Order on the Court

With the NBA Finals coming up, retired black basketball stars are complaining about how racist the NBA is.

On his ESPN show, Jalen Rose denounced the U.S. Olympic basketball team choice of white veteran Kevin Love, the nephew of Beach Boy Mike Love, as its 12th man as “tokenism”: “Don’t be scared to make an all-Black team representing the United States of America.”

In reality, the U.S. Olympic team was all-black in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2016. The only white players named to the last seven U.S. teams have been Love and John Stockton. Evidently, diversity is not our strength when it comes to basketball.

Granted, Love is 32 and likely washed-up due to injuries, but perhaps the Olympic team wanted the guy LeBron James demanded to help him bring an NBA title to his home city of Cleveland because he would accept his role at the far end of a deep bench rather than sulk?

Speaking of sulking, Scottie Pippen is still denouncing Phil Jackson, the all-time winningest coach, as racist for choosing Croatian Toni Kukoč to take the last shot in a 1994 Chicago Bulls playoff game instead of him.

Pippen sitting out the last two seconds of a playoff game in a snit was the low point of his impressive career. Scottie’s view was that for years he’d subordinated himself to Michael Jordan as the Bulls’ alpha dog, but now that MJ was off on his weird minor-league baseball hiatus, he was rightfully The Man. But Pippen, with his very long arms, was always a better all-around basketball player than pure shooter.

In contrast, Jackson, who coached eleven NBA championship teams by cajoling huge egos like Jordan, Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant to try being team players, felt he was paid to win titles. He had just watched Pippen heave up two straight bricks, so he called on Kukoč. As usual, Jackson was right: The lanky Croat hit the game-winner.

These incidents bring up a couple of seldom-asked questions: Will the decline in African-American culture since Ferguson in 2014 eventually hurt the quality of play in the NBA, the way the crack era of the early 1990s led to the bad basketball of the late 1990s and early 2000s?

And whatever happened to white American basketball players?

The latter is a hard question to answer because whites very seldom complain publicly about race. So white people with inside information mostly keep their mouth shut, leaving it to ill-informed outsiders like me to speculate.

While white American players are in decline, foreign whites had a good 2021, with Serb center Nikola Jokić winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award in a landslide and Slovenian guard Luka Dončić finishing fifth.

“Evidently, diversity is not our strength when it comes to basketball.”

Guys with names that end in “ić” seem cut out for the NBA. In this century, people from the Balkans (who tend to be exceptionally tall and rugged) have been solidifying their claim across a variety of sports to be the finest white athletes in the world. In a recent survey of basketball fans on the best white NBA players right now, five of the top ten were from ex-Yugoslav countries: Dončić, Jokić, Nikola Vučević of Montenegro, Bojan Bogdanović of Bosnia, and Bogdan Bogdanović of Serbia.

Only two Americans made the white top ten, Gordon Hayward and Joe Harris, no better than little Lithuania (Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valančiūnas—Baltics, like Balkans, tend to be tall), and barely ahead of Australians (Joe Ingles).

What’s the matter with white American basketball players?

One reason is that while U.S. whites are still getting slightly taller each generation, they’ve been overtaken in average height by a number of European countries. On the other hand, many of the tallest countries, such as the Netherlands, don’t much like basketball, while shorter countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece tend to be among the most enthusiastic Europeans.

Also, tall white boys don’t have much confidence anymore that they can succeed over black talent. A couple of generations ago, whites could outwork blacks on the basketball court, especially in the non-glamorous tasks, such as playing defense, or the ones that require repetitious practice, such as outside shooting. Phil Jackson, who won an NBA title as a dorky-looking but effective role player before winning more championships than any other coach in American pro sports history, explained in his 1976 memoir Maverick:

Throughout the years the black players on the Knicks have possessed much better physical ability than the white players, being generally faster and better jumpers…. White players are more often willing to run patterns and to work collectively….

Black kids growing up want to be the superstar of their neighborhood…the best one-on-one basketball players. White kids, on the other hand, usually are raised in a more homogeneous environment, which provides other outlets for personal expression. They’re also constantly being taught the principle of subordinating their own personal glory for the good of the group.

