Jeremy Fowler, Orlando Sentinel, April 3, 2009
College basketball teams can thrive with white players.
But the odds of a team cutting down the Final Four nets aren’t good if that team is stocked with many white guys, Orlando Sentinel research shows. College basketball at its highest levels is dominated by black players even if the subject makes some people uncomfortable. Look no further than this weekend in Detroit. Only two white players–North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough and Michigan State’s Goran Suton–will be listed among the combined 20 starters for the four teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament semifinals. And two teams–Villanova and Connecticut–don’t have a white player on scholarship on this year’s active roster.
Michigan State is the only team from this year’s Final Four that signed more than nine white players to scholarships between 1997 and 2008.
Recruiting numbers spell it out in black and white: Since the 2000 tournament, 34 of 40 Final Four teams played consistently with no more than one white starter during that particular year. The 2003 Syracuse team, with white starters Gerry McNamara and Craig Forth, was the only one to win a championship.
The last championship team to rely on at least three white starters was Duke in 1991, its first of back-to-back championships thanks to Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner and Billy McCaffrey, who started most of that season.
Coaches say there are more good white players than ever, and the growth of the game in other parts of the world has also brought new white talent to the college game. Amateur Athletic Union basketball circuits are laced with white players.
Despite those encouragements, black players are a solid majority in college basketball.
Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, said black players currently comprise 60.4 percent of college basketball, which he calls “probably the highest number in a long time.” In the 1999-2000 season, that number was 55.5 percent.
The research was compiled through team photos, rosters, recruiting databases, media guides and school sports information departments. The criteria: No walk-ons, a signee’s or transfer’s first season with the school must have been 1997-98 or beyond, and at least one official game of playing time was required.
Based on a team’s average of about four signees per year, 12 of the 23 teams sampled by the Sentinel gave less than 20 percent of their scholarships to white players.
The game has changed since Texas Western, led by black players, beat all-white Kentucky in the 1966 championship game to help usher out the era of segregation and usher in widespread recruitment of black players at major programs. But you won’t find many players or coaches who’ll talk openly about race in basketball today.
“The perception is still this: How can a white guy possibly play today without smarts?” said Kevin Grevey, a white former Kentucky star in the early 1970s and with the NBA’s Washington Bullets. “And how could a black player possibly play without athleticism? It’s not fair, but it’s the perception.”
The research began with 1997 because that was the year Donovan [Florida Coach Billy Donovan] arrived as coach at Florida. Since then, he has cultivated a program in which white players flourish.
Florida has had 14 white scholarship players since Donovan arrived, tied with traditional white-player mecca Duke for most among the 11 teams with two or more Final Four appearances since 1997. Ohio State, with 13 white players on scholarship in that span, is tied with Kentucky for third.
None of the other seven programs on the list–Kansas (11), UCLA (10), Michigan State (10), Arizona (9), UNC (9), Maryland (7) and UConn (5)–signed more than 11 white players that played at least a portion of a season.
Donovan’s ascension into coaching royalty began with white cornerstones. He had a top-scorer in Mike Miller, talented point guards Teddy Dupay and Brett Nelson and a good shooter off the bench in Matt Bonner. That group, coupled with a collection of black players including Udonis Haslem and Donnell Harvey, guided Florida to a Final Four in 2000.
Signing white players in bulk hasn’t exactly strengthened Florida lately. The Gators started three white players on the way to this year’s National Invitation Tournament.
Duke signed 11 white players between 2002 to 2008. In that span, the team has been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by a lower-seeded opponent in six consecutive years and has failed to advance beyond the round of 16 five times.
The Blue Devils only Final Four team in that stretch came in 2004. J.J. Redick was its lone white starter.
Style of play matters
The numbers often hinge on style of play, players and coaches say. Florida forward Dan Werner, who is white, said the difference in schools signing black or white players could be playing “more up and down, and that caters to guys who are more athletic” or “Princeton (offense) stuff, slowdown and backdoor cuts maybe.”
Jon Entine, author of the book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, said the perception of the superior black athlete actually is based on genetics.
“White players can compete,” he said. “They are finally able to match the style of play of the black player in some regards. But any controversy between black and white players and this topic stems from a cultural difference, because the genetic terminology isn’t controversial. It’s not going to change.”
The perfect white or black player–the one with the skill to run a complex offense, the athleticism to knock his head on the rim and the classroom prowess to stay in school–is still a rarity, Mississippi State assistant coach Robert Kirby said.
“If a [black] player is a really good athlete and great student, why would he go to Vanderbilt when he can go to North Carolina and Duke?” asked Kirby, who is black. “They’ve been in the NCAA Tournament every year, the Sweet 16 every year. Why go to Vandy? Why would they come to Mississippi State?
“Sometimes with academic requirements it’s hard to get kids in, so you recruit much lesser athletes and you make do with that.”