The popular image of the African American National Basketball Association (NBA) player as rising from the ”ghetto' to international fame and fortune misleads academics and publics alike. This false image is fueled, in part, by critical shortcomings in empirical research on the relationship between race, sport, and occupational mobility: these studies have not adequately examined differences in social class and family structure backgrounds across, and especially within, racial groups. To address this problem, we empirically investigate how the intersection of race, social class and family structure background influences entry into the NBA. Information on social class and family structure background for a subpopulation of NBA players (N = 155) comes from 245 articles published in local, regional and national newspapers between 1994 and 2004. We find that, after accounting for methodological problems common in newspaper data, most NBA players come from relatively advantaged social origins and African Americans from disadvantaged social origins have lower odds of being in the NBA than African American and white players from relatively advantaged origins.I was nodding my head until that last bit. Watching Dirk Nowitzki dominate on the sports highlights gets me to wondering once again: how come there are more top white basketball players from foreign countries (e.g., Nowitzki, Nash, the Gasols, Ginobili, etc.) than from the U.S.? Sure, there are more tall white guys abroad, but Germany isn't exactly hoops crazy.
Top white American basketball players do seem to come from wealthy basketball families fairly often: Kevin Love's dad was in the NBA and Kiki Vandeweghe's dad was an NBA player who became the Lakers' team doctor. But, it seems as if white fathers today who aren't ex-basketball stars are more likely to groom their tall, athletic sons to be quarterbacks rather than basketball players. I remember back in the late 1960s how amazed NFL fans were that Roman Gabriel, at 6'5" had become a quarterback rather than a basketball player. Times have changed. (By the way, Gabriel's father was from the Philippines. His mother was Irish.)
Clearly, one reason for this finding about blacks is that jail wrecks the careers of a fair number of athletic blacks from underclass backgrounds. It would be interesting to look at arrest and prison statistics on height and race to see if being very tall helps a black guy be less likely to stay out of jail because he's being helped along toward a basketball career. My prediction would be that a lower percentage of very tall black men are in prison than in the total black population.
A few years ago, I made up a list of the top 10 centers in NBA history, and most seemed pretty smart. Center is the position where sheer height matters most, yet having something on the ball must also help. Of the top 10 centers, only Moses Malone, with his almost incomprehensible rural Southern accent, was clearly from the least advantaged part of society. Patrick Ewing was pretty taciturn too, but a lot of other top centers, such as Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, were famously good interviews. David Robinson scored 1320 on the SAT (old style) and Kareem 1130.
Also, I suspect that having an outstandingly athletic son can sometimes keep fathers from straying too far, thus keeping the kid at a higher social level because his family is intact.