Race and Hoops

In a weekend wrap-up post, Dave makes a passing reference to one of the more uncomfortable aspects of basketball:

Early in the day, I happened upon an NIT game on TV, where Mississippi State was playing someone. While I was watching, I saw a quick, aggressive Bulldog guard drive through the defense for an impressive layup. The kid was Ben Hansbrough, Tyler's little brother. That got me thinking. It's one thing to be 6'9" and play college basketball. Sure, you have to be somewhat athletic, really how many people are you beating out for that spot? But to be 6'3" or so and play college ball, you have to be a hell of an athlete. And that's Tyler's brother.

Later, when Carolina was playing, they showed his dad and mentioned that he had high jumped as a student at Missouri and had once cleared 7'2". 7'2"!! So, Tyler's little brother is a D-1 guard and his dad was an elite track and field athlete. Hmmm, maybe Tyler's not quite the sub-athlete so many say he is. He's constantly praised for his motor, his aggressiveness, his work ethic and his hands, but never for sheer athleticism. Do you think maybe he'd be talked about differently if he were black instead of white?

It's common knowledge that an outstanding basketball player who happens to be black will frequently be praised as a "great athlete" (often with an extraneous syllable-- "ath-uh-leet"-- to make the speaker sound extra ignorant), while an outstanding player who happens to be white will be praised for knowledge of the game, and other intellectual attributes. Hansbrough is an example of the slightly less common trend of downgrading the athleticisim of outstanding white players.

It's an uncomfortable situation, of course, because the outstanding feature of his game really is his aggressiveness and work ethic-- as a big guy, when I watch basketball, I tend to focus a lot on the post players, and Hansbrough is, in fact, notable for his general hustle. The guy hardly ever stops moving, and always goes after the ball. The ugly business in the Duke game a few weeks back is as much a testament to his hustle as anything else-- he chunked a free throw with his team up twelve with under twenty seconds remaining, and he got the rebound under the basket, despite the fact that it really didn't matter, and there were four Duke players between him and the rim when he put the shot up.

Of course, the world being what it is, it's hard to praise those qualities without coming off as a racist goober. And even attempting to defend his athletic ability tends to come off a little weird. When people run him down as an unathletic clod, I've said things like "Actually, if you watch him play, he's pretty agile for a 6'9" guy," but it's hard not to hear a parenthetical "(white)" between the last two words. Because, you know, that's the sort of thing that gets said.

(To some degree, Hansbrough's game invites this sort of thing. As Dave's commenter william notes:

Watch him on the inside when he shoots and watch how he uses that angles to score. Maybe it is due to superior vision or hand-eye coordination, but he seems to make more of what I will call "impure" shots than anyone else.

A pure shot is either intended to go in from straight on or is based upon a clear and easy banking angle. Hansbrough makes many of these of course, but he also nails a lot of shots which seem to bank in from very strange angles (acute?) or that seem to rim in from the back rim. After two years of doing this, it seems clear that it is not just luck. He seems to understand the geometry of making shots to a degree far greater than any other player. Compare him to B. Wright, who seems to either swish, dunk or miss.

(I think that's one of the things that gives him the appearance of not being a great athlete. Where a lot of players would make some sort of move to get a simpler angle for a shot, he just takes what's there, and hits the shot from a weird angle. Those kind of shots frequently look really awkward and unathletic, but they count the same as the graceful ones...)

I don't actually have anything all that deep to say about this, other than that I hate it. It's not just that it makes it difficult to talk accurately about the game-- if I say I admire Hansbrough's hustle, I'm not saying it because he's white, I'm saying it because I really do appreciate the way he plays the game-- but also the fact that there really are people out there who use "cerebral player" to mean "white guy." When I'm watching or reading about basketball, I don't want to have to carefully parse everything for subtext, I just want to watch some freakin' basketball.

And as long as I'm referencing Dave's post the the discussion in the comments there, let me note that this old profile of the Hansbrough brothers really is an excellent example of the form. (It also makes Tyler Hansbrough seem like the quintessential Roy Williams player-- not only is he a slightly goofy-looking guy who hustles like crazy, he could go ten rounds with ol' Roy in a cornpone throwdown...). Amusingly, the fan site referenced in the article (which is a couple of years old) is still going, though it's not all that recently updated...

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ah the old "Magic Johnson is a gifted player" vs. "Larry Bird shoots 99,000 jump shots a day" discussion. Seems that sportscasters do this less and less, sort of racially pigeonhole players, but it does still happen. BBall is the worst, except for white safety/wide reciever or black quarterback in the NFL.

As an athelete in me younger days and an afficianado now, it sometimes does seem that some racial groups have more speed/explosiveness than others. But I've seen some slow black guys and some fast white guys too, I think the width of the distributions is wide enough compared to the difference in the means that they are not resolveable. The Rayleigh criteria applied to racial stereotypes in athletics.

