My editor thinks I should write something about professional basketball. The timing is certainly right—the National Basketball Association’s All-Star extravaganza starts today in Los Angeles, culminating in the All-Star game on Sunday night.
The problem is, I don’t really know what to say about the NBA other than I almost never watch it anymore.
I am not a basketball junkie and I have no desire to be one. There are maybe three players I would pay to watch. The first is LeBron James of the Miami Heat, because whatever you think, and I think a lot less after his free-agency melodrama despite writing a book with him, he is the best athlete in the world today. The second is Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, and the third is Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
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?
My good friend and colleague Stephen Fried, who has had season tickets to the Philadelphia 76ers for a decade and has written about the NBA, says he thinks my argument is more than simply terrible. “While racism is a part of America and American sports and always will be, I really don't think the main problem with the NBA is racial, and I think it's kind of racist and certainly reductionist to say it is,” Stephen told me.
In a piece for Parade magazine last year, he wrote that the NBA game needed to be significantly modified to regain its former popularity. In talking with NBA watchers, he came up with six solutions to improve play, including shortening the 24-second clock, increasing the number of fouls for a player before fouling out, and shortening the season.
They are good ideas. But I still believe race is a key deterrent in getting more whites reengaged and increasing interest. It has to do with racial stereotyping. Those stereotypes are wrong. They are malicious. But to act is if they do not exist is disingenuous. When I wrote the book Friday Night Lights about high-school football in Texas, I saw the racial stereotypes of some whites up close—their firm belief that white athletes admirably succeeded because of hustle and hard work and brains, and black athletes succeeded solely on the basis of pure athletic skill. In other words, white athletes virtuously worked their tails off whereas black athletes simply coasted because they can.
Twenty years later, I think those beliefs still persist nationwide. I think it’s why you hear more than you should how players in the NBA don’t ever look as if they are trying and yes, one of those who has said that is me. Lack of effort is what whites still assume of black athletes in basketball—they don’t have sufficient desire, their body language during timeouts connotes boredom, they are always looking in the stands for the next concubine, they just don’t have that blue-collar work ethic that makes great white athletes great. Add in the absence of a single white American superstar (Steve Nash is Canadian), and it alienates whites even more.
The National Football League is majority African American. Since the game is predicated on brute strength that is impossible to fake, there is rarely any grumbling that African-American athletes are not trying hard enough. And the marquee position—quarterback—is still the domain of whites. The greatest superstars of the game—Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and now Aaron Rodgers—are all white, and it gives white fans a greater sense of identification. The stigma of the African-American quarterback—that he will never have the intelligence to read defenses and make instant adjustments no matter how quick his release or how far he throws—still very much exists. Which is why Donovan McNabb, the greatest quarterback in Philadelphia Eagles history, is inexplicably loathed by thousands of fans for what they perceived as poor judgment and inconsistency--despite leading the Eagles to appearances in one Super Bowl and five conference championships.
Major League Baseball is only 9 percent African American. The number of Latino players from Central America is skyrocketing, but there are white stars at every position. Once again, the identification factor.
I don’t think talking about any of this makes me a racist. I believe it makes me a realist. White fans want white superstars, or in the case of the NBA, at least one white American superstar. Unless the ghosts of Bird and John Havlicek and Jerry West return to the floor, that isn’t going to happen. And since it isn’t going to happen, the NBA will continue to struggle with an identity crisis that no one wants to publicly acknowledge.
Nor is there any way to change the reality since black players are better, stronger, faster, and have more basketball intelligence than any of their white counterparts. If anything, the percentage of white American players will continue to fall. The league is not going to move to the absurdity of a quota system. So maybe the best thing for whites to do, including myself, is accept the fact there will be no white hope, drop the work-ethic fallacy, and revel in a game that is embedded more than ever with beauty and grace and strength and acrobatics.
Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.