July 13, 2004

Basketball is flip side of baseball

The sport has become overwhelmingly the province of black athletes.

By Mark Lelinwalla
Inquirer Staff Writer

On the eve of the NBA Finals, Larry Bird made it clear: He said the NBA needed more white players, so more white American fans would follow the game.

Although Bird's reasoning may be questionable, at only 21 percent, the NBA's white-player population is diminishing. The question is: Why?

"Many times, white players select themselves out of basketball because they see a predominantly black player base, the competition level is high and they get discouraged or intimidated," said Richard E. Lapchick, an expert on race in sports and the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card series. "This is not only happening in the NBA - it's in college and high school, too."

Thus has basketball become the flip side of baseball, two national pastimes growing increasingly segregated as blacks shy from the summer game and whites look to sports other than the city game.

The NBA added its first black players in the 1950-51 season. During the 1960s, more African Americans joined the league. Then in the mid-1970s to early '80s, the shift from predominantly white to predominantly black took place.

Last February, the NBA's black-player population was 77 percent, while the white-player population was 21 percent. Of the white players, 55 percent were American-born and 45 percent were international players.

The NFL, like the NBA, is a sport with a black majority. Yet, according to Lapchick's most recent report card, the 65 percent black representation in the 2001 season was a four-year low. And the league's feeder system - Division I college football - was 49.4 percent white and 42.1 percent black in 2000-01.

College basketball, like the NBA, reflects the decline in white players. According to the report by Lapchick - himself the son of a white Basketball Hall of Famer - the number of white players at the Division I level in 2000-01 season was 32.5 percent, 2 full percentage points below the 1991-92 numbers.

Is the flight reversible?

"The influx of European white players in the NBA is going to open the eyes of American white players," said Jon Entine, the author of Why Blacks Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It. "Still, the white resurgence is greatly exaggerated because if you look at all the NBA's big-name superstars right now, they're almost all African Americans. It's not only an issue of race; it's an issue of body types, because African Americans have a slight biogenetic advantage over whites."

Genetics or sociology - the root causes of the migration by any group from any sport can be debated without end. What you can't debate are the numbers.

In the 1991-92 season, the Racial and Gender Report Card showed that 25 percent of the league's players were white, while 75 percent were black. Just three years later, in the 1994-95 season, the same report card showed that the black-player population was 82 percent, while the white-player population had dropped down to 18 percent, the lowest for whites in the decade. The 1997-98 season report card showed that the white-player population increased to 23 percent, while black players made up 77 percent.

Now with the 2003-04 season behind us, whites make up 21 percent, with black players at 77 percent. Latinos and Asian American players make up the other 2 percent.

"Obviously as a coach, I don't care if players are black, white, purple or green... as long as they have skills to play basketball," said Phil Martelli, coach of the men's team at St. Joseph's. "My team has white players, so I don't know why the number of whites are going down. Maybe it's a societal thing."

Grayson Boucher, nicknamed "Professor," knows about basketball being a societal issue. The 20-year-old from Oregon is the only white player on the popular And1 Mix Tape national touring streetball team.

"Subconsciously I know I'm the only white player on the team, but I just play with a never-back-down attitude because my skills speak for themselves," said Boucher, who earned a spot on the team after winning a competition through 28 cities. "I think a lot of white kids from the suburbs may be intimidated because no one looks like them on the court, but they have to let their skills and game do the talking for them to earn everyone's respect."

While Boucher thinks that intimidation may be a reason for the decline of white athletes in basketball, others think there's more to it. "White parents are partly responsible because some see basketball as a ghetto sport now," Entine said. "Some parents discourage their kids from playing, and in the process, their children aren't able to access their full potential."

Although the NBA does have its share of white stars - Predrag Stojakovic, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash - the numbers show a clear disparity.

"The NBA has been nearly 80 percent African American for years now," Lapchick said.