— A dozen years.
Twelve years have passed since an American-born Caucasian player started in the NBA All-Star Game. An entire generation — more realistically, two — of NBA talent has come and gone without a Great White Hoop being voted by the fans to be a starter in pro basketball’s midseason showcase. And no player fitting that demographic profile deserved to be one.
The question is: Who was the last white American to start the NBA All-Star Game?
Then, the two most immediate answers are 1) “I don’t know” and 2) “Steve Nash — oh, that’s right, he’s Canadian.”
When Sunday’s All-Star game tips off in Phoenix, the five starters representing the Eastern Conference will be Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade and Allen Iverson. The Western Conference will start Yao Ming, Tim Duncan, Amar'e Stoudemire, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. That is, nine African-Americans and one international player (Yao, who is from China).
And that makeup, dividing the league into African-American, international and Caucasian-American players, is about par for the course since 1998. Sunday’s All-Star Game will be the 11th straight (no All-Star Game was held in 1999) in which seven to nine of the starters were African-American and one to three starters were international.
The last white American to start the All-Star Game? When I quizzed a friend of mine, a former NBA assistant coach who is himself Caucasian, the first response was, “Chris Mullin?”
Think of the whitest NBA player you can.
“Oh! John Stockton.”
“I don’t think the typical fan differentiates between African-American players, white American players and international players,” says Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “They see for the most part white players and black players. When they look at Tony Parker, they don’t differentiate between African-American (which he is not) or French-African (which he is).”
The point of this story is not to draw conclusions. Nor is it to be divisive. It is not to ascribe a value judgment as to the dwindling influence of white Americans on the NBA hardwood; not to lament, as so many have, the fact that Bird is gone and he ain’t comin’ back; not to take glory in the fact that the game is now played above the rim, or that the damage the Dream Team of 1992 wreaked on feckless foreigners in Barcelona was actually the catalyst for the internationals' invasion of the NBA.
No, to all of the above.
The point of the story is simply to draw attention. To hold up the NBA as a mirror to the American ideals of opportunity and diversity and to illustrate how the league itself reflects the fluid tapestry of the American demographic. Because if you believe that America has no interest in this phenomenon, then maybe you were not watching television on Inauguration Day.
Here’s a question: Who is the greatest Caucasian player born and raised on U.S. soil currently on an NBA roster? Go ahead, I’ll wait.
To narrow the field, I can tell you that 11 white players regularly start in the NBA (for the sake of clarity, from here on the term “white” will strictly denote American-born white players, while we acknowledge that three of the past four NBA Most Valuable Player awards were won by Caucasians who just happened to be from Germany [Dirk Nowitzki] or Canada [Steve Nash], whom we will call international players). Eleven starters of a possible 150 (five starters on each of the 30 teams), or 7.75 percent, are white.
Within that group of 11, one player leads in both points per game (16.2) and rebounds per game (11.8). In fact, he has accumulated more double-doubles this season (39) than anyone else in the NBA besides Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic. Howard, who just set a record for the most All-Star votes an individual player has ever received.
That player? David Lee of the New York Knicks.
Matt Bonner, who is second in the NBA in 3-point percentage at .490, starts for the San Antonio Spurs. And Luke Walton, whose father was one of two white players to win the MVP award in the past 35 years, starts for the team with the NBA’s best record, the Los Angeles Lakers. Troy Murphy of the Indiana Pacers, the only team that regularly starts two white players (Mike Dunleavy is the other), averages a double-double, too (12.6 points, 11.4 rebounds).
And yet, when the final voting tally was taken for the 2009 NBA All-Star Game, David Lee did not finish among the top 10 forwards in the Eastern Conference. (Perhaps if the Knicks played in a larger market?) In fact, only three white players (Chris Kaman, Los Angeles Clippers; Nick Collison, Oklahoma City Thunder; and Luke Ridnour, Milwaukee Bucks) finished in the top 10 at their respective positions in the balloting, and none were selected by the coaches to either roster.
Meanwhile, 15 international players finished in the top 10 in balloting at their positions and four (all from the Western Conference) will suit up at U.S. Airways Arena on Sunday. Just 16-plus years since the Dream Team — whose 12-man roster was 33 percent white, ravaged the Barcelona Olympics competition — the mindset among both fans and coaches is that, all in all, international players trump white players.
Would you disagree?
Even if you were to break it down ethnically, white international players are superior to Wonder Bread whites. Would you rather have a starting five of Nash, Andre Kirilenko, Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki and Zydrunas Ilgauskas or would you prefer a starting five of five American white players who, back in college, more than likely were profiled in Sports Illustrated (J.J. Redick, Adam Morrison, Wally Szczerbiak, Kevin Love and Kyle Korver ... to name a few)?
For the record, the last time a white player even appeared in an NBA All-Star Game was in 2004. I’ll give you a moment to guess his identity as well. Give up? It was Sacramento Kings center Brad Miller, whose 10 minutes of playing time were the least anyone had that afternoon in Los Angeles.
The international era
Lapchick, a keen observer of the manner in which sport reflects society and vice-versa, finds the topic intriguing — and at times amusing. “We publish a ‘Racial and Gender Report Card’ across all sports,” he says. “It gives the percentage of people of color and of females participating in sports at various levels.
“And every year when that comes out, we consistently get a barrage of e-mails asking, in effect, ‘When are you going to take up the cause of white athletes?’”
If you wonder why some writers are so fawning toward the ’86 Boston Celtics (I won’t name names), it may have something to do with the fact that, besides having a charismatic cast of players, they were the last NBA champions to start three white players (Bird, Walton and Kevin McHale). And that the former two represent the entire collection of whites who have won the MVP award since 1974. And that 1986 really comprised the last days of honky-tonk (minus the “tonk”) hoops in the NBA.
Bird won his third consecutive, and final, MVP award in 1986. No white player has won the Maurice Podoloff Trophy since.
One year before Bird won that trophy, Georgi Glouchkov of Bulgaria became the first player from an Eastern bloc country to be drafted by an NBA club (the Phoenix Suns). One year after Bird was named ‘86 MVP, Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets became the first international player voted to start in an All-Star Game.
It was the end of one era and the start of another; the dawn of outsourcing NBA All-Star starters. Since 1994, an international player has been voted to start in every All-Star contest except one (1996), while a white player has been voted to start only once, and that was the league’s all-time leader in both assists and steals, Stockton, in 1997.
“Obviously, it’s hard not to notice the trend of international players,” says Lapchick, one of the most respected voices in the country in matters that intersect society and sport. “They’ve been playing basketball at a higher level for some time now. But I wonder if the number of white American starters in the NBA is much different than that of white international starters in the NBA.”
Lapchick makes a salient point. The number of international white players who start is roughly the same as that of American whites. However, as of Jan. 6, according to NBA.com, there were 77 foreign players from 32 different countries in the NBA. Even Iran is represented (Hamed Haddadi, a 7-foot-2 center for the Memphis Grizzlies). Meanwhile there are 36 white players, or less than half as many white players as international players, in the NBA. Thirty-six white players is exactly 10 percent of the league.
And to think that in the first six seasons the NBA staged an All-Star Game, between 1951-1956, only twice did a non-white player even make an All-Star roster.
To ask why is to venture into territory that, while charted, is no less precarious. Using the All-Star starter metric, it is obvious (as if years of watching SportsCenter was not proof enough) that players of African descent dominate the game. You’d have to go all the way back to 1961 to find an All-Star Game in which more than half the starters were not African-American (the four blacks who started that game at the Onondoga County War Memorial Coliseum in Syracuse, N.Y., were only Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain).
Over the past couple decades, the influx of international talent has not had that much of an impact on the league’s black demographic (Kobe, LeBron and Chris Paul are doing just fine, thank you). However, the number of white players has certainly decreased. Whether you want to ascribe that to socio-economic conditions, genetics or video games is your call.
Pushed to the fringe
It is worth noting, though, that the NBA’s current pool of white players seem more often to be plumbed from the rural heartland — Jimmy Chitwood stock — than urban, or even suburban ones. Mike Miller of the Minnesota Timberwolves grew up in South Dakota. Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich and Kyle Korver are from Iowa.
In fact, as often as not a suburban-bred white NBA player is the offspring of a retired pro player (e.g., Dunleavy, Love, Szczerbiak, Walton). And finally — and why should you be surprised? — no individual school has more white players in the NBA than Notre Dame, with four (Murphy, Chris Quinn, Matt Carroll and Rob Kurz) and maybe five next season (Luke Harangody).
Evolution breeds adaptation, which in turn breeds evolution. Lapchick foresees an even greater infusion of international players. “I think you’re going to see more Chinese players, more African players,” he says. “And maybe even players from places the NBA has never had one before. The NBA took a tour to India last year for the first time, for example.”
Slumdog Millionaire, the hoops edition.
And maybe it’s coincidence, or maybe not, but while only three white players rank in the top 100 in the NBA in scoring at present (Lee, Murphy and Ridnour), eight of them are amongst the top 40 in 3-point shooting percentage. As a group, then, you might say that white players are being pushed out of the prime hardwood real estate. They’re literally surviving on the fringe, for the most part.
Then again, situated out beyond the arc, white players are closest to the two demographic groups indigenous to the league where whites are still in the majority: head coaches and fans.