HoopsHype.com Columns

Where have all the honkies gone?
by Dennis Hans / October 30, 2002

As the National Basketball Association begins another season and unveils its latest line of sleek foreign imports, one can’t help but notice that the best of the league’s fair-skinned domestic models is 40 years old. Forty!

Props are certainly in order for John Stockton. Before he grabbed Father Time’s shorts and decked him with an elbow while the ref wasn’t looking, there had never been a point guard, black or white, functioning at near-all-star level at 36, let alone 40. But the fact that this gifted geezer can still kick the booty of any other U.S.born white man in the NBA is compelling evidence of a disintegrating demographic.

Not so long ago, America produced palefaces who could run like the wind, board like a bear and shoot like The Rifleman. In fact, they shot better than The Rifleman, or at least the actor who portrayed him. Before Chuck Connors took Hollywood by storm, he averaged 4.6 points a game for the 1946-47 Boston Celtics, shooting a scattershot 24.7% from the field and 46.4% from the line.

Of course, Connors only qualified for NBA work because he came along when African Americans were banned from the league. But consider some of the white players who have shined in an integrated NBA: Bob Cousy, Jerry West, Rick Barry, Dolph Schayes, Bob Pettit, Jerry Lucas, Billy Cunningham, Gail Goodrich, John Havlicek, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Walton, Dave Cowens, Bobby Jones, Dan Issel, Kiki Vandeweghe, Paul Westphal, Pete Maravich, Kevin McHale and Larry Bird.

What those greats have in common is they all played “back in the day.” Today, if you find a white guy who can really play, you can bet your 201(k) he’s from far away.

Black America’s families, thank goodness, continue to produce quality NBA stars, thus preventing the U.S. from descending to the level of international laughingstock. Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter and Shaquille O’Neal all will be remembered long after they hang up their sneakers.

If anyone remembers Travis Knight, it will be for his girly ’do. In 2025, if someone smiles at the mention of Mark Madsen, chances are he’s visualizing Mad Dog bustin’ loose in his doofus victory dance. Now that could wind up in the Hall of Fame. Isn’t it just a little bit suspicious that the creme of the USA’s latest caucasian crop, Wally Szczerbiak, has a foreign-sounding name? The best of the rest, Keith Van Horn and Brad Miller, are pale imitations of their forebears— solid pros, but hardly reminiscent of Barry or Big Red.

Some in today’s generation don’t even merit the old race-tainted compliment “heady.” Last season, I saw Van Horn and Fred “The Mayor” Hoiberg foul up something so simple as the intentionally missed free throw. Neither realized that, for the ball to be active after a miss, the shot must draw iron. They just banged the shot hard off the board, a violation that automatically gave the ball to the other team.

This plague of hoop mediocrity is not a “white thing” writ large. If it were, it would transcend national boundaries. But there’s this 25-year-old All-Star who wears sunscreen in summer and would likely sport a championship ring if he hadn’t sprained his ankle last spring: Peja Stojakovic, the pride of Yugoslavia.

His Sacramento teammates include the best passing center in the game, fellow countryman Vlade Divac, and versatile Turk Hidayet Turkoglu.

Another young superstar, Dallas’s Dirk Nowitzki, hails from Germany. His All-Star teammate, playmaker Steve Nash, is a hot-shooting hoser who was born in South Africa and raised in the Great White North (a.k.a. Canada).

What about the 21-year-old string bean who late last season stuffed Shaq twice in the same game? That’s Utah’s Andrei Kirilenko, Russian born and bred.

Seattle’s high-flying, do-everything, 21-year-old forward? Vladimir Radmanovic. You go, Yugo!

Runaway 2002 Rookie of the Year? The Grizzlies silky Spaniard, pallid Pau Gasol.

Best white center of the past dozen years? No, not Will Perdue. Lithe Lithuanian Arvydas Sabonis. Some say that in his lean-and-healthy prime (which, alas, he spent in Europe), Sabonis was the caliber of Shaq, Kareem and Hakeem the Dream.

Get the picture? Foreign lands don’t produce “great white hopes.” They produce players -- great athletes with great skills.

Not so long ago, so too did white America. Why can’t we now? Have we grown soft? Did our best talent get sidetracked by dot.com mania? Are there 6-10 dudes with unlimited ability hanging out at Starbucks rather than the local gym?

What about diet? Too much junk food and too many keggers? You can’t “be like Mike” if you eat like Shaq and drink like Barkley.

What about white flight from the cities? Being the H-O-R-S-E champ of your gated community is all well and good, but it’s a far cry from competin’ in the ’hood.

All are factors, but surely the biggest is the disappearing family farms. Once upon a time they dotted the landscape, and farm boys grew into men who kicked butt in every major sport. They threw harder, ran faster and jumped higher, and they had a natural “farm-boy strength” that transferred to the playing field or court far more effectively than sterile, iron-pumped muscle.

Unfortunately, yesterday’s hardscrabble farm boy is today’s suburban slob. A hard day for him is an all-nighter at his Play Station station.

Return to the land, long tall honkies. Bale that hay, milk them cows and hammer a hoop above the barn door. Don’t show your face in the big city until you’ve got corn- and cattle-fed muscles and a game to go with
them.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball -- including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting -- have appeared online at the Sporting News, Slate and The Black World Today. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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