This year's National Basketball Association finals match up the Big Three of the Miami Heat—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh—against the Big One of the Dallas Mavericks—German seven-footer Dirk Nowitzki.
(As VDARE.com goes to press (post) on Sunday evening, Dallas is up three games to two, with the final game is 53-51 for the Mavericks at half-time, with Nowitzki, on an off night, going 1 for 12.)
The heroics of Nowitzki, who has averaged 28 points per game in twenty playoff contests this year, have the New York Times worried about "a storyline that many African-American players for years have been sensitive to: the excessive glorification of basketball's Caucasian stars". [European Sheds Label as He Shops for a Ring by Harvey Araton, June 9, 2011]
What "excessive glorification" of which "Caucasian stars"? Who are these white NBA players who are taking all the endorsement contracts away from blacks?
The NYT's Araton reminds us of the much-dreaded specter of white ethnocentrism:
"Peaking in the 1980s with Larry Bird—with whom Nowitzki has been compared—the belief has been that the white star has been excessively mythologized for working harder and sacrificing more."
But, the point is that Bird was a white guy and he was really popular, so, all these years later, that's still worrisome. Can't let that happen again!
When Bird was quoted in 2004 that "… as we all know, the majority of fans are white America. If you just had a couple of white guys in there [in the NBA], you might get them a little excited," he was widely denounced by sportswriters as an inbred hillbilly bigot.
All this raises a number of questions that aren't likely to get asked anywhere else.
Has Nowitzki been excessively glorified because he's white?
To answer that, we have to answer two more questions.
Although Nowitzki gets compared to Bird in the press because they are both white, he is not the creative passing genius that Bird was.
Instead, Nowitzki is the BMW 760Li of basketball players: long, agile, and precise. He's likely the best jump-shooting seven-footer ever. (The mechanics of having long limbs mean they are inherently harder to control.) His career free throw percentage, 87.7 percent, is the 14th best of all time, and every player ahead of him is at least three inches shorter. This combination of height, hand-eye coordination, ceaseless practice, and European innovation (he often shoots his fall-away jumper off the "wrong" foot to make it unblockable) renders him extremely effective.
Nowitzki turns 33 later this week and is now in the decline phase of his career, having peaked at age 28 in 2007 when he won the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award. With the recent retirement of Shaquille O'Neal, Nowitzki now ranks as the third-leading career scorer among active players, behind only Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. He also ranks third among active players in a more sophisticated metric of all-around play, Win Shares, ahead of Kobe and behind only Garnett and Tim Duncan. Nowitzki has made the All-NBA team for eleven straight seasons, four times first team All-NBA. In 123 playoff games, he has averaged 26.0 points and 10.4 rebounds, which are better than his regular season marks.
In other words, he may not be Bird, but he's really good.
It turns out that, even after 13 years in the NBA, Nowitzki is relatively low in name recognition in the U.S. Cheryl Hall reported in the Dallas Morning News (June 1, 2011):
"No matter how things shake out with the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals, Dirk Nowitzki is unlikely to become a highly pursued pitchman—even if he wins MVP honors. Nearly two-thirds of American consumers still don't recognize the Mavericks' superstar forward …"
This despite the fact that Nowitzki's English is good. In fact, by now his accent can sound, when he chooses, more Texan than German. He's quite popular in North Texas and in Germany (he carried the German flag in the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics). But he doesn't excite much interest in most of America. He's not the best-known player in the Finals, or even on his own team. Hall writes:
"Nowitzki is practically invisible compared to Miami Heat superstar LeBron James, who is recognized by eight of 10 consumers. Even Mavericks teammate Jason Kidd scores higher, with nearly half of consumers knowing who he is."
Not surprisingly, Nowitzki gets fewer endorsements than LeBron or Dwyane. Thus economist Patrick Rishe noted in Forbes on May 31, 2011: "Unfortunately for Dirk, based on Sports Illustrated's data, LeBron's endorsement income is 460% greater than Dirk's."
In short: the claim that Nowitzki is excessively glorified for being Caucasian would appear to be a complete myth.
Indeed, Nowitzki's not being black works against his popularity with blacks, with white liberals, and, in general, with the more immature sort of whites—the kind who hate Duke U. for playing a lot of whites. And Nowitzki's not being American tends to work against him with white conservatives. Overall, white Americans tend to be much more nationalistic than racialistic.
That doesn't mean, however, that Bird was wrong in saying that the NBA could benefit from some white stars. Specifically, it could use white American stars. Compared to the National Football League, which features numerous homegrown white superstar quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the NBA is a less popular league. The NMRRP graphs I posted a couple of weeks ago in VDARE.com show that the NBA's fan base is much smaller than the NFL's or even college football's, and it severely lacks Republican fans.
So that raises other questions almost never discussed in public: What happened to the NBA's white American stars? Why are there so many more foreign white stars? Does this disparate impact amount to evidence of discrimination against whites in American basketball before they can reach the professional level?
We can quantify the shortfall of white American players relative to white foreigners by looking at the list of the 50 best active players in terms of cumulative career achievement as measured by Win Shares on Basketball-Reference.com.
There are nine white players out of the top 50, eight of whom grew up abroad: #3 is Nowitzki, #8 Steve Nash, #14 Pau Gasol, #22 Peja Stojakovic, #25 Manu Ginobili, #36 Andrei Kirilenko, #37 Zydrunas Ilgauskas, #47 Hedo Turkoglu.
