If it's white, it's all right! Contrary to what the NBA wants you to think, there's still a rising perception that the league is interested in growing its population of international players who are of a lighter hue. The perception is that this is happening to appease white patrons exhausted by the behavior of 20-year-old millionaires gone bad—whose culture, and pigmentation, is different from their own.
I've heard such noise emanating from African-American communities in the aftermath of the Brawl in Auburn Hills, nearly four years ago. The argument goes like this: The NBA hasn't had an American-born white superstar since Larry Bird, and teams will travel to any and all corners of the earth to find a Dirk Nowitzki, a Peja Stojakovic or someone else without a remote connection to Ron Artest. The noise has been echoing again this spring, as 13 of the 16 playoff teams have at least one white international player in at least a supporting role.
If the argument made sense, the NBA would be the definition of hypocrisy, considering all the hip-hop booming in arenas around the league. Except the argument doesn't make any sense at all.
I have no problem with the changing demographics on the court, for the simple reason that they're strictly about the worldwide chase for dollars and cents. David Stern is running a multibillion-dollar business, and he's willing to eviscerate anything or anyone who threatens to lower his bottom line. But is Stern, or the league, behaving in a racist manner? Come on. Although several African-American players I know disagree with me, none of them wants to admit as much on the record—wisely, I might add. Because the facts speak for themselves. NBA executives point out that while there were 76 international players, from 31 countries, in the league at the end of the season (more than 20% of the players on the 30 team rosters), only 46 were European. These international players included not just Nowitzki and Stojakovic but Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian of China, as well as Congo's most famous senior citizen, Dikembe Mutombo.
Those same NBA executives will tell you that owners would embrace green goblins, giant frogs or players who "wore diapers instead of regular underwear," as one team official told me, if it meant another $10 million in revenue. "I don't think race has anything to do with who's playing in our league," says Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld, who makes numerous international scouting trips each year. "I don't think people really care about who the players are. It's about what they bring to the table."
Like entry to global markets. "At some point, everybody is looking for a pool of money to swim into, and the international market is clearly where it's at," says Bill Duffy, an African-American agent who reps Yao and many other NBA players.
"How many sneakers or T-shirts can someone buy? You avoid reaching a saturation point by delving into that international pool. The NBA can't be blamed for that."
Makes sense to me. Other than soccer, basketball is arguably the world's most popular pro sport. Beginning with the original Dream Team in Barcelona 16 years ago, the NBA has gone global, creating shared revenue that has helped bridge the gap between large-market and small-market teams.
Yes, the league has an image issue. But there's a dress code now, for what that's worth. And stiffer and swifter conduct penalties are in vogue, with guys getting ejected for staring at or laughing at an official, for crying out loud.
Once upon a time, I was inclined to believe that the NBA, in an effort to ingratiate itself with its viewing public, wanted more white players to serve that purpose—until, that is, common sense taught me otherwise. Enough with the race issue. The NBA would never compromise the composition of its product for the sake of a few racist holdouts. The league is all about improving its product—the better to sell it!
In a society where some still criticize Babe Ruth because he didn't play against Negro Leaguers, how can we complain that international participation in basketball has opened the floodgates for more intense and well-rounded competition?
We can't. So let's cut the noise.
Stephen A. Smith is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.