The Foreign Invasion of the American Game

Euro: New Currency of the NBA

It is important to note that the NBA is the most progressive of all the U.S. sports leagues when it comes to race. It was the first to have an African-American coach, an African-American GM, and African-American ownership. The league has more black coaches and more black front-office personnel than the other leagues. And in the realm of commercial endorsements, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, and Kobe Bryant are who you go to if you want to sell shoes or soft drinks. (Although it is instructive to note that the Dallas Mavericks, the whitest team in the league, are being used for an American Express commercial.)

And as Harry Edwards says, changes in the style of play in the NBA are hardly new. "It wasn't bad when 'Easy Ed' McCauley and George Mikan [two white NBA stars of the 1950s] were pushed into the background, so how is it bad now?" he asks. "It wasn't bad then, so how is it bad now that the black ox is being gored? Black players will just have to work to take advantage of the changes."

illustration: Stanley Martucci and Cheryl Griesbach

The dynamic of change in the NBA becomes crystal clear if Dallas and New Jersey both make the finals. The Mavericks have seven white or foreign-born players on their active roster, five of whom get significant minutes. The Nets have one foreign player, Dikembe Mutombo, but he's a product of the American college system, not the Euro leagues. The team's one white player, Brian Scalabrine, also rarely gets off the bench. The Mavs claim they get no respect because of their whiteness—the Portland Trail Blazers razzed them on the court earlier this year as "being a bunch of soft white boys." Do the Mavs get disrespected because they are white, or because they are a jump-shooting team that doesn't play much defense? They did win 60 games in the regular season, so how soft can they be?

On the other hand, you have the Nets, a team that can't shoot very well but plays hard-nosed defense. Richard Jefferson and Kerry Kittles will be slashing, Jason Kidd running the team like Magic Johnson, slowing it down when needed, running when the opportunity arises.

The snarl and tattoos of Kenyon Martin, who grew up in the Dallas ghetto, with his acrobatic dunks and skying rebounds, against Dirk Nowitzki, the 25-year-old German whose all-around skills and efficient play have brought about comparisons to Larry Bird. It will be run-and-gun, once thought of as black basketball, but now played by white guys, against a slowdown deliberate game, once thought of as white ball, but now played by black guys. Could be a classic matchup, on the court and off.

Black and white. Roles reversed. But for the NBA, one fact is certain: Black fans and white fans will be watching these games from completely different perspectives. That's just how race and basketball have always worked. That's what hasn't changed.

"The Import of Winning: Playing the Numbers Game" by Dan McGraw

Dan McGraw is a Fort Worth-based freelance writer and author. His book First and Last Seasons: A Father, a Son, and Sunday Afternoon Football was published in 2000 by Doubleday.

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