Call me what you will (and you may end up doing just that), but after thinking about blacks and whites in the NBA for years, I’ve wanted an excuse to discuss the subject – to be a part, however small, of bringing it out of the closet into an atmosphere of rational thought.
After Tom Brokaw aired his NBA special Black Athletes: Fact & Fiction recently, I knew my opportunity had arrived. After all, so much of science is statistical data. That’s what I do. That’s what I analyze. I am, in a qualified sense, a scientist. I research, I discover, I conclude, I report. I’ve always believed that I was basically an objective person or as objective as could reasonably be expected from anyone. Therefore, if I cannot discuss the question of why blacks are so dominant in sports when I’ve written two books on the statistical idiosyncrasies of the most black-dominated team sport of all – NBA basketball, then who can? If I can’t peruse these issues on the heels of a national television special, then when can I? Even so, as Arthur Ashe stated, any discussion of this nature is tantamount to pushing a “sociological red button”. I don’t have an agenda on this matter. Nevertheless, I hope to shed some new light on the process, if nothing else.
As you may know if you have read an edition of Basketball Heaven, I grew up in Western Kansas. I went to an exceptionally small school until my last year of high school when I transferred to a larger one. A small part of this discussion is my own limited experiences at those schools. Later, at college, I wrote my final paper on the issue of I.Q. and race. So, as you can see, it has intrigued me for a long time. Just so you may see where I was back then, I’ll rewrite the final few lines of the paper.
“No one can predict how a child who may be gifted in one or two areas will react when told that he or she is far below average (referring to I.Q. tests). My own instincts and the evidence which I’ve presented argue conclusively against this type of pigeonholing which only causes an ever-widening rift between the races.”
My reason for showing that to you is so that you will hopefully realize that I am not biased, or if I am… it’s only based upon facts and not emotion. Furthermore, it indicates that I’ve studied cultural, intellectual and physical differences between the races (primarily black and white) for a long time.
Clearly, we all accept the notion that blacks are dominant in basketball. The question is not “Are they?”, but rather “Why are they?” Dr. Harry Edwards, a well-known expert in the field, basically dismisses genetic differences preferring to believe that the reasons are, if not 100%, then at least very largely due to cultural influences (environment). I am of the opinion that it is very definitely both. It seemed to me the arguments for genetic differences presented in Brokaw’s show were overwhelmingly difficult to argue against.
Yes, blacks are genetically superior in certain types of physical disciplines (short bursts of energy, sprints, jumping, etc.). Those disciplines are extremely important to basketball, not so much to weightlifting or golf or rowing. As Carl Lewis said, “Blacks, physically, in many cases are made better.” I feel as though Black Athletes: Fact & Fiction justified the scientific notion that there exists a very real genetic difference between the races. What I want to accomplish in this debate is to ask “So what?” “What percent of a black’s success is genetic?” and to debate the “negative ramifications” of accepting the premise that blacks are physically superior in certain areas. Finally, I want to analyze the differences in the NBA.
As one of the scientists (Dr. Claude Bouchard) stated on the show, “Knowledge is the greatest safeguard against prejudice, whereas ignorance fosters prejudice.” That is the single reason I bring up this discussion and why I hope it continues. There can never be enough enlightened debate over matters of this magnitude. Brokaw’s motive, as he described it, was to bring this discussion out of the barrooms and put it on the table. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.
Hopefully, the day will come when it will seem ridiculous that two businessmen like Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche can sit back in judgment of a race and wager $1.00 on the question of environment versus genetics as they did in the movie Trading Places. That questions along those lines would be like saying, “I’ll bet you a dollar the earth is flat.” We’ll just know the answers and accept them for what they are. That can never happen, however, without continued research and discussion.
WHAT PERCENT OF BLACK’S SUCCESS IN SPORTS IS GENETIC?
The Denver Development Screening Test is a study of 1,200 black and white children. It showed differences in the two races at an early age (the oldest children were age six). They were measured on 30 different types of motor skills. Not surprisingly, black children were easily more advanced in 15 categories, white children in three and 12 were a wash. Assuming the researchers made no obvious scientific errors in their study, assuming the sample of 1,200 is large enough (it should be), and assuming no attempt at deception, this study shows black children with a very early genetic advantage in athletics. At least it is reasonable to assume that these physical abilities had not yet been acquired. Certainly, those black children had not yet begun to play basketball.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to say what percentage of a black athlete’s success is due to his genes. Though blacks only represent approximately 12% of the United States population, they played 80% of the minutes in the NBA last season. Though blacks represent 1/7th of the white population, they are four times as common in the NBA. That means a given black boy is 28 times more likely to make it to the NBA than a given white boy, even though the odds are astronomical either way. That advantage is statistically far too large for genetics not to be a factor – a major factor.
