Before delving into this sort of lengthy article, you may or may not want to check out the disclaimers at the very bottom.
During this basketball binge full of buzzer-beaters, upsets, and overall chaos, a group of people takes a few weeks to bask in basketball glory that will, for almost all of them, fade away when their college careers end. These people are white guys.
Perhaps no other sport in America is as racially delineated as basketball. In baseball, a player’s racial or ethnic background won’t really give you any clue about that player’s role. A few positions on the football field are dominated by one race or the other, but these are minor aspects of a team’s makeup, and it doesn’t matter so much when everyone wears a helmet. Soccer is a beautifully diverse game. Hockey is just kind of comical in its whiteness, so we move on. Basketball is different. Very particular expectations are set on players based on their race and national origin. Think about it: if you see a white player on the court, especially in the NBA, what words are you associating with his game? He’s probably a tenacious, scrappy, heady guard who shoots a ton of 3s or he’s a big, strong, dumb big man who sets screens, works really hard to get rebounds, and scores easy dunks and layups.
As it turns out, these stereotypes are startlingly consistent at the NBA level, especially among white Americans (it’s fitting that I started writing this on Brian Scalabrine’s birthday). As you will see in the next few weeks, white players have a much more diverse role in the college game, and they find a lot more success as well. These are primarily the players I want to talk about. I’ll get to some more of the racial dynamics in college and the NBA at the end, but there’s one dynamic in particular that I want to explore, and one question I want to find an answer to:
Why do I and so many fans like me dislike white ballers?
Yes, it’s true. I really dislike a lot of white basketball players. I feel dislike for very few black players, and generally that stems solely from their success against my team. But there are some white players that have never played Marquette that I just can’t stand to watch play basketball. On the other hand, there are some that I really enjoy watching and hope to see succeed. In order to go through this strange (yet quite common) belief-system of mine, I’m going to utilize the wonders of a numbered list. Which is kind of a thought-organizing cop-out for me which doubles as a visually helpful reading device for you!
- I have a thorough, yet limited perspective. I live in a very white part of the world. That being said, I know people who are from painfully white places. I know people (mostly from other parts Wisconsin) who can probably count the times they’ve talked to a black person on one hand. I know actual racists. So although I go to a really, really white school, I grew up in a town with growing diversity with a young population that was cognizant of, if not truly introduced or educated in, the nature of baller culture. Its the opinions of these people that I have heard and found to be, at times, in line with mine. And we make up a HUGE percentage of the nation’s sports fan population.
- I walk an interesting basketball line. I am white. My ancestors are overwhelmingly Scandinavian (although there’s an off-chance that I’m like 1/64 American Indian). A black friend of mine called me the blackest white man he knows (that really should tell you more about where I come from than who I am). I’m not going to say for one minute that I think my melanin is deceptive, and any more non-basketball related anecdotes are going to get unconformable, generalized, and probably borderline racist. What I WILL say is that a friend of mine (who also “gets” ballerness but doesn’t pose) tells me I play like “a short black guy”. So, in other words, I use quick crafty moves to get to the hoop, shoot decently, and take off-balance mid-range jumpshots. He also cites the fact that I wear mid-length socks. The fact that I buzz my hair every 6-8 weeks probably also helps the image. I’m quite proud of this fact. However, I don’t have mad handles, my game is played well below the rim, and my lack of weight or strength gives me trouble. And, as opposed to common beliefs of playground basketball, I do things like play defense and set screens. So in this sense I’m probably closer to Manu Ginobili or Goran Dragic. The reason I’m telling you this is that I come from a basketball tradition of fundamental chest-passes leading to an open three, but I get how to play with crafty panache. I’ve accepted both parts of the game. Okay, enough about me, let’s take a look at ballers I like, ones I don’t like, and where the differences may lie.
- Generally, I dislike players that fit white stereotypes. If we’re ever going to be taken seriously, three-point specialists, tenacious ball-handlers, and big lunks have gotta go.
- I like Jake Thomas, but highly dislike Brady Heslip and Jordan Hulls. I can’t stand watching Brady Heslip play basketball. It’s awful. All he does is run off screens looking for a chance to chuck a three. He’s got this long goofy hair. He’s Canadian. He does the goggles. Hulls, who graduated last year, annoyed me to no end. Again, a little white guy with foofy hair that just runs around and shoots long shots. He looks all fired up all game. However, I like Jake Thomas, and not just because he plays for Marquette. Even though he is also an exemplar white three-point specialist, he doesn’t bug me because he has a neat, short haircut. He keeps a calm demeanor, even after a big hustle play or the ever popular implement of whiteness, taking a charge. And he even displays a good deal of athleticism when rebounding.
