Does the NBA practice affirmative action—for white players? Well, sports fans, even as quotas and preferential treatment come under increasing fire throughout American society, a close look at NBA rosters suggests that the league is one realm where racial tokenism may live on. Sure, the claim seems ludicrous for the overwhelmingly black NBA—until you consider the disproportionate number of mediocre white players in the league. Indeed, the surfeit of white benchwarmers suggests that pro basketball teams may practice a fainter version of the quota system Bill Russell accused the league of maintaining back in the 1960s: a form of racial gerrymandering that carves out a piece of pine for whites, pushing black players off the bench.
Consider these numbers: Of the 405 players on current NBA rosters (a total that includes players on injured reserve), 84 are white, or 21 percent. But whites make up only 14 percent of NBA starting lineups, while composing 17 percent of nonstarting regular-rotation players (on the Knicks, think Marcus Camby; on the Nets, Johnny Newman), 27 percent of occasional subs (like Knick Chris Dudley and Net Elliot Perry), and 36 percent of deep-bench denizens (Knicks Andrew Lang and Rick Brunson, or Net Evan Eschmeyer, for example). In effect, the farther down the bench you go, the paler it gets.
Crunch the numbers a different way, and you reveal another side of the coin: 13 of the 29 NBA teams have all-black and Latino starting fives, 11 start four blacks, and just five have three black starters (no team’s top squad is mostly white). But only seven teams have all-black subs and scrubs. And only one team—the Washington Wizards—is all-black, from starters to benchwarmers.
Why do white hoopsters have such a relatively, er, easier time being 12th men? “You have some spectacular white athletes who play in the NBA,” says Charles Farrell, director of Rainbow Sports, a division of Jesse Jackson’s Wall Street Project, “but when you look at the end of the bench, you see the result of an effort to keep at least one or two whites on every team. And blacks in the CBA and elsewhere suffer.” Adds Farrell, “I don’t know that anyone has sent a directive to anyone else that you must have white players, but the numbers speak for themselves.”
Numbers, however, can lie, says Geoff Petrie, the GM of the runnin’, gunnin’ Sacramento Kings, who are—at least demographically—the whitest team in the league, with seven whites and seven blacks on their roster. “I can honestly say that I’ve never been involved in a personnel decision that’s been based on race,” says Petrie, who presided over all-black squads as Portland GM in the early ’90s. “Nobody I’ve ever worked for, or a coach I’ve worked with, has ever brought it up. In fact, it’s hard for me to even talk in those terms.”
Petrie isn’t the only league official who finds the issue difficult to discuss. Voice calls to more than a dozen league honchos went unanswered, while others would only talk off the record. As one league insider put it, “This is a real sore spot for the NBA, because the league prides itself on being color-blind. After all, the game would just not be 80 percent black if the old barriers still existed. But, c’mon, every team wants some balance.”
Indeed, racial imbalance has long been an NBA concern. The league was integrated the season after its 1949 founding, and 20 years later featured a more or less even mix of black and white players. But by the mid ’70s blacks had become a growing majority in pro basketball, “causing serious concern among the owners and league officials,” wrote Arthur Ashe in his history of African Americans in sports, A Hard Road to Glory. “In spite of the natural talent displayed by black players, many continued to feel black player presence and dominance of the sport was the root cause of declining attendance.”
In 1980, Cleveland’s new owner, Ted Stepien, sent black star Campy Russell to the Knicks, dumped black guard Foots Walker (then third in the league in assists), and traded for two white journeymen. “I think the Cavs have too many blacks,” he proclaimed. “You need a blend of white and black. I think that draws and I think that’s a better team.” The league sanctioned him.
Still, Lenny Wilkens, then coaching Seattle, said, “The unwritten rule is that there should be a minimum of three white players on each team.” When the Knicks fielded the first all-black squad that same year, recalls Micheal Ray Richardson, star of that team, they heard the sobriquet Niggerbockers from some disgruntled fans—both on the road and at home. Says Richardson, “That’s just the way it was at the time. We was an all-black team in New York. I mean, it was reality.”
The realistic view held that white fans wanted white heroes. When, soon after, the Philadelphia Daily News took a survey of fans (the 76ers then featured Julius Erving), 57 percent agreed that “a white audience won’t pay to watch black athletes.” Lamenting the Sixers’ anemic attendance despite its league-leading record, Dr. J conceded, “I would like to say that race is not involved, but that would be naive.”
More recently, Orlando coach Doc Rivers has advanced the notion that today, “If you win, it doesn’t matter what color the players are. If you’ve got a bad product—well, then, white fans want to see their own.” And Richard Lapchick of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society notes the abundance of white players in markets, like Utah’s, with few minorities. (The Jazz are among the whitest current teams, with five white players.)
But if the rise of the multinational, corporate juggernaut that is the current NBA suggests anything, it is that given the opportunity—and relentless marketing—the whole world will want to be like Mike. In the post-Jordan era, it’s just not credible to assert the persistence of quotas—besides, if a little diversity is being consciously or unconsciously stirred into the mix (19 of the NBA’s white players are foreigners), what’s not to like?
Charles Farrell insists that there is subtle, but still troubling, racial thinking at work today. Farrell notes how coaches “always talk about intangibles” for the guys at the end of the bench— indeed, Kings GM Petrie mentions “professional attitude” foremost when listing deep-bench players’ attributes. Team leaders may be sincere about their overt disinterest in race. But somehow, says Farrell, “If you’re an African American athlete, your contribution can’t be in intangibles.” Three years ago Craig Hodges, who played on two championship Chicago Bulls teams, sued the NBA, saying he had been pushed out of the league at age 32 because he was perceived to be a troublemaker. Too often, he says, black athletes are seen as, say, aggressive, whites as hard-working.
And that is largely because of the overwhelmingly white structure of NBA management, says Hodges. After all these years, there are only five African American coaches and a handful of blacks in decision-making jobs in front offices. It’s enough for one to call for affirmative action—”the right kind,” as Hodges puts it.