The basketball season has finally ended (with apologies to the Lynx who are just beginning), but it is hard to think of the game anywhere without the realization of how African Americans literally dominate the sport at all levels today. It has become next to impossible to conceive of a basketball game, either amateur or professional, in which the principal players are not African Americans, regardless of the team’s location.
Many of us who have been involved actively in the Civil Rights Movement over the years had become accustomed to management using the old refrain,” We’d like to make our workforce more diverse, but we are unable to find qualified African Americans.” Applying that thought to basketball, I can’t help but wonder how places like Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Mankato, and an increasing number of other out-state Minnesota schools are finding them for basketball.
Not that I oppose it, but I am struck by the duality.
Seeing a major basketball game today without a Black in the lineup is almost as rare as seeing a bird without wings. But it certainly has not always been that way. Those of us with vivid recollections of a couple of generations ago can vouch for that.
Back then it was as rare to see a Black face on a major college or pro basketball team as a steamboat sailing down Main Street, and not just in the legally segregated South. Before the great Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, integrated basketball teams at any level were a rarity.
A sordid example can be pointed out in the example of Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player to ever grace the courts. If Michael had been born a generation earlier, today he might have been harvesting tobacco in Eastern North Carolina instead of traveling throughout the country hawking and lending his name to major commercial products. (Hanes men’s underwear and other products would probably have a White ex-athlete to push their products.)
What I am saying is that unquestionably Michael’s fame and fortune of today is attributable to the change in custom for Black athletes during his time. It is almost an accepted standard for basketball teams today to be comprised of three Blacks and two Whites as first-team starters.
One need look no further than the recently concluded NBA Championship, the zenith of basketball perfection. Of the 10 starting positions of the two final teams, eight of them were African Americans.
Sometimes that pattern is broken and the entire starting five are Black. On the other hand, seldom in a major basketball game today will you find an all-White starting lineup.
Maybe basketball could teach us something about life other than sports.
Matthew Little welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.