- The hair really is a big factor. The last example is a really good demonstration of the hair problem. If you’re white and play basketball, cut your hair. Keep it short. Ron Baker, Cameron Bairstow, Heslip, Hulls, Adam Morrison, Kelly Olynk, and on and on and on. You are just annoying when your hair is like that and you’re running around on a basketball court, especially if you’re actually pretty good. By the way, this extends to black players, too. It’s just not usually an issue. A select few players (Jae Crowder) make uncommon hairstyles work.
- Players who yell or showboat drive me nuts. Yeah, it’s unfair. I don’t mind when most black players roar or celebrate an 0n-court accomplishment, but I hated Luke Harongody so much for his displays of emotion. Maybe it’s because the scrubs on the bench doing dances and celebrations usually seem to be white guys. By the way, do those guys ever actually make it into the rotation? Like, where do schools get all of these white guys who look like they can’t play? How do they have a constant reserve of bench celebrators? Anyway, I really like non-celebratory white guys. David Stockton would have had every right to geek out after that ridiculous blocked shot, but he seemed almost embarrassed by the attention he got. I prefer that, even though I love it every time Davante Gardner roars.
- So I don’t know what to do with Marshall Henderson. Ever since he got the haircut I’ve thought he’s black. He’s not. And if he was, he’d have run out of excuses and second chances by now (as articles on ESPN and Deadspin have discussed). But on the court, he does nothing that the stereotypical white college player does. As a result, I have a little more acceptance of his on-court antics (off the court, no. I have to believe he’s kind of a huge jerk). Strange, I know: three-point goggles from Brady Heslip drive me nuts, but all sorts of gyrations from Marshall Henderson and I kind of smile at his audacity. It’s because one shoots open threes and the other shoots perfectly contested shots and relentlessly attacks entire teams on the way to the basket.
- I don’t know why we didn’t like Hansbrough or Jimmer. Tyler Hansbrough really drew a ton of dislike back in the day. Not really sure why. Looking back, he just outworked and outhustled guys and dominated college basketball despite not being overly athletic or talented. His brother Ben is a different story. Just as fiery as Tyler, but he was a guard. And he was actually really good. My dislike of him probably stems from the fact that I thought Kemba Walker should have been Big East POY and I hate Notre Dame. If I remember correctly, most of us sort of disliked Jimmer Fredette during his ludicrous senior season in which he won all the major awards. Afterwards we started saying “Jimmer!” when we chucked a long 3, but I think for some reason his dominance bothered us during his run with BYU. Not really sure why. I watched a YouTube clip of him destroying Gonzaga, and he’s just pure entertainment.
- It has something to do with the fact that they don’t make good pros. This bothers me, and I think it bothers others as well. It’s frustrating to see white players who are clearly the best players in the game they’re playing who have no chance of going pro. They may even be playing against a black player who isn’t very productive in college but is bolting for the NBA as soon as he can. Everyone would say that Jon Scheyer was a better college player than Mo Harkless, but only one of them is producing in the NBA right now. Jimmer and Kemba were the two leading candidates for the player of the year awards. Jimmer won, but Kemba is the far superior pro. For some reason, this lack of future success makes guys like this unlikable.
- Nik Stauskas vs Spike Albrecht is a good illustration. Both are sharpshooters playing for Michigan right now. I like Nik Stauskas because he has a complete game, doesn’t look awkward on the court, has a nice short haircut, isn’t showy, and is going to be drafted this year, possibly in the lottery. I like him despite the fact he’s Canadian. His teammate Spike I’m not as fond of, despite the fact that he put on a show in last year’s championship game. I guess it’s because all he does is shoot 3s, he’s short, has hair, and tried to put the moves on Kate Upton. I don’t know, this is mostly about why I do like Stauskas, as I’m not overly opposed to Albrecht.
- In almost any case, it depends on whether or not they’re good. You don’t boo bad players. Christian Laettner and J.J. Redick actually aren’t the most likable guys, but we hated them because they’re white AND good. No ones disliked Rob Frozena. On the contrary, we love white guys who are bad (White Mamba, Red Mamba….). If you’re white and good, prepare to run the gauntlet of fan opinion based on your play style, appearance, and level of emotion.
All of this is made worse by the fact that the narrative of white players has continually set them back. How many times have you heard a white player described as “tenacious”, “scrappy”, “heady”, “smart”, or “fundamental”? It’s true that many white players have made it in the college ranks because of these attributes, but can we give the rhetoric on Aaron Craft a break? I get it: we all hate him (because he’s a tenacious, scrappy, heady, smart player who beats guys way bigger and more athletic than him) and we shouldn’t, because he’s actually a great young man. But Rick Reilly, who only graces us with an article every week or so, decided to do one praising Craft for all of these attributes. Yes, I like Craft a lot more now, but what good does it do him, or anyone, to do a write-up about a guy who is apparently the basketball equivalent of Tim Tebow? I like a guy who stays pure, but half of America HATES Tim Tebow, just like most of us hate Aaron Craft. Side note: I think Craft grew up in the wrong country. He would have been one heck of a soccer player. Right build, good feet, tenacious, good vision. I could see him being a terrific end-to-end midfielder.
