The Foreign Invasion of the American Game


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?

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.

“The style of play in the NBA is different now, sure,” says former NBA player Kenny Smith, who prepped at Archbishop Molloy in Queens and is currently a commentator on TNT. “If Shaquille O’Neal gets 20 points by powering the ball in from five feet away, and Dirk Nowitzki gets 20 points by shooting threes, it’s still 20 points for both guys. It all depends on what style of ball you like.”

What has changed in the perception of black and white basketball through the years is on the defensive end. When the Knicks hired Pat Riley in the early 1990s, he found few players with offensive skills. So he used the athleticism of his black players to shut down the opponent’s offense. Soon, final scores were in the 70s, the Knicks were winning, and other coaches followed Riley’s lead. The game became one of stifling defenses, which caused teams to isolate one or two players on one side of the floor to try to generate some scoring.

It was this sluggish style of play that led the league to allow zone defenses. The game has suddenly opened up (for teams with the right kind of players), with more room for three-pointers, more spacing for passing, and the ability to try to hide a bad defensive player by making him responsible for an area, not an opposing player. For black players in the NBA, the changing of the rules holds an ironic truth. For years, black ballplayers were stereotyped as not being interested in playing defense. When black players became very good at defense and began to dominate the league on the defensive end, the NBA loaded the dice. And this is precisely where the Euro players stepped in.

I used to joke with players going on tours of Europe, and especially when the ‘Dream Team’ played in the 1992 Olympics, that if they did their jobs well, they would be putting themselves out of work,” says Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at Berkeley, longtime activist, and consultant to players and teams, currently director of the City of Oakland Parks and Recreation Department.

Sitting in Europe in those days were guys like Andrei Kirilenko, a Russian who dreamed of playing with the “gods that played in the NBA”—and who now does so as a Utah Jazz forward. Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki had a poster of the Chicago Bulls’ Scottie Pippen on his bedroom wall. The young Euro players, including Sacramento’s Peja Stojakovic, emulated what they saw as the NBA game: the high-octane, offensive-minded game of the NBA superstars. Maybe it was the nature of blowout Olympic games, but the Euros tended not to notice the defensive game that guys like Charles Barkley, Pippen, and Michael Jordan also played.

The foreign players have succeeded because of a big advantage in the European system of developing basketball players. Players overseas can join pro teams while still in their teens, they practice every day against pros, and they are required to learn passing, ball-handling skills, and three-point shooting, regardless of their size. American players have practice limits in high school and college. But more importantly, American players are not developing a complete game. College coaches, who might have a great player for only one year before he turns pro, aren’t generally interested in teaching the kid ball-handling skills or helping him develop a jump shot. Players are calling the shots.

The export of NBA basketball to foreign countries and the hybrid style that has boomeranged back to these shores a decade later are not unlike the British invasion of rock music in the 1960s. Black musical stars like Little Richard and Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters became big stars in England, and kids like John Lennon and Mick Jagger were listening. A few years later, the music came back to the U.S. as “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Then it morphed into Sgt. Pepper. And as a result of the British invasion, soul music was marginalized to the edges of the American music charts.

“The NBA is a uniquely American institution, and a black institution as well,” says Edwards. “It’s the equivalent of jazz. For many years, jazz tried to get away from its roots, to bring in a larger audience. As a result, jazz is now a marginalized music form. When you change the style of music, there are consequences, so I caution the NBA to think of what style they are changing the game into.”

But the predominant color of 21st-century NBA basketball is neither black nor white; it’s green. “The race thing right now is incidental to economics,” says Edwards. “The game has always changed due to market forces. They brought in the Harlem Globetrotter style of play when the game got stagnant in the ’50s and ’60s. They did the same thing when they emphasized Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Their latest capitalistic ploy is globalization. The problem is the style of play has been changed to accommodate the market. Do we want to watch basketball as it is played in Yugoslavia? At some point you might be marketing garbage, and it could become so discombobulated culturally that it could become ugly.”

