Sports Nut

The Loneliness of the White Basketball Player

Paul Shirley warms up for a game in the Spanish pro-basketball league


I just finished playing basketball for a team in the Spanish first division. Our games were a big deal—the first division in Spain is easily the second-best basketball league in the world. Despite the popularity of my team and of the league, coverage of Spanish-league games was often preceded by the latest news from the Memphis Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors. The former employs Pau Gasol, while the latter pays both Jorge Garbajosa and Jose Calderon. People in Spain want to know how their countrymen are doing in a faraway land. A normal reaction, I think.

Similarly, when the average white American male tunes into TNT sometime between October and June, he would very much like to see another average white American male on the basketball court. Most of the time, he doesn’t. But in the few situations that he does, he is going to root for that player. That’s the way it is. We like to see people who look like us succeed.

It would be nice if we could all cop to this phenomenon. Most people won’t admit that they do the same because they’re afraid they will be vilified for their apparent ignorance. But such a reaction is not necessarily harmful; by cheering for the success of his comrade in pastiness, the viewer is not wishing that black players fail. He is doing the same thing as the Spaniard who cheers for Pau Gasol.

Of course, one rebuttal would be: Come on Paul, we’re all American. Are black American culture and white American culture really that different? The answer would be: Yes, they are. And if you think they’re not, you haven’t been paying attention. Again, the differences are not a bad thing; in fact, they’re probably a good thing. And the more we discuss them, the more understanding everyone will have.

As for me … again: 6 percent. My attempt to succeed in the world of basketball could be compared to the efforts of a 1970s-era black man in the world of bond-trading. White people are not supposed to be good at basketball. I’ve been reminded of that assumption hundreds of times in my career. The attitude most often displayed by black basketball players I’ve faced was very similar to the one you espoused at the end of your last turn, Neal: Your people have everything else. Just let us have this.

From age 12 on, my one goal was to be a really good basketball player. I didn’t care about much else. Of course, I did other things—stupendously hokey things. You’re right: It was a Walton-esque existence. I was in 4-H, I was a Boy Scout, I finished fifth in the Kansas State Spelling Bee. I even got a National Merit Scholarship. I’m probably the whitest person with whom you’ll ever publicly exchange e-mails.

But none of those activities/pastimes/sexual obstacles ever brought me as much happiness as basketball did. As I got better, I found myself to be a minority on the court more and more often. And as the members of my race were whittled away, I quickly realized that I wasn’t particularly welcome. When I was on defense, the other team would give the ball to whomever I was guarding and yell, “Take it to him. He can’t guard you.” They did that not because I am from a middle-class home, or because I grew up on a quasi-farm, but because I am white.

So, forgive me if I feel that I have a special kinship with the Brent Barrys of the world.

But, onto fixing the NBA.

As is the case in most European countries, the Spanish league employs a relegation system—the bottom two teams drop to the next lowest division while the top two teams from that lower division get a promotion. At the time I joined them in March, my team was in last place. The entire island of Menorca was in a panic—everyone feared their team might never again ascend to the prestigious ACB if it dropped out this year. Fortunately, we salvaged the season. We finished in fourth-to-last place, safe from the clutches of the dreaded, second-tier LEB. Our achievement of complete and utter mediocrity was hailed with gusto by a gathering of 5,000 people in the center of the island’s capital. Menorcans: not a people with high expectations.

Why couldn’t this format be applied to the NBA? Tell me it wouldn’t have added drama if the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics had spent February and March concerned with a demotion to the CBA. Any tanking for the sake of high draft picks would be eliminated; the quality of play would increase significantly. Some of the games between my team and some of our fellow cellar-dwellers were far more exciting than games between two playoff-caliber teams. The intensity was NCAA-esque.

I fear that people will scoff at the suggestion. We couldn’t have the Knicks playing in a minor league, they’ll say. Well, why not? There wouldn’t be anything stopping them from earning their way right back into the NBA.

My other big fix will never happen. There are too many games in an NBA season. And no one knows when those games are played. Another great move by the NFL was its reliance on a single-day schedule. Everyone knows (generally) that their respective teams will be playing every Sunday, (almost) without fail.

Again, the Euros got this one right. For example, in Spain there are only 34 domestic-league games each year. (Better teams do play additional intercountry games, but that adds only another 25 or 30 contests to the season.) A fan knows that his team will be playing on Saturday or Sunday. Afterward, he’ll be able to discuss the results and standings with his friends—basically, he will get to be a fan.

Not so in the NBA at present. Games are every night of the week. Teams have rarely played the same number of games, so it is impossible to compare the standings fairly except at the end of the season. It’s a mess. Unfortunately, owners would never give up the box-office revenue, so shortening the season too much is out of the question. But what about 58 games? Get rid of the conferences and the divisions and have teams play each other twice—on, say, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Regional travel is a moot point now and there are few remaining rivalries, so why not? At the end of the year, put the top 15 teams in the playoffs and have the other 15 play an NCAA tournament-style event for the remaining spot. (Note: The play-in tournament is an idea borrowed from Bill Simmons. I don’t claim it as my own. But it’s a good idea nonetheless.)

What do you think? Could it be done?

Since I gather that you get the last word, let me write that I’ve had fun doing this. Unfortunately, it will now be viciously awkward if we ever meet. It will be like meeting up with a girl from Myspace: Since we skipped past the normal beginnings of the relationship and jumped right to the deep conversations, we’re doomed to a single date filled with painful silences. (Sigh.)

But I’m willing to risk it.