The other major reason why blacks are so successful in the NBA is environment. Simply put, when a person is brought up in the projects with no tennis courts or golf courses to play on, no handball courts or swimming pools to go to, only basketball courts everywhere, what sport do you think he will gravitate towards? Consequently, many NBA players come from inner-city environments. They grew up with black role models who had made it in basketball while their own educational opportunities were minimal.
Common sense says that an average black boy in the United States is more likely to have spent more hours playing basketball by the time he is 17 years old than the average white boy. Does this mean that environment explains the whole difference? No, I don’t think so. Blacks may run faster and jump higher because of genetic differences, but they become basketball players through dedication and a love for the game.
Learning basketball skills can be traced to society’s influences – running faster cannot. Carl Lewis accepts that blacks are physically superior in most areas, though Brooks Johnson (Stanford track coach) does not. Johnson went on to say that he “would like to go out and rub it in some people’s noses by finding a white Carl Lewis.” When asked where these white Carl Lewis runners were at, he stated “They’re all over the place.” First of all, if they are “all over the place”, then why say you would like to find one?
The bottom line is that there are no white Carl Lewis runners. I’m not blind. They don’t exist. I don’t even see the potential for any. It is tough to take anyone seriously who would make such a ludicrous claim. Sprint races are the black athlete’s domain. They dominate and undoubtedly will continue to for as long as the mind can imagine. I know of no sociological or environmental reason as to why this has happened, but it has. It’s clear to me that genetics are the reason why.
Let me give you an example of a statistical lie. The argument goes… “Since Jesse Owens in 1936, whites have won six of the last 11 100-meter races in the Olympics.” The inference is that whites have held their own. There are holes all through that argument. Whatever happened in the 1940’s and 1950’s in sports is irrelevant to today. The facts are that in the last seven Olympics, five 100-meter champions have been black. The 1980 Olympics was one of the two won by a white, but America’s best black sprinters were not there because of the boycott.
If the proponent of this argument were so sure that you could virtually flip a coin to see whether a white or black would win the 100-meter dash in the 1992 Olympics, then I’ll make him (or anyone) a deal. I’ll meet them in Las Vegas (so it is legal) and give them 20-1 odds that a black will win the 100-meter race every Olympics to the year 2000. I seriously doubt if I’d have any takers. Every single finalist in the 1988 100-meter race was black. Even the East Germans, who start training at the age of two cannot compete with the world’s top black sprinters. If that’s not genetics, then what is?
2013 note: Of the six summer Olympics since I wrote this and of the 48 finalists in the 100-meter dash over that time, 47 were black and the only white runner did not medal.
From my own experience, I remember my senior high school graduating class in Western Kansas as having about 400 students. About 20 of them were black. Nevertheless, our top-3 sprinters were black, including one of the state’s best. I, like most people, form my judgments in part on my own experiences. I can imagine millions of people whose experiences are similar to mine, would be led to the same conclusion.
WHAT ABOUT NEGATIVE RAMIFICATIONS?
Well, I hope no one is foolish enough to believe that an NBA player got there without hard work. Apparently those who are afraid to accept, as fact, a black as having certain genetic advantages, are afraid because they believe it will be far too easy for society to claim that their success is due very little, if any, to hard work. Unfortunately, I suppose there are some who would say that. But, that argument makes no sense.
As an expert on the NBA, I can assure anyone willing to listen that no player can make it in the NBA without lots of hard work. It takes thousands of hours of practice. Black or white makes no difference. It may be true that, on average, a black basketball player brings a different type of skill or fulfills a different type of need than an average white player, but that doesn’t mean that either group had to work less hard.
Another possible problem is the notion that if we accept a black player as having a genetic edge in sports, then we must accept the white player as being intellectually superior. I frankly do not understand why. What do they have to do with each other? They’re certainly not mutually exclusive.
