In search of colorblind NBA commentators
NBA analysts should follow Sean Elliott's lead and desegregate player
During the November 12 edition of the ESPN show "Fast Break," NBA
analyst Sean Elliott did something that basketball experts rarely do:
He compared a white player to a black player. Elliott dared to say that
Dallas's Eduardo Najera and San Antonio's Malik Rose are so alike in
their abilities and style of play that, were it not for skin color, he'd
be hard-pressed to tell the relentless hustlers apart.
Elliott is right about Najera and Rose, and it speaks well of him that
he's open to the possibility that forwards of different hues could have
near-identical games and tools. But an insightful essay by Daniel
Greenstone demonstrates that, in the NBA universe, open-minded Elliott
is the exception to the close-minded rule.
In "White Men Can't Pass" (available online at
Greenstone documents and decries this annoying habit of scouts, coaches,
general managers and commentators: keeping player comparisons within
the color lines. "This phenomenon," he writes, "is most obvious in the
annual evaluation of college players that occurs prior to the NBA draft
in June. With remarkable consistency, draft analysts compare white
prospects only to other white players and black prospects only to other
Greenstone, who teaches American history at Oak Park and River Forest
High School in Illinois, shows that this occurs even for players who
don't fit into the rooted-in-racism "style" categories into which white
players (methodical, fundamental, heady) and black players (athletic,
instinctive, expressive) are squeezed. He cites Trajan Langdon, a black
man with the game of the stereotypical white shooting guard (deadly
accurate when open, but lacking the quickness, elusiveness and jumping
ability to score on his own), who coming out of college was compared not
to white pros with similar attributes (e.g., Steve Kerr or Eric
Piatkowski) but to Dell Curry, who is black. The aging Curry, having
lost the semi-elusiveness of his youth, was an apt choice, but why the
instinctive reach for matching pigment?
Keith Van Horn is a slender white player who combines the leaping
ability and quick first step of the black stereotype with the lateral
slowness and deadly outside shot of the white stereotype. When he
worked out for the Utah Jazz before the 1997 NBA draft, Greenstone
reports that "Jazz officials named three players who they thought he
resembled: Tom Gugliotta, Detlef Schrempf and Toni Kukoc, all of whom
The Jazz brass must have been blinded by the white. In my view, only
Kukoc - a smooth, unmuscled finesse player who lacked Van Horn's
impressive hops but was a far superior passer - was even close to being
a reasonable comparison. Before age caught up with Schrempf and
injuries with Gugliotta, both were superior all-around athletes with
larger, chiseled frames. A far better comparison would have been Eddie
Johnson, who, like Van Horn, was a slender, shoot-first forward with a
sweet stroke, unlimited range and the inability to guard his own
shadow. But Johnson is black, and his name never came up.
Closely related to the practice of intra-color comparing is the
inability of many basketball people to give black stars credit for their
smarts and dedication, while at the same time downplaying the
athleticism of white stars and chalking up their achievements to brains
and hard work. This tendency is not as prevalent today as in the 1980s,
when Isiah Thomas erupted one afternoon after hearing, for the
thousandth time, how Larry Bird had supposedly outwitted opponents who
ran faster and jumped higher than the hick from French Lick.
Few commentators in the Eighties seemed to notice that Bird was the most
coordinated 6-10 guy - regardless of race - the world had ever seen.
Those who did notice acted as if coordination, agility, ambidexterity,
reflexes and touch were not dimensions of athleticism. Darryl Dawkins'
impressive hops led to him being mislabeled a "great athlete," but the
truth is he would have been better off as an athlete and a hoopster had
he been "saddled" with Bird's physical gifts. To be sure, Bird
developed his natural abilities to a far greater degree than slacker
Dawkins developed his. But when all the dimensions of athleticism are
taken into account, it's obvious that Bird had far more to work with
than the leaper from Lovetron.
These days, commentators are more likely to acknowledge the smarts and
devotion to craft of black stars (particularly those named Michael
Jordan and Tim Duncan), but many still can't recognize a great white
athlete when they see one.