Only one American white is in the top 50: #28, Brad Miller, a 35-year-old center. He's the last white American to play in two NBA All Star games, back in 2003 and 2004. It's perhaps worth mentioning that Miller went to high school in nearly all-white Maine.
Why are there so few white American players?
Is it height? Probably not. There are some countries in Europe that are taller on average than white Americans, most famously the Netherlands. But the Dutch, like most Northern Europeans other than Lithuanians, aren't that interested in basketball. Even with Nowitzki on their Olympic team, Germany only went 1-4 at the 2008 Olympics, demonstrating that basketball isn't a huge sport there.
Basketball has long been popular in Southern Europe, and with the increase in average heights in Mediterranean countries, the NBA is seeing more players from that area, such as seven-foot Gasol brothers, from Spain (technically Catalonia).
On the whole, while there are more whites outside the U.S. than in it, interest in basketball is much lower overseas. So it's hard to explain this 8 to 1 ratio in terms of the pool of contenders.
So what has caused the decline of the white American basketball player during the rise of the white non-American player? Why, as it appears, is it harder for a tall white kid to learn basketball in the U.S., the country that invented basketball, than in some place where ski jumping is considered a major sport?
My hypothesis: the difference is due to various forms of discrimination, some inadvertent, some overt, such as bullying by blacks.
One crucial change in American basketball over the last generation: the increased emphasis on finding and promoting the best athletes at young ages. Whites tend to mature physically later than blacks, so the acceleration of the selection process works against gawky young whites.
Relative maturity matters a lot in youth sports. For instance, Canadian professional hockey players are more likely to be born in January than in December because the cutoff date for age-group hockey leagues in Canada is January 1st. Boys born in January will go through their youth hockey careers nearly a year older than boys born in December, and will be more likely to be chosen for all-star traveling squads. December-born boys are more likely to get discouraged or get interested in another sport where they won't get pushed around by older boys.
Basketball has become a game for early-bloomers. LeBron James, for example, is only 26 years old. Nevertheless, people have lately been getting kind of tired of him, in part because he's been famous for almost a decade, since he was a 6'-8" 240-pound high school junior on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
A further change in youth basketball also works against whites: the proliferation of showcase events outside of school sports. Rather than the lengthy traditional apprenticeship on school teams, the modern American game is all about identifying young prospects through AAU travel squads that compete in showcases for prospects. (For example, here's a highlight reel of 10-year-old A.A.U. phenom Tyrik Suggs.)
Michael Sokolove wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 2009:
"All youth sports now operate on fast-forward. Just about any kid with some ability takes road trips with his or her team by the age of 12, flying on planes and staying in hotels. That used to happen, if at all, only after an athlete was skilled enough to play in college. … But basketball operates at a level beyond other sports … and in recent years, the attention, benefits and temptations that fall on top high-school players have settled on an ever-younger group."[Allonzo Trier Is in the Game, March 19, 2009]
Sokolove profiled one sixth grader who "is flown around the country by A.A.U. teams that want him to play for them in tournaments—and by basketball promoters who use him to add luster to their events". He explains that "A.A.U." "stands for Amateur Athletic Union but [its] practices mock traditional definitions of amateurism."
The rise of travel squads independent of school sports has meant that games tend to segregate themselves racially. For example, you might have wondered why there have been so few Hispanics on recent U.S. World Cup soccer teams. One reason is that in the U.S., elite youth soccer takes a lot of parental investment in plane tickets, and thus tends to be a preserve of the affluent. Sokolove has argued that the system keeps the American World Cup team less skilled than it could be, but soccer parents don't seem to mind. They'd rather keep their children's game upscale and genteel.
But in contrast to soccer, the most glamorous basketball travel squads tend to be organized by inner-city hustlers with shady connections with college coaches and shoe companies. White parents are reluctant to get their kids involved in that kind of dubious enterprise.
And the white kids themselves aren't that crazy about playing in travel squad leagues where black ways are the norms. Extremely tall teenage white boys tend to be awkward and self-conscious until they finally mature. They're easy to bully, especially by black youths who take a racially proprietary view of the sport.
Moreover, until the 1970s, colleges expected basketball players to stay around for four years. In fact, athletes couldn't play varsity ball until they were sophomores. That gave college coaches an incentive to recruit players who might be long-term projects instead of the current emphasis on one-and-done prodigies.
An extreme example of the slow-maturing white guy: 7'4" 290 pound Mark Eaton. At age 24, after having spent three years as an auto mechanic, he was averaging only two minutes per game as the backup center at UCLA because he still looked dorky. But he went on to set a bundle of shot-blocking records for the Utah Jazz.
A more typical case: a seven-footer named Paul Mokeski. When I was in high school, Mokeski was the center for archrival Crespi High. As a junior, he was painfully uncoordinated. But when he was a senior, my school's team could barely get a shot off against him. By age 18, he'd started to figure out how to control his body. He went off to the University of Kansas and by the time he was a senior there he was a pretty good college basketball player. He then enjoyed a dozen years in the NBA as a backup center.
That's the kind of slow ripening impossible in today's turbocharged American youth basketball pipeline.
In contrast, Dirk Nowitzki grew up in a country where most basketball players don't see themselves as the leading representatives of a different, adversarial culture. Instead, they are just tall guys in a homogenous society.
Diversity (as we all know) is strength! It's also…some paradoxical, and perturbing, counter currents.
[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA'S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA'S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]