Correction to This Article
The number of white Americans who have played in the past 10 NBA All-Star Games was incorrect in a Feb. 19 Sports column. Five players -- Brad Miller, John Stockton, Tom Gugliotta, Christian Laettner and Wally Szczerbiak -- have made the team in that span.

An Issue That Follows the NBA Like a White Shadow

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By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, February 19, 2006

HOUSTON In the late 1980s when the NBA first began seriously thinking about sending its players into what was then the amateur world of the Olympics, the game's caretakers fantasized that the NBA All-Star Game would someday be as internationally inclusive as it will be on Sunday. Pau Gasol is from Spain. Yao Ming is from China. Steve Nash, the reigning MVP, is from Canada. Dirk Nowitzki is from Germany. Tony Parker is from France. Last year's All-Star Game included Manu Ginobili from Argentina and Zydrunas Ilgauskas from Lithuania.

The NBA's international flavor has been justifiably celebrated, but there's one group that has been curiously underrepresented in the last two all-star games: white Americans.

For the second straight year, there are none. For the fifth time in the last eight games, there will not be a single white American player in the game. In four of the last 10 games there has been only one. And in the last 10 all-star games, only once (1997) was there more than one. In all that time only five -- Brad Miller, John Stockton, Tom Gugliotta, Christian Laettner and Wally Szczerbiak -- have made the all-star team.

ESPN analyst Tim Legler, who played professionally in the NBA, CBA and in Europe, jokes that his son Ryan has a shot at being the next white American to become an NBA all-star. Ryan Legler is 7 years old. "It's sad to me," Legler, a former Washington Bullets guard, said early Saturday.

"Perception about the white American basketball player seems to have become reality."

At the moment, though, Legler has good reason to be encouraged that the white American ballplayer isn't about to become extinct at the elite level.

The two best college players this season are Duke's J.J. Redick and Gonzaga's Adam Morrison, not necessarily in that order. And the best freshman in the nation may very well be North Carolina's 6-foot-9 Tyler Hansbrough, who in his most recent game had 40 points and 10 rebounds. "I would hope Redick and Morrison will really have an impact," Legler said. "And they could, especially if they both go to the Final Four. That might be what it takes for 10- and 12-year-old white kids to change the way they think about playing basketball."

Chris Mullin, the five-time NBA all-star and Dream Teamer who is now general manager of the Golden State Warriors, studied the moves of black stars Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe while growing up watching the 1970s Knicks. But he wore John Havlicek's No. 17 and looked up to Larry Bird. Of the dwindling number of white American kids playing basketball, Mullin said: "It's not seen as realistic. Suddenly, people don't see someone whose skill set they can identify with, and they think playing at a high level is far-fetched. In Spain, kids now are saying, 'Look at Pau Gasol.' "

There's no issue of exclusion. But it is the pink elephant in the room a lot of folks don't want to acknowledge. And it's akin to black Americans disappearing from Major League Baseball at a similar rate.

What we've got here, Legler and Mullin agree, is a story not nearly as much about race as it is about culture.

White kids across Europe, particularly after the 1992 Dream Team played in the Barcelona Olympics, burn to play in the NBA. The culture in Europe has changed substantially since 1990 when Legler played as a pro in France. "There wasn't a guy over there who had any notion that he could play in the NBA," he said.

"It was incomprehensible to them then. Now, they all believe not only that they can play in the NBA, but that they can make the all-star team one day."

White kids in the United States -- and the anecdotal evidence is powerful -- are often talked off of basketball at an early age, frequently by white adults who think their sons and nephews and neighbors simply don't have the talent to compete with their black classmates and peers, who conversely hardly ever hear a word of discouragement when it comes to playing basketball.

Mullin, growing up in Brooklyn, had nothing but encouragement, a factor he now understands looking back, was critical to his development. At 14, he'd leave his house and take the subway to Harlem or the Bronx to play with the best players, who increasingly were black. This was the late-1970s. Initially, "I would hear somebody ask, 'Who's this kid? What the hell is he doing here?' " Very quickly though, because he was so good and so happy to play with whomever, Mullin would hear, "Get that kid back here next week."

Mullin knew he had earned the right to be accepted. Legler had the same kind of experiences in gymnasiums and at playgrounds across Richmond, but now doesn't see the same kind of resolve from white ballplayers who might have the talent to excel. Mullin, while not being judgmental, wondered, "Where does it sit on the priority list?"

Meanwhile, Legler said: "My nephew is 11, 12 years old. He's got a dead-eye shot. He's lefty . . . got some nice skills. But my brother-in-law says, 'I want him to have a chance to really play in high school or go as far as he can . . . and it's not going to be basketball.' The seed gets planted so early.

"I see it at summer camps. The makeup and attitude of the white kids has changed so much. No question it's the parents and their peer groups talking them off of it. A black kid of average talent in elementary or middle school is much more likely to be encouraged. A white kid of equal talent is going to move to baseball or something non-sports. They totally get discouraged to travel that athletic path, and it's been happening for years.

"My father begged me to not play basketball. I was a really good baseball player, and he thought I had a better chance at playing in the major leagues. But I loved basketball. For a white player to succeed in basketball, he's got to have a backbone. He's got to have that competitive mentality and play with a chip on his shoulder."

It's been suggested that perhaps Redick and Morrison are reflective of a new generation of white players who are completely comfortable with the music, the dress, the language of urban basketball because they grew up in it. They don't know anything else. The hip-hop culture, still foreign to parents, doesn't drive them or their friends to baseball or soccer. Time will ultimately tell -- and there's a lot of it before Ryan Legler turns 19.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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