But what of guys like Dallas’s Nowitzki, who regularly gets double figures in points and rebounds, even in the playoffs? “The difference is that guys like Dirk couldn’t have even gotten off the bench in the past,” Edwards says. “Could you see him trying to guard Julius Erving or Dominique Wilkins? They would be bouncing the ball off the back of his head. No coach would allow him out there because he can’t play defense. But he’s out there now, and starring in this league, because the game has changed.”

In 1995, according to figures from the University of South Florida’s Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the NBA was 82 percent African-American. By 2002, the percentage fell to 78. It’s a good bet that it will continue to fall, based on predictions of what will happen in this year’s NBA draft. Last year, six foreign players were chosen in the first round of the draft. According to an average of three mock drafts conducted ahead of this June’s real thing, that number will be going up significantly.

The key question, not to beat a dead horse here, is whether this change in the complexion of the league is driven by money concerns. The conspiracy theory unfolds like this: In the late ’90s, black players were viewed by the white audience as (1) having cornrows and too many tattoos, (2) involved in drug use and drive-by shootings, and (3) having fathered too many fun babies. Last year, on ESPN’s Sunday Conversation, Charles Barkley said, “The NBA’s ratings and attendance are down. The white audience doesn’t like to see a bunch of guys with tattoos and cornrows who get in trouble all the time. Anyone who doesn’t believe that—they’re stupid.”

The question is whether a white audience prefers to watch white players. NBA Commissioner David Stern won’t return the Voice‘s calls, but league spokesman Terry Lyons says, “Absurd.”

“Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit,” adds Dean Bonham, chairman and CEO of the Bonham Group, a leading sports-marketing firm in Denver. “That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard,” e-mailed Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

All point out that the NBA is based on merit, and no GM would dare bring in inferior players based upon race. Certainly not for money. Players are chosen for their ability, the NBA’s Lyons points out, and marketing is secondary. “To suggest that players are being brought into this league because of international marketing and TV ratings is absurd,” Lyons says. “Marketing and TV ratings come from star players who can play in this league, not the other way around.”

But does race affect TV ratings? In 2001, Mark Kanazawa, a professor at Carleton College in Minnesota, and Jonas Funk, a financial analyst in San Francisco, published a study in the journal Economic Inquiry that examined what effect white players have on Nielsen ratings. Using a complicated formula (and terms like “heteroskedasticity”)—which took into account a team’s record, number of all-stars playing, whether the white players were on the court or benchwarmers—Kanazawa and Funk came to the conclusion that each white player on a team increased ratings by 0.54 of a point. That would increase the number of households watching by 3,500 to 36,200 for each white player, depending on market size. According to the study, the additional revenues from the higher ratings would mean an additional $1.1 million for the Knicks and the Nets for every white player on their rosters.

There are some holes in the study (would 12 white players be worth $12 million extra?), but it does show that race might have an effect on sports fans’ viewing habits. And it is absurd to deny that race might have something to do with ratings. This season, the NBA moved its TV contract from NBC to a package with ABC, ESPN, and TNT, meaning that very few regular-season games, and practically none of the playoffs, could be seen on broadcast TV. The question that begs to be asked, and it’s not a frivolous one, as some in the NBA community contend, is whether the NBA values its minority audience, which has significantly less access to cable than do white households.

“The NBA is a business, and we chose the distribution for broadcast that offered us the most money,” Cuban told the Voice. “Broadcast television didn’t see as much value, and if you are suggesting that minorities are more a customer of the broadcast networks, you will have to speak to them about the implications in how they deal with their customers.”

Fair enough. Money is what makes the world go round. But when you add up the legs of this conspiracy theory—rule changes that affect the style of play, foreign players who better fit that style, fewer and fewer African-American players, more international marketing money, and higher TV ratings—well, it might not be so absurd for black NBA fans to feel that brothers might be getting pushed out for reasons other than basketball skill.

“What we see being done is indicative of what has been done to us historically before,” said Scoop Jackson, referring to the idea that Elvis helped make black music more comfortable for white audiences. “Same thing is happening here. When the number of black players became too high, the white audience wasn’t comfortable. So the NBA changed it all.”

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.”

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.