Since 1976, however, blacks have gotten notably better at playing defense. This is heartening. It shows that blacks can improve their culture if it means enough to them. They’re not genetically doomed to helplessness.

It’s why I ask African-Americans to cut their murder rate to the Latino level. Unlike practically every other pundit, I think they could if they tried hard enough. But black basketball players have coaches yelling at them to do better, while everybody in the rest of society is now reassuring blacks that any shortcomings they have in daily life are the fault of whites, who must pay.

And in this century, black hoopsters have improved at long-range shooting, especially the affluent sons of NBA players such as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson who grew up with their own baskets to practice on for hours per day. Nurture matters as well as nature.

But that leaves whites with fewer opportunities in basketball, especially because white boys physically mature slower than black boys.

Many of the best white North American white basketball players in recent decades have grown up in the very white Pacific Northwest, like Love (Portland), Stockton (Spokane), and Steve Nash (Vancouver Island), far from large numbers of blacks as competition. Stockton’s Gonzaga U. in Spokane became a college basketball powerhouse by recruiting white players willing to stick around for four years. But now it can compete for the best black athletes.

My guess is that tall, athletic white youths now focus more on becoming baseball pitchers, a technical skill that requires a lot of coaching, rather than be funneled into basketball as they used to be.

We hear constantly about how diversity is our strength, but in sports, ethnic specialization tends to have a sizable payoff.

Is the NBA getting better or worse?

Just about the only purely objective measure of skill in basketball is free-throw shooting percentage, which has mostly been improving over the years, although not to the same extent as field goal kicking in the NFL. But with the current emphasis on shooting long-range three-point baskets, the NBA set a new record for free-throw shooting accuracy in 2021 at 77.8 percent.

There were two periods when free-throw accuracy fell well below the trend line for a number of years: the 1960s and the 1990s. The former may have been driven in part by Wilt Chamberlain’s psychodramas at the line: In a small league, Wilt’s personal travails at shooting free throws didn’t help the overall average.

The collapse in the later 1990s as the NBA reached a new peak in wealth is curious. It may have had something to do with the growing emphasis on long-armed players like Pippen. And the effect of steroids on basketball performance remains obscure compared with better-studied sports like baseball and track.

But at the time, it sure looked like players who had grown up listening to gangsta rap during the crack era were getting more thuggish and irresponsible. Whereas Jordan and Pippen conducted postgame press conferences in superb bespoke business suits, by the later 1990s, players like Allen Iverson dressed like Bloods and Crips.

Clothes, evidently, make the man.

Darryl Dawkins, whose showboating Philadelphia 76ers lost to Bill Walton’s Portland Trailblazers in an epic 1977 NBA Finals confrontation between the black and white games, told Charlie Rose in the early 2000s, “The black game by itself is too chaotic and much too selfish…. White culture places more of a premium on winning, and less on self-indulgent preening and chest-beating.” Arguing that the best teams combine both styles, Dawkins pointed out, “In basketball and in civilian life, freedom without structure winds up being chaotic and destructive.”

Finally, after the U.S. Olympic team was beaten at the 2004 Olympics by Argentina, Lithuania, and even Puerto Rico, the NBA front office cracked down on players dressing like gang members.

Interestingly, black players responded positively to this long-overdue upbraiding, adopting an ironic nerd chic, which, weirdly, jibed well with the front offices’ new emphasis on data analytics. General managers became convinced that the long-range three-point shot was under-exploited, so they went looking for better outside shooters, who tended to be black suburbanites who had grown up with their own driveways to practice shooting on by themselves. The NBA became more middle-class in composition and affect.

Will this trend continue?

Unfortunately, black behavior, which had been improving ever since its early-1990s low point as measured by acid test metrics such as the murder rate and traffic safety, started getting worse with the rise of Black Lives Matter at Ferguson in 2014, and then collapsed during last year’s racial reckoning. Will that damage the NBA like it did in the gangsta rap era once young players raised on the once-again fashionable self-destructive attitudes reach their 20s?

I could see it going either way. The NBA could be dragged down by the cultural undertow, or it could increasingly draw from more assimilated whiter blacks, often ones with a white mother, such as LaMelo and Lonzo Ball.

But one thing we can say for sure about the future of the NBA: Millionaires complaining about racism won’t stop.



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