The Foreign Invasion of the American Game

Euro: New Currency of the NBA

Consider two games from this month's National Basketball Association playoffs. The first was a low-scoring affair, 76-74, a game full of heady point-guard play, tough man-to-man defense, deliberate offensive patterns, and a full use of the 24-second clock. The other game saw 144 points by both teams in the first half alone, a game played at breakneck speed, three-pointers fired without conscience on fast breaks, disdain for the shot clock—what shot clock?—no real defense to speak of, and a final score of 132-110.

Which game would remind you of the movie Hoosiers and which one of a Rucker Park pickup game in Harlem? Which game was like the UNLV Runnin' Rebels of the '80s, which one the game as played by the back-cutting Princeton Tigers? Which game was like Magic's Lakers, which one was Bird's Celtics?

In other words, which game was played by a lot of white guys, and which game had a predominantly black cast?

illustration: Stanley Martucci and Cheryl Griesbach

The answer may surprise you. The first game in question was game one of the Eastern Conference finals between the New Jersey Nets and Detroit Pistons, a tough defensive contest that saw the Nets make just four field goals in the third quarter, and the Pistons just two field goals in the fourth. In the entire game, there were just five three-pointers made.

The high-scoring game? That was game two of the Western Conference semifinals between the Dallas Mavericks and the Sacramento Kings, a wild-ass game in which Dallas scored an NBA playoff record 83 points in the first half. In a game in which no player for either team met a shot he didn't like, the two teams chucked up 54 three-pointers and made 26 of them.

In that Nets-Pistons game, only one non-African-American player—Detroit's Mehmet Okur, from Turkey—played any minutes. In the Mavs-Kings game, more than a third of the total minutes played were by non-African-American players.

So what's the point of bringing race into the equation here? Because the NBA is changing, on the court and off, getting whiter and more foreign, and many African-American fans and players think there is more going on here than international meritocracy. The perception—and perception is always important in matters of race—is that the NBA is acing out the black man because of corporate (read: white) fans and international marketing money. High-scoring white guys equals big bucks.

As grassy-knoll theories go, it's not easy to see a second shooter behind the fence on this one. After all, Dallas's Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, Houston's Yao Ming, and Memphis's Pau Gasol have all proven they can hang with the brothers in the NBA. And many of the foreign players are themselves black, including Tony Parker, the San Antonio Spurs' star import from France. Still, one has to wonder what role the NBA's business model has in all of these changes. The league changed its rules a few years ago to favor the midrange jumper and discourage one-on-one play—rules that encourage higher-scoring games and less athletic players. The NBA's domestic TV revenues and attendance are flat, and the real money growth is in foreign TV rights and merchandise sales. Hell, the league even trotted out the very dead Frank Sinatra this year on its own cable network's commercials. How white was that?

Does that mean the NBA is favoring the foreign and white player? Depends on who you ask. "The brothers talk about this all the time," says Robert "Scoop" Jackson, editor at large for Slam and a contributing editor for the NBA's own Inside Stuff magazine. "The black cultural perspective is different on this one. From our perspective, the NBA is getting whiter, and not too many of the brothers like it."

Jackson, choosing his words carefully, adds, "It's about comfort levels. The stockholders, the ticket buyers, the corporate sponsors are all white. You have to do something to appease the financial backers of the sport. It's deeper than blatantly getting the brothers out of the game. It's about money."

Basketball is the one American game that comes in black and white flavors. It's not monolithic in that respect, and there are certainly black players who play white, and white players who play black. But think of it this way: Is there a black way of playing baseball or a white way of playing football? Now think of basketball. Every kid who has played ball on the playground knows that blacks and whites play a little different style, and it is not racist to think that way. Black guys generally use power, fluid movements, great one-on-one skills, tough man-to-man defense, speed on the break. White guys are more likely to use more accurate outside shooting, a slow-it-down offense, backpicks and crisp passing, help-out zone defenses, and good free-throw shooting.

The mistake is calling one style "smart basketball" and the other "athletic," and we all know what we're talking about here (and no need to reference the movie White Men Can't Jump). What many basketball fans fail to realize is that a player who thinks he can jump over his opponent and dunk on him is playing smart ball, as is another player who moves constantly and cuts off a pick to find a sliver of space to shoot his jumper. Race and intelligent play have no correlation.

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