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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Where are you, Jimmy Chitwood?

While watching highlights of Brigham Young guard Jimmer Fredette drop 47 on Utah last night, I thought to myself. "Damn, this white boy can play?" I dropped a text to my guy JNavaho aka Black Strom to alert him we may have a new white star. Of course, the ever cool JNavaho replied that we had seen this before and that he would wait and see. I understood his hesitation as their have been many false dawns about White American players. JJ Reddick, while having a solid year with Orlando, is still a long way from meeting the worth of the Lottery pick he was drafted. Tyler Hansbrough aka Mr Try Hard missed his entire rookie year with an eye issue/concussion and is just now getting mintues with Indiana. We won't even discuss Adam Morrison, a bonafide top -5 worst lottery pick ever. The question becomes "What happened to the White American Basketball Player?. I am leary of this topic because its just a spinoff of what happened to the "Black American Baseball Players?. However, baseball has always been a sport played mostly by Whites and Latinos over the last 30-40 years. The NFL is predominantly black but White players are still a more than significant part of the league and at the glamour position of Quarterback there were only 3 full time black starters (Vick, Campbell, Freeman).

This leads us back to basketball. The NBA, above any other sport, experienced the most dramatic shift in race in the shortest amount of time. Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton signed with New York in 1950 to become first Black player to sign a contract. The NBA despite having Russell, Oscar, Wilt, Elgin, was a reflection of the society , very slow to integrate and being accepting of Blacks. The ABA was formed in 1967 and the upstart league with its wide open play became a safer haven for black players landing stars like Dr. J, George Gervin, Spencer Haywood (the first early entrant). The NBA still had its original black superstars but there was still the air of "can't have too many black guys on the team". Only the biggest cities like New York , Los Angeles, Chicago had predominantly black rosters.  The folding of the ABA/Merger in 1976 ushered in a dynamic racial shift. Overnight the league became very black and very unpopular. Even the introduction of the great Dr. J couldn't stem the tide of negativity. The NBA was seen as too street, too drugged out, and too black. The drug part was definitely true. TV ratings fell to Nil. 1979 brought Magic and Larry but the 1980 finals were still on tape delay..However, the league did catch a break with Bird getting drafted by Celtics. Boston being a predominantly white and racially polarizing city had the NBA's Great White Superstar. Boston's rise along with Kevin McHale, and several other white role players like Greg Kite, Jerry Sichting and Danny Ainge were the centerpiece of the great Boston-LA rivalry. The "Showtime" Lakers were led by Magic, the magnetic charisma and smile of 6-9 wizard Magic Johnson.  The glitz and glamour of LA led by its black superstar against the blue-collar, fundamentals and toughness of Beantown and its white star brought us classic games and the byproduct: White fans came back to the NBA which spawned Lil Jimmy and Bobby putting down the baseball glove and picking up the roundball. I remember playing in the YMCA Sunnyside in Bloomington from third grade to sixth grade, and most of teams being predominantly white despite a gym in a black neighborhood, At that same time, most of my friends at stop playing baseball. This was the height of the Magic-Bird era with a young MJ just around the corner to replace Dr. J. 

The NBA was officially the most popular sport as we entered the 1990s. TV ratings were though the roof , primarily on the back of Michael Jordan and tremendous marketing. The move to globalize only made sense to expand as we talked about above and there were some talented players across the globe who did have an opportunity to play the NBA with the fall of Communism and Eastern Bloc dictatorships. The prime spots for talent became the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union....Yugoslavia before its breakup into several states were a powerful force and produced several NBA talents including Dino Radja, Sasha Danilovic, Toni Kukoc, the late Drazen Petrovic, and Vlade Divac. The former Soviet Union produced Sarunas Marciulonis, Rimas Kurtinatis and maybe the greatest International Center of all time Arvydas Sabonis. Rik Smits of the Netherlands was drafted by the Indiana Pacers in 1988 with the second overall pick even though he played at Marist University. Detlef Schrempf was drafted in 1985 with eight overall pick by Dallas. The league still had several White-American All-Star including Kevin McHale, Chris Mullin, John Stockton, Mark Price, Dan Majerle, and Tom Chambers but the tide was shifting.

The European player was thought of as fundamentally sound, disciplined, and not to be a problem. As more and more players were drafted into successful such as Dirk Nowitzki, Peja Stojakovic, Hedo Turkoglu, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Leandro Barbosa. The NBA had not only international exposure but real talent to have in its league. These players were All-Star Caliber players who could become stars in America as well. While the success of the international player on par has been great for the league, it has phased out the White American Basketball player. David Lee's selection to the 2010 NBA All-Star game made him only the second white American All-Star since Brad Miller in 2003.  The Current listing of NBA players on NBA.com (http://www.nba.com/players/) lists 32 White-American Players.  There are 30 Teams in the NBA!. Today's NBA is the bizarro 1950s. 

As I stated when i started this Blog, i am not an expert and definitely not a sociolgists. The reason for the lack of White American Players are numerous. Product of the Video Game generation? The rise of X-Games? Fantasy Sports? Too Much Jersey Shore? The reason is somewhere out there in the stars and maybe its a statement on where we are as a society that we don't notice race in sports as much but the virtual extinction of the White american player is a more than significant trend in Basketball. This also begs the question about how we feel about race period. Because the issue involves the majority race in our country, are we less likely to care and does it make it less important?  At least I know it is for Black Strom Thurmond.

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