February 18, 2011


White Men Can't Root: No one wants to acknowledge why the NBA is losing popularity. Buzz Bissinger on why white fans have trouble getting excited about African-American athletes. (Buzz Bissinger, 2/17/11, Daily Beast)

The game is in trouble and I don’t think there is much dispute about that. Attendance was down last year and is slightly down so far this season. Although basketball is supposed to be a team game, it has become more one-on-one in the NBA than a boxing match. The style has changed and it is a definite turnoff.

But a major problem with the NBA, one that is virtually never spoken about honestly, is the issue of race. I have no hard-core evidence. But based on my past experience in writing about sports, I know that whites ascribe very different characteristics to black athletes than they do white ones. I also make a habit of asking every white sports fan I know whether they watch the NBA. In virtually every instance, they say they once watched the game but no longer do. When I ask them if it has anything to do with the racial composition, they do their best to look indignant. But my guess is they felt very differently about the game when Larry Bird and John Stockton were playing.

Based on various statistics, the percentage of African-American players in the NBA has remained relatively constant over the past decade, fluctuating between 72 and 75 percent. The number of foreign-born players has increased exponentially to about 18 percent. The number of white American players, meanwhile, has decreased from 24.3 percent in the 1980-81 season to roughly 10 percent now.

Are whites losing interest in a game in which the number of white American players not only continues to dwindle, but no longer features a superstar?

The one white American player today who comes the closest to being a star is Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves. He is averaging 21 points a game and 15 rebounds. He is on the West roster in the All-Star Game. Do you know anyone who would pay to see Love play?

It boils down to this: Are whites losing interest in a game in which the number of white American players not only continues to dwindle, but no longer features a superstar?


Weirdly, Mr. Bissinger begins by conceding that the individualistic style of play is a turn off then proceeds to wonder if it is black domination of the sport that turns other whites off. But isn't the important question whether there is a link between race and that repellent style of play?

I'd argue that there isn't really, that the problem is more that players never even learn how to play a team-oriented game. They're superstars in high school, recruited to play a year or two in college, and then move to the pros without ever having to learn the game and hone their craft. And it doesn't matter whether they are white or black.

Indeed, the most influential in the NBA is Kevin Garnett, because he requires of his teammates that they play defense as hard as he does, and intimidates them into doing so. But, during the spells when he is hurt, and not on the court, they don't. [Watch the Celtics play and you have to wonder if Ray Allen might be considered one of the NBA's greatest all around players, rather than its best ever shooter, had he played with KG his whole career.] That was, likewise, part of the greatness of Michael Jordan--though he was obviously a much better scorer than Garnett--the way he demanded the best of his fellow players. And folks tend to forget that Michael won championships by drawing defenses to himself late in playoff games and then kicking the ball out to slow white shooting guards who took the winning shots.

Yes, neither of them finished school either, but they came to the NBA with something unique to their personalities. If you aren't born with that character trait where are you going to acquire it on the pampered path to NBA stardom?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 18, 2011 7:14 AM
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