA and is now in the Spanish league, and Neal Pollack, who is, as far as I can tell, a writer who has watched NBA games on television.
The only guy [on the San Antonio Spurs] I find remotely interesting is Brent Barry. And while most of my affection for him is derived from his go-to-hell attitude and his unique skill set, I fear that some of it comes from his status as a white American in the NBA.
My previous sentence implied guilt. But should I feel guilty for rooting for a white American in the NBA, just because he's a white American in the NBA? Upon further review, I don't think I should. I think it's natural. A recent study reported that the NBA is 75 percent black and 19 percent foreign. They left out the remaining percentage. Six percent of the NBA is white Americans. We're like endangered gorillas, left to scratch our simple, blocky heads while our jungle is slashed and burned to make room for logging trails. It's hard not to feel sympathy for the gorillas. Especially if you're one of them.
I retract my statement of apprehension. It's okay for me to root for Brent Barry.
In an email entitled "Should We Care About How Many White Players Are in the NBA?", Pollack replies:
But what's with the obsession with white American players in the NBA? I realize that you are one, or have been one, and maybe I'm still hanging on to antiquated early–'90s notions of "cultural diversity," but I have to wonder why it matters. It strikes me that the one thing most NBA players have in common, other than incredible basketball skills, is that they're all rich, or at least relatively rich. I know that some of these guys came from tough backgrounds and that you stepped fully formed out of a Waltons reunion. But it's been my experience in life that class identification trumps racial or ethnic identification. Yes, if there were a 3-point-shooting Jew in the NBA, I'd probably pull for him a little harder. But a regular white guy? There are enough successful white guys in the world. They don't need our help.
Obviously, there are so many unsuccessful Jewish guys in the world that the tiny percentage of successful Jews needs to pull for them so the vast majority of downtrodden Jews stand some slight chance of making it in this world rigged against them. It's only simple moral logic. Anybody who can't follow this reasoning is either an idiot or an anti-Semite. It’s not ethnocentrism, it’s purely objective altruism toward the lower classes. Everybody knows that most Jews are working class folks living in walk-up tenements in the Lower East Side, while the goyim are typically polo playing snobs who dress like the man on the Monopoly box with a top hat and a monocle. Didn't you learn anything from your grandmother?
Unintimidated, Shirley fires back:
I just finished playing basketball for a team in the Spanish first division. Our games were a big deal—the first division in
Similarly, when the average white American male tunes into TNT sometime between October and June, he would very much like to see another average white American male on the basketball court. Most of the time, he doesn't. But in the few situations that he does, he is going to root for that player. That's the way it is. We like to see people who look like us succeed.
It would be nice if we could all cop to this phenomenon. Most people won't admit that they do the same because they're afraid they will be vilified for their apparent ignorance. But such a reaction is not necessarily harmful; by cheering for the success of his comrade in pastiness, the viewer is not wishing that black players fail. He is doing the same thing as the Spaniard who cheers for Pau Gasol.
Of course, one rebuttal would be: Come on Paul, we're all American. Are black American culture and white American culture really that different? The answer would be: Yes, they are. And if you think they're not, you haven't been paying attention. Again, the differences are not a bad thing; in fact, they're probably a good thing. And the more we discuss them, the more understanding everyone will have.
As for me … again: 6 percent. My attempt to succeed in the world of basketball could be compared to the efforts of a 1970s-era black man in the world of bond-trading. White people are not supposed to be good at basketball. I've been reminded of that assumption hundreds of times in my career. The attitude most often displayed by black basketball players I've faced was very similar to the one you espoused at the end of your last turn, Neal: Your people have everything else. Just let us have this.
From age 12 on, my one goal was to be a really good basketball player. I didn't care about much else. Of course, I did other things—stupendously hokey things. You're right: It was a Walton-esque existence. I was in 4-H, I was a Boy Scout, I finished fifth in the Kansas State Spelling Bee. I even got a National Merit Scholarship. I'm probably the whitest person with whom you'll ever publicly exchange e-mails.
But none of those activities/pastimes/sexual obstacles ever brought me as much happiness as basketball did. As I got better, I found myself to be a minority on the court more and more often. And as the members of my race were whittled away, I quickly realized that I wasn't particularly welcome. When I was on defense, the other team would give the ball to whomever I was guarding and yell, "Take it to him. He can't guard you." They did that not because I am from a middle-class home, or because I grew up on a quasi-farm, but because I am white.
So, forgive me if I feel that I have a special kinship with the Brent Barrys of the world.
The remarkable decline of white Americans in the NBA is much less discussed/lamented in the media than the decline of black Americans in Major League Baseball (down from a high of 26% in 1974 to 8% today).
Non-American whites are doing better than ever in the NBA, with the last three MVP awards going to white foreigners (Canadian Steve Nash twice, and German Dirk Nowitzki this year). Apparently, whites do better in the NBA when they don't play against blacks growing up.
This decline in white Americans in the NBA is especially strange because it's not clear what else all those extremely tall white guys are doing. I would guess that white American fathers are giving up on basketball with its hip-hop culture and anti-white biases and are grooming their tall, athletic sons instead for:
- Playing quarterback. More than ever before, quarterbacks are the top of the sports heap. Today, "The Man" in American sports is either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, and only Tiger Woods comes close.
-Baseball pitcher. Pitchers have been getting taller, with 6'-10" future Hall of Farmer Randy Johnson being the classic case of a white guy who would have been funneled into basketball in the 1960s simply due to his size. (There's some evidence that big league teams underrate short pitchers, but that just shows there's a prejudice today in favor of tall galoots.)
- Soccer goalie. Americans do better at goalie in European leagues than at other positions probably because our tall kids get more practice at other sports emphasizing eye-hand coordination than do foreigners who work on their eye-foot coordination in soccer year round.