Judge The Skills, Not The Skin, When It Comes To Today’s NBA

By David Aldridge
Updated: June 29, 2005

If you like the NBA, there is one thing you have to do if you really want to enjoy the game in the future.

Stop it with race.

White folks, stop worrying so much about whether young black players have cornrows or tattoos or like hip-hop. Not only is it stereotyping of the worst order, it doesn’t tell you a blessed thing about them.

Black folks, stop inventing conspiracy theories about how the league is doing everything it can to make sure international stars like Manu Ginobili succeed. That demeans both Ginobili and you.

Basketball, of all the team sports, has dealt with racial issues best. Not perfectly, just better than the other leagues.

African Americans not only are well represented on the court but in the front offices of most teams. Black coaches such as Mo Cheeks can be fired in one place, like Portland, and hired in another, like Philadelphia, without a blip. Joe Dumars built the Pistons into NBA champions from the front office just as he helped Detroit win world titles as a player.

Dirk Nowitzki’s game is universal. Anyone who knows the game loves Ginobili’s ambidextrous moves. And no one much cares what race Phoenix guard Steve Nash is – except those in my business who asked whether some voters gave Nash the nod for most valuable player in April because he was white.

Ay, there’s the rub.

Even in basketball, race is always lurking in the back of the discussion, like an uninvited guest at Thanksgiving ready to pounce on Grandma’s pecan pie with his hands.

The game is hardly perfect, and neither are the players who participate in it. The NBA surely has its share of miscreants. But it’s not as bad as its critics would have you believe. Nor are the players. There still seems to be a resentment toward African American basketball players that isn’t there for baseball and football players. And heaven help a black player who makes a mistake, legal or otherwise.

What would the reaction have been if a black NBA player had made the same profanity-laced declaration to fans that Jeremy Roenick made to NHL fans the other day?

Why do those who insist teenage (and mostly black) basketball players are bad for the game have nothing to say when a host of teenage girls, white and Asian, dominate the leader board at last week’s U.S. Women’s Open?

There will be black people who say that the Bucks picked Utah center Andrew Bogut No. 1 overall in last night’s NBA draft because he’s white, and Milwaukee is a very white town.

Yeah, and so what if they did?

Bogut isn’t a stiff. A kid doesn’t win college player-of-the-year honors across the board and average 20.4 points and 12.2 rebounds in a tough conference, playing inside and outside, and lead an international team to the junior world championship if he can’t play.

The black general manager of the Hawks, Billy Knight, would have been more than happy to take Bogut with the second pick if Milwaukee had taken North Carolina’s Marvin Williams first.

And if Bogut’s ethnicity – he is Croatian – helps the Bucks sell tickets in a town with a large Croatian population, good for Milwaukee. If kids in this town want to emulate hometown hero Stephon Marbury, who made it out of Coney Island, why can’t kids on the south side of Milwaukee have one of their own to look up to?

This is different from the legitimate claims of prejudice that black players lodged in the 1950s and 1960s, when teams openly admitted they kept white players at the end of the bench to keep fans happy. Those players weren’t as good as their black counterparts.

But Bogut – as good as anybody in the draft – is compared to Luc Longley instead of, say, Tim Duncan. Why?

It’s just plain lazy to put Bogut’s game side-by-side with Longley’s because they’re both white and Australian. As Bogut put it himself Monday: “My vertical is one inch less than Marvin Williams’, and you guys call him ‘Superfreak.’ “

This league has gone global. The Spurs, with their mélange of international players, are the future. White kids in Germany, and black kids in South Africa, and Latino kids in Argentina, and Chinese kids in Beijing, are all trying to get to this league – alongside black and white kids who live and play here.

My late friend and mentor Ralph Wiley used to say to racists who blamed their lot in life on the skin tone of others: “Well, you better go get good, then.”


These days, ballers come in all shapes, sizes and colors. All colors.