Consider John Stockton, a 40-year-old white man who holds his own at the
most athletically challenging position in basketball: point guard.
Before Stockton, there had never been an above average playmaker at 37,
let alone 40. To hear the commentariat tell it, Stockton's secrets are
off-the-charts hoop smarts and craftiness. But only by trying real hard
can one fail to notice his (barely eroding) gifts: huge, strong,
lightning-quick hands; impressive end-to-end speed (back in the day no
one was faster); a long, quick first step; effortless jumpshot
elevation; great reflexes and coordination. Granted, his diminished
lateral quickness now makes him an easy mark for primetime penetrators,
but as a help defender he's still a steal-happy whirling dervish. At
By all means, let's salute Stockton's smarts and unsurpassed work
ethic. But let's also acknowledge that, as an athlete, he's one in a
For an immortal such as Stockton, it's hard to find anyone of any hue to
compare him to. But NBA mortals are another story. In support of the
efforts of Greenstone and Elliott to tear down the color-coding wall, I
offer three comparisons of current players - one black, one white - who
to my eyes look an awful lot alike. Readers, put your thinking cap on
and come up with your own cross-color comparisons. They're out there,
and by going public with these matched sets we can show basketball
people the light and make our world a better, less pigeonholed place.
- Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce. No player more closely resembles
Pierce in style, physique and results than the gent from Germany. Not
Kobe Bryant, not Tracy McGrady, not even Tractor Traylor. Granted,
Nowitzki is taller and Pierce is quicker, particularly on defense.
(Every 7-footer comes up short in the lateral-quickness category.) But
that is where the differences end. Both are long, lean, graceful and
super-coordinated. They've got the same great hands, the same sweet
stroke and the same loping gait. Each has a great first step, loves to
drive and can finish with either hand. Each lives at the line and makes
his free throws. Each drains 40 percent of his treys, scores from
mid-range and can post up. If it weren't for Nowitzki's blond locks,
I'd swear they were separated at birth.
- George Lynch and Matt Harpring. Although Harpring is a few years
younger, this comparison should be an obvious one, given that Harpring
took Lynch's old job in Philly when Lynch left for Charlotte in 2001.
Harpring got to shoot a bit more in Philly than Lynch, but otherwise
pretty much duplicated Lynch's 2000-01 numbers. These "small" forwards
are tenacious, bruising defenders and excellent rebounders. Each has
the same outside-linebacker physique, and good speed, quickness and
jumping ability. Neither entered the league with a dependable outside
shot, but both have worked hard to become respectable shooters from the
floor and the stripe. They say good things come in threes, and the
aforementioned Najera, the first man of Mexican heritage to play in the
NBA, need only improve his ballhandling a bit to become a barrel-chested
chip off the Lynch-Harpring block.
- Andrei Kirilenko and a very young Scottie Pippen. Like the young
Pippen, Kirilenko is long, lean and quick. He's everywhere on defense,
guarding everybody. If he's not swatting shots, he's making steals.
(He gets the edge as a swatter, Pippen as a thief.) Like the young
Pippen, Kirilenko has an undeveloped offensive game. His jumpshot comes
and goes, but he accumulates hustle points in bunches on half-court cuts
to the hoop, put-backs, fastbreaks and breakaways. If he follows
Pippen's footsteps by honing his stroke and learning to create shots for
himself and his teammates, watch out. Kirilenko, too, may become an
Come to think of it, at this developmental stage Kirilenko is even more
reminiscent of Bobby Jones. No, not the 1930s golfing great who kept
blacks off the Augusta National course and out of the Masters
tournament, but the long-stridin', high-flyin' brother who played in
Denver with "Skywalker" David Thompson and in Philly with Dr. J.
Jones was black, wasn't he?
Dennis Hans is an aging lefty playmaker whose snakey
skills would draw comparisons to Tiny Archibald and Kenny Anderson if we lived
in a colorblind world. His essays on basketball - including the styles, rhythms
and fundamentals of free-throw shooting - have appeared in Dime and online at
the Sporting News, Slate, InsideHoops.com, and The Black World Today (tbwt.com).
His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post
and Miami Herald, among other outlets. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu