NBA All-Star demographic makes a notable change

Lack of white players from U.S. in All-Star Game is noteworthy.

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LeBron James goes up for a basket during Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game.

LeBron James goes up for a basket during Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Professional journalists are paid to notice things. After the recent NBA All-Star Game in Chicago, these are some things I noticed:

  • LeBron James is a worthy torchbearer for the physical greatness of Michael Jordan, the dignity of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the passion and growth of the late Kobe Bryant.
  • Who knew battered, 34-year-old 6-footer Chris Paul could finish an alley-oop feed with a spectacular dunk?
  • Watching All-Stars actually play defense is thrilling.
  • Chaka Khan did something to the national anthem with 10,000 notes that might never be untwisted.
  • And then this: Whatever happened to American-born white stars?

That last one might catch you up.

Why even notice? Well, this is what journalists do. We notice things. We notice trends, comparisons, ratios, history, minutiae, on and on.

And there it was. 

Not a single white American on either NBA All-Star team — the 24 best players, arguably, in the world in a sport Dr. James Naismith (a Canadian-American) gave us in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891. 

There were, indeed, three white players on Team LeBron — Luka Doncic, Domantas Sabonis and Nikola Jokic — but they hail from Slovenia, Lithuania and Serbia, respectively. (Sabonis, it should be noted, was born in Portland while his father, Arvydas Sabonis, was playing for the Trail Blazers. But Domantas has dual citizenship and considers Kaunas, Lithuania, home.)

There were no white players on Team Giannis, from anywhere.

Just as we notice the dearth of African-American players in Major League Baseball — approximately 7.7 percent today compared to 13 percent at the start of the 21st century — so it is not wrong to notice any kind of percentages in any sport. This is how we gather facts. This is how we understand our world.

It is not wrong to notice that 68 percent of NFL players are black or that African-American players have finally settled into that most elusive and historically restricted of positions — quarterback — seemingly once and for all. (Thank you, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, et al.)

The mystery of the absent homegrown white star players in the NBA is, at first glance, a head-scratcher. There used to be a lot, of all sizes. John Havlicek, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Chris Mullin, Mark Price, Paul Westphal, John Stockton, even good old Steve Kerr and his eight championship rings as player and coach. 

But now there’s not a single white American hooper who jumps off the page at you with excellence — Gordon Hayward? JJ Redick? Kevin Love? And it is clearly not because white Americans don’t like the game or have stopped playing it.

Peewee leagues, youth leagues, grade school leagues, rec leagues, high school leagues, college ball at so many levels, plus the accompanying, ever-so-attractive scholarships — it’s all there for Americans of any ilk, use it if you can.

But the star power for homegrown whites is simply not there.

A look at the top scorers in the NBA tells the story best. Of the top 50 scorers, none is a white American. There are seven white players in the group — Sabonis, Jokic, Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Vucevic, Bojan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari — but all are foreigners.

One wonders about the possible reasons, just as one keeps in the back of the mind the certainty that all things racial, ethnic, religious and/or cultural can — and likely will — be used to make arguments that are irrelevant and even evil in their purpose and intent.

But journalists must notice.

One element for dominance in basketball seems obvious — height. The rim is 10 feet high. The closer you are to it, the better. If a tall man can do the same things a shorter man can do, the tall man wins. Consider the athletic, 6-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo — with his 7-3 wingspan — at point guard, where he often plays, and that’s all you need to know. Good luck, little dudes.

It’s notable that the white, foreign-born top NBA scorers go anywhere from 6-7 to 7-3. Normal size? No.

Where are the Steve Nashes and Dirk Nowitzkis of the current crop of players? Oops. Those two are Canadian and German.

So maybe this trend has been developing for years. Maybe there’s something different about being white and non-American. Who knows?

But noticing — and questioning — is not wrong. It’s what journalists do.

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