It seems to me that so often we highlight the character of white players, which can give people the impression that black players are the opposite. It’s also why we jump at the chance to dislike white players, because I think we assume that they are good guys, so displays of emotion on the court help us prove that they are in fact like that jerk we knew in high school. Sam Dekker, from what I know, is probably a great young man. But I don’t like him because he’s actually talented, athletic, and occasionally celebrates dunks and 3s. Side note again: there are, in fact, lots of white ballers who are jerks, we just don’t normally find out about it.
Actually, our idea of the good white boy playing basketball probably comes from the scenario in which a white player makes it to the NBA based on insane work ethic and familial support. The only way Aaron Craft will make it to the Association is if his hard work and solid character put him in the best position to maximize his less-than-stellar basketball skills. While occasionally we do find a started from the bottom now he’s here white athlete, such as Clint Dempsey, more often we find a guy like Gordon Hayward.
I realize that pretty much everything I’m saying is highly debatable, and most of my stories have two sides to them. For instance, while the white baller narrative has to do with maximizing skills and athleticism through intelligence, tenacity, and a solid upbringing, the black narrative often deals with overcoming adversity and making it out of a tough neighborhood. While this story can unfairly categorize black players, it also can be unfair to white players. Not every white basketball player comes from an “easy” background. Plenty of white players were not 4.0 students from financially stable families. While the failure narrative with black players often resolves around life choices and a squandering of talent, we give white players a pass and say they just weren’t athletic enough.
And this is where all of this really begins and ends: the notion that black ballers have distinct athletic advantages over white ballers. We have to come to terms with the fact that this is usually true, but is not always true. The overwhelming idea that black players are far superior, an idea held by people of both races, ends up being detrimental to everyone. Do most of the white American NBA players fall into the stereotypical categories? Yes, they do, but Chandler Parson is much more than a pure shooter. Blake Griffin doesn’t seem hampered by the half of his DNA that is white. I was at the UWGB vs Belmont NIT game on Tuesday. Almost all of GB’s players were black, while almost all of Belmont’s player’s were white. I detected little difference in athleticism, and the best athlete and player, by far, was Belmont’s Craig Bradshaw (a white guy). Granted, the Horizon League POY Keifer Sykes (a black guy) did not play due to injury, but Bradshaw was easily the best player on that court. There was nothing “white boy” about his game.
We have to accept that the physical attributes of most white men are not as helpful in basketball as they are in other sports. It’s not just a matter of “black guys are better athletes”. Has anyone ever said that Clay Matthews is good because he’s smart? Do white offensive lineman just have better technique? No. It’s just more common for a white athlete to be built like a linebacker than a high-flying small forward. We also have to stop assuming that a white basketball player can’t be hard-working, tenacious, intelligent AND have actual athletic ability.
All of this is to say that we have to stop making assumptions about a player’s capabilities because of their skin color. Are there generalizations and stereotypes that are often true? Yes. But there are black role-players just as there are white high-flyers. There are savants from Compton just as there are numskulls from the Hamptons. The “Big Fundamental” is black and Joe Alexander is white. As long as we view basketball as a sport belonging to black men, we’re going to hate white players who find success in it.
Because seriously: how can you not dislike Ethan Wragge? Thank you for being yet another unathletic white guy who just shoots 3s and rebounds AND looks like a lumberjack.
Thank you for taking time to read during this time of basketball madness. What do you think? Like, comment, subscribe/follow, post to Facebook and Twitter, email at email@example.com.
Soli Deo Gloria
DISCLAIMERS: I realize some people believe the description “black” to be politically incorrect. I used it in this article a gazillion times because no one wants to read “African-American” over and over. Also, “African-American” is not always accurate. And, perhaps most importantly, if you don’t want me to use the word “black”, don’t you ever call me “white”. “Scandinavian-American” will do just fine.
I have a heart for racial topics in this country, and generalizations about race make me angry. I do, however, think that it makes no sense to be “color-blind” or avoid racial discussions and distinctions because culture and race are so often intertwined. To some, this article may seem racist or too lighthearted. If you think that then you’re not getting it, as part of this article is really just a self-deprecating look at a peculiar opinion that I, and others like me, have.
If you take issue with anything that I have written here, my email, once again, is firstname.lastname@example.org.