A 20-year old man is both physically and intellectually superior to a 10-year old boy irrespective of race. Since it is so obvious that they have nothing to do with each other, I have to ask who is behind that propaganda and why? The answer is a rather unenlightening, “I don’t know.” I only know that the argument is out there and that it is absurd.
If blacks represented 12% of the general population and if they represented 12% of the NBA players and if everything else were equal except that society claimed blacks had a genetic advantage… then, and only then, could one make a case that blacks must be intellectually inferior (because, otherwise they should represent more than 12% of the players in the NBA). But, they don’t represent 12% of the NBA, they represent 80%! Heck, they could be stronger, quicker, faster… and smarter for all we know. It is fallacious reasoning to say that accepting blacks as having a genetic physical advantage means indirectly that they have a genetic intellectual disadvantage. It is completely unscientific and it only emotionalizes an otherwise solvable discussion.
Of course, the scariest ramification is that our young black males are being driven almost totally by the desire to play in the NBA or some other professional sport. If that drive resulted in more of them making it to college, it might be okay. The reality is, however, that it is a dream built upon a lie. As long as it is the primary motivation for millions of kids, it will be a catastrophe. Clearly, apart from the scientific questions of muscle fiber are the much more serious societal questions involving the dreams that will motivate these youngsters to become productive members of a greater society.
Nevertheless, no more can I, as a researcher, apologize for seeking scientific truth than could Charles Darwin when told that his theories on natural selection might lead some people from God. I can only hope that we learn all we can as quickly as possible so that, united as one society, we can tackle the challenges of educating and motivating our youth.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN WHITES AND BLACKS IN THE NBA?
The differences are interesting and I think they make sense. I’ve looked at the statistics for several years now. That’s hundreds of thousands of shots taken. I’ve seen a definite edge to white players in FT%, but an edge to blacks in 2pt%. Blacks generally lead in every other statistical category per-minutes-played as well. I’ve thought about why that is.
If we make the assumption that 100%, or as I might claim – 50%, of a black’s superiority comes from his environment, then it is reasonable to ask which parts of his game are enhanced by that environment. If, as Dr. J claims, style counts in the black community and on the playgrounds, then how many blacks, when given the opportunity, are going to stand and shoot free throws all day as opposed to jamming it down someone’s throat or mastering some sensational dribble routine?
In the inner city there aren’t enough rims to have the court to oneself long enough to work on shooting. Not only that, but shooting, more than most parts of the game, requires coaching. I can remember going to basketball practice at my small high school (prior to transferring my senior year to a larger one) and watching 12 white guys divided into pairs shooting free throws at six different rims for hours. None of them could stuff the ball (are you kidding). And hey, if you can’t stuff it, what do you do for fun? Shoot free throws and see how many in a row you can make.
Since I’m going on the assumption that the average white player can’t run very fast or jump particularly high, he sure as heck better have some skills or he’s history in the NBA. If he can’t shoot a free throw, he probably won’t last very long. Shooting is something that theoretically anyone can do.
When I discussed this shooting issue with one of my friends, he brimmed, thinking that whites were at least superior in something, but I quickly cooled him off. As I said then, I don’t think whites have a physical advantage here anymore than any other category. Frankly, I believe blacks would dominate this too if they had anywhere near as much opportunity to practice free throws. As it is, since 1971, a black player has led the league in field-goal percentage, rebounding and assists 80% of the time. Despite this dominance, the free-throw percentage king has been a white player 15 of 18 years. Only Calvin Murphy (1981, 1983) and Magic Johnson (1989) have been the exceptions.
(2013 note: In the 24 years since I wrote this, the NBA FT% leader has been white 12 times and black 12 times.)
NBA players know there are differences between whites and blacks. The term “White Man’s Disease” is commonly used to joke about the Mark Eaton’s of the NBA. Chris Mullin laughingly calls himself “Air Mullin” and Larry Bird probably has more set shots than any player in the modern era.
(2013 note: Later in 1992, Chris Mullin and Larry Bird were the only white NBA players on the original Dream Team. Also, the movie White Men Can’t Jump came out in 1992.)
I think the recognition of the differences is healthy, very healthy. I think it leads not to racism, but to understanding… not to bigotry, but to comradery. As long as we can laugh at who we are, we’ll all be okay. For my part, I can only hope to bring the debate out into the open just a little more.