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Last year, a story in The Village Voice said what many other publications have only implied when it published a provocative piece about the NBA's pursuit of international stars. The story indicated that the globalization push is about finding white players to appeal to white fans and corporate sponsors to make more money.
While I understand the perception, I strongly disagree. And I am usually the one pointing out racial problems in sport, as I have done since the early 1970s.
The article quoted Robert "Scoop" Jackson, a contributing editor to the NBA's own Inside Stuff magazine and the editor-at-large for Slam. Jackson was quoted as saying, "The brothers talk about this all the time. The black cultural perspective is different on this one. From our perspective, the NBA is getting whiter, and not too many of the brothers like it. It's about comfort levels. The stockholders, the ticket buyers, the corporate sponsors are all white. You have to do something to appease the financial backers of the sport. It's deeper than blatantly getting the brothers out of the game. It's about money."
When I called Jackson to follow up, he said, "I was not saying that's the way it is, but it is the way it looks to us. As black folks, we have had four centuries to build our perspective and our perceptions. If we are wrong, we are wrong. But it's how we see it."
According to our research on the league's demographic trends at the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, Jackson is wrong on one point: The NBA is not getting whiter. But he's right about another: It is about the money.
Fans pay to see winning teams and good basketball. If an international player makes a team better, it's good for the team and good for the game.
The NBA has gone to great lengths to internationalize basketball. Children now play hoops in Beijing, Delhi, Paris, Dakar, Berlin, Luanda and Johannesburg. Sometimes, basketball courts provide respites from the tensions in the Middle East. Children can still play with one another there, and families can watch "professional" basketball in virtually any of the Middle Eastern countries.
Basketball is being played at significantly higher levels overseas now. In the last World Championships, the United States team featured nine NBA All-Stars and yet finished a seemingly-unimaginable sixth. And at the 2001 World University Games, the U.S. team finished third. In reality, some of the best basketball players in the world are from beyond our borders. You certainly can't argue that international players such as Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac (Kings), Pau Gasol (Grizzlies) and Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki (Mavericks), among others, have added to the excitement of the NBA.
In the first round of this year's playoffs, eight starters were international players who were white. But that doesn't mean they were on the court so the league could appeal to more white fans and bring in more revenue. Six other starters in the playoffs were international players of color. Tony Parker, who started for the Spurs championship team last year, caught many fans off-guard with his French accent. As a foreign player of color, he was hardly alone -- 22 of the 68 international players on NBA rosters this year were players of color.
The Spurs, the NBA's hottest team entering the playoffs, have four starters and one reserve who are international players. The Mavericks and Kings are among the biggest road draws in the NBA, and they both feature international stars.
In fact, basketball is the only pro sport in this country in which the percentage of black players has not decreased in recent years. Five years ago, blacks made up 77 percent of the NBA player pool, which was exactly the percentage at the All-Star break this past winter. That number has stayed consistent -- 77-to-78 percent -- over that time frame.
During the same period, the percentage of white NBA players has declined from 23 to 21 percent.Of the white players in the league, 45 percent are international and 55 percent are U.S.-born. Of the blacks in the league, seven percent are foreign-born and 93 percent are from the United States.
According to the most recent Racial and Gender Report Card, the percentage of black players declined in the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NHL and Major League Soccer in their last seasons.
The NBA was ahead of corporate America in realizing that diversity is good for business. It started with players, but now includes a large number of black head coaches and a significant number of general managers and team presidents. The league has the first black owner in major pro sports -- the Charlotte Bobcats' Robert Johnson. The NBA far outpaces any of the other leagues in all these categories.
It is no accident that the NBA was the first league to have mandatory diversity management training for its employees in New York and for many of it teams. That training helps an organization manage the differences among its staff and on the playing court. It is good business. When Yao Ming came to the NBA last year, the Asian market -- particularly, Americans of Chinese descent -- responded by coming out each time Yao played in a new city.
Beyond the NBA, the numbers of international players have continued to increase in all other pro sports leagues as well as at the college level. Numerous international tennis players and golfers compete in the United States, and their presence is not a black-and-white issue.
In fact, during the 2003-04 season, the NBA had the lowest percentage (17) of international players. In Major League Baseball, international players comprise 25 percent of the talent pool. In the NHL, that number is 27 percent (excluding Canadians). In Major League Soccer, it is 38 percent; and in the WNBA, it is 18 percent.
None of those leagues is trying to get whiter, only better; and the same is true in the NBA. I, for one, will enjoy the crop of international stars -- as well as the great American-born players, black and white alike, as we move through the playoffs.
Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 10 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.