To succeed at D1-college/pro, one usually has to work ones ass off running/lifting/practicing, usually 20-30 hrs a week. I don't think many of them are slackers. And they all have talent. I think economic factors liek "god I want to get out of this neighborhood..." are very strong in terms of determining who goes into athletics. If you are poor, have some sports talent, and that is the most likely path to getting somewhere, well ya go for it. I grew up in a poor predominantly black neighborhood, and I played with some great players, some lazy ass dogs with talent that got nowhere (maybe 1 year at college till they were let go), and some marginal (for D1 anyways...) talents that worked their asses off and took advantage of the college degree that earned them a chance at, and a few stars that just transcended the game(s) at our level. Mix of white and black, no great trends in my small sample size.

I still remember being at the Y playing basketball with Dave Foley (O line for Ohio St., blocked for OJ with the Bills). He was 6'5", strong as an ox, quicker than anyone there (even the little scurrying types....), could jump higher. To make it somewhat fair, he had to play guard and wasn't really allowed into the low post too much. Otherwise everybody would have been bored to death and beaten up. So the SOB just developed a killer jump shot........He was 35, we were 16-18, and he killed us all, with ease! And don't even think about racquetball.....

My personal pet peeve is when it's time for the NBA draft and every 6'9" white guy is "the next Larry Bird" or "the next Dirk Nowitzki." If you're going to make any comparisons, Kevin Durant probably plays most like Nowitzki because of his myriad of inside/outside offensive moves but instead you'll hear how he's Kevin Garnett or Lamar Odom.

Thanks for the mention, ozelc, I have bookmarked your site and also sent the page to Adam Lucas, who is the media and press relations director for the Heels and does a fantastic job.

Maybe slightly on a different point, comes the issue for many whites as to whether it is moral to root more for a team that has more whites, maybe like the Celtics back in the 1980's or Duke currently.

Honestly, when I watch UNC I don't really see color. I had to stop and think as to whether Carolina had any white players among its rotation in 2005--I don't think it did--and it honestly didn't matter to me.

At the same time, I think we can take pleasure in Tyler's success for a reason articulated by Michael Wilbon, the black columnist for the Washington Post. He has noted that many of the excellent white players in the NBA of late, come from other countries and stated that after talking to parents of talented white athletes, that many of the American parents had convinced their children to focus on sports besides basketball, because they didn't think that their children could compete on an equal footing. The Spaniards, Germans and Eastern European players don't seem to have the same hang-up and do fine.

Perhaps Tyler and players like him can inspire more young people to play this great game of basketball. There has been a lot of newfound love for Pete Maravich lately with two biographies about him out.

It really makes me think back to how underappreciated he really was. In some ways, he was the Eminem or Tiger Woods of basketball (although Tiger is half-Asian, arguably a contributing background to his success hardly analyzed by anyone--too hot to touch?), meaning that Pete was the most skilled player in the history of basketball and white, a somewhat anomolous situation.

The rub on Maravich was that "he wasn't a winner." While not even necessarily true with respect to the facts (LSU was a dormant program that made it to MSQ in the NIT during Maravich's Senior year), one wonders whether the real problem was simply that his staggering talent and skill level intimidated even his own coaches and teammates. Not to mention his hair--he had the greatest white person hair in the history of the NBA--playing in the backyard, I would try to make my Bobby Brady-styled hair bounce up and down like his did. Pete seemed to have the whole package.

By the time Pete made it to a team worthy of his skill level, with Boston in 1980, his knees were gone and he never really contributed to a contender in the NBA.

It really doesn't matter though, because while basketball is a team game and winning is the ultimate goal, the main reason we do it is that it is fun.

Pistol Pete (probably the greatest nickname in the history of basketball--somebody at LSU understood marketing) knew implicitly that fun should be the sine qua non of sport, telling all that if he could accomplish the same goal with a standard pass or a fun one, he would always opt for the fun one.

When few people will remember or even care that the Washington-Capitol-Baltimore Bullets won the NBA title in 1978, people will remember Pete Maravich and the joy and inspiration that he brought to the game. When I shoot around in the backyard with my sons, I will try to make the hair remaining on my head flop up and down and tell them about Pistol Pete and how great he was and all the things that he could do with a basketball.

Now Tyler is not quite Pete Maravich, but he is a good, fun kid who says he wants to stay in college and is an excellent player. The more success he has, the better it is for the sport, because it is going to show some of the chicken-hearted prospective white players out there that race is no impediment to success in basketball. So, yeah, I am rooting for you Tyler. And Pete, wherever you are, we miss you. I wish we had told you that more when you were still with us.