April 23, 2002

Black and white in the NBA

The return of the white B-baller: A reader writes:

What do you make of the following trends?

-In this year's NCAA Men's Final Four, three of the four teams had white point guards. Further, a team with three white starters, Indiana, made it to the title game.

-White European players are having a greater impact on the NBA:

--Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA, is a 6'10" blonde German, NBA All-Star, and perhaps one of the most dangerous players in the league. Spain's 21 year old Pau Gasol most likely will win rookie of the year honors (beating out, among others, his teammate and last year's college player of the year, Shane Battier). 21 year old rookie from Moscow, Andrei Kirilenko, is the fourth leading scorer for the Utah Jazz, and recently, shut down the player many compare to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant. Besides Nowitzki, Dallas also starts Steve Nash, 6' white player from Canada.

- The Sacramento Kings, the best team in the NBA based on record, is relying heavily on starter and second-leading scorer Predrag Stojakovic (Belgrade) and Turkish back-up Hidayet Turkoglu.

-The USA now relies on pros to win in the Olympics. After thoroughly dominating with pros in the 1992 Summer Games, the USA has gradually become less dominant against the World -- specifically Europe. In the 2000 Summer games, the US won by 2 points in the semi-final game against Lithuania. In the Gold Medal game, France was within four with four minutes to play before losing by 10. Granted, the 2000 Summer Olympic team did not include Shaq or Kobe Bryant, but subtract the two best players from the 1992 Olympic Team and they still would have averaged 30 point wins.

Do these trends present new evidence in which to question the assumed physical advantages blacks have in basketball? Or is it a numbers game: from a greater pool of players as more white European's take basketball seriously, more whites would emerge as elite players.

I suspect that the American style of play has become a little too dominated by black b-ball culture for optimum effectiveness. For example, American basketball players don't seem to shoot from the outside as well as they used to - free throw percentages are lower than in past generations, and outside field goal shooting is probably worse too. That's likely because today's NBA players spent less time shooting by themselves when they were growing up.

And that's primarily due to the decline of white players in the NBA. Whites typically are rich enough to have their own driveway to shoot in by themselves. Blacks, in contrast, tend to congregate at public courts and scrimmage non-stop - that's great for developing passing and defense, but not for grooving the outside shot. Also, the increasingly black American basketball culture has emphasized defense over the last 20 years. So, you get lots of highly athletic quick guys with good jumping ability, but not enough guys with the eye-hand coordination to put the ball in the basket from more than 3' away. There's not much difference between blacks and whites in hand-eye coordination, but blacks have a higher likelihood for being quick enough to be top defenders.

Also, the NBA right now has a lot of 25 year olds who were impressionable adolescents during the worst of the crack epidemic and they absorbed a lot of the atrocious attitudes going around a decade ago that remain embodied in gangsta rap. The next generation might be a little better, since the crime rate is way down.

Also, we are finally starting to see NBA-quality players from the basketball-crazy Mediterranean countries like Spain, Italy, and Turkey. Before, European players were almost all from Slavic or Northern European countries. People tend to grow taller in those countries than in the Mediterranean lands. Maybe they are catching up in height?

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