When Memphis Grizzlies forward Pau Gasol was named NBA Rookie of the Year last week, the 21-year-old Spanish sensation became the first European player to capture the award. In a league long dominated by black stars, the fact that Gasol is white drew no attention. In fact, white rookies have now won the trophy two years running, a "double" almost as unlikely--it last happened almost 40 years ago--as the Halle-Denzel sweep that created so much buzz at the Academy Awards. The back-to-back rookie honors and the emergence of other young white NBA stars are flouting one of America's most entrenched sports stereotypes: contrary to conventional wisdom, white men can jump.
For most of its history, the NBA included white stars--from Jerry West in the '60s to Bill Walton to Larry Bird--who competed at the game's highest levels. But when Bird retired in 1992, the white NBA star appeared to be a dying species, with ageless John Stockton in the role of the last dinosaur. In 1998, for the first time ever, no white player was among the top 15 players honored as "all-NBA." Whites found themselves cast increasingly as limited role players, usually inside muscle or three-point specialists. Michael Jordan's Bulls epitomized this model, with a Bill Wennington or Will Perdue patrolling the lane and a Steve Kerr or John Paxson out at the three-point line.
But almost overnight the NBA has witnessed an explosion of new talent that is revamping racial perceptions. Leading the charge are European imports, including not only Gasol but two budding superstars, Germany's Dirk Nowitzki and Yugoslavia's Predrag Stojakovic, who are odds-on all-NBA candidates. Nowitzki, 23, of the Dallas Mavericks, is one of just two NBA players (along with Tim Duncan) to finish the season in the top 10 in both scoring and rebounding. Sacramento's Stojakovic, 24, averaged 21.2 points per game, helping the Kings to the NBA's best record.
In the United States, youth basketball is now more integrated. White kids from rural or even suburban America, who once might have gotten all the way through high school without facing a black opponent, are now steered through elite basketball camps and leagues where they're challenged by black opposition all the time. Schooled by the competition, the most talented have adapted to the urban-flavored style of play that prevails in today's NBA. The current playoffs showcase such homegrown (or Canadian-grown) stars as Dallas's Steve Nash, New Jersey's Keith Van Horn, Orlando's Mike Miller (who nabbed the rookie trophy last year) and Minnesota's Wally Szczerbiak. "I love watching Wally and all these guys," says Minnesota season-ticket holder Simon Blocker, an African-American. "If they're playing with the brothers, you know these cats have to be good."
The day is long past when black stars weren't regarded as marketable to big corporate sponsors or to the league's largely white ticket buyers. "Dr. J, Magic and Michael really put an end to all that," says NBA Commissioner David Stern. Still, until recently, many black NBAers say, less talented white players were given roster spots--often as the last men on the bench--just to provide some comfort for white fans. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban says race has ceased to be an issue on the playing floor. "Anyone who isn't colorblind is out of business," says Cuban. "Today it's all about 'W's' and dollars. If you win, it doesn't matter if your players are blue and from Mars."
Stern and NBA owners, however, recognize a potential treasure trove in what the commissioner terms "multiculturalism." The NBA was a pioneer in marketing its game and stars abroad, and the payoff--in talent as well as broadcast and marketing opportunities--is already conspicuous. The league now boasts 52 foreign players from 31 countries, compared with 23 from 18 nations a decade ago. "We've got a cast of very good foreign players who grew up watching Michael, Magic and Larry," says Stern. "Now their countrymen are going to grow up watching them."
Today's NBA moves to hip-hop rhythms on and off the court, and some white stars face a considerable adjustment. "It was truly bewildering--two separate worlds," says Sacramento center Vlade Divac, the senior European with 13 NBA seasons. But his young teammate Hidayet Turkoglu, the NBA's first Turkish player, says he quickly bonded with his black teammates: "I love Notorious B.I.G., rap music and big, baggy clothes." Turkoglu further endeared himself by averaging double figures in just his second season.
Some black players feel a natural kinship with the foreigners. "As blacks, you're often the outsider, the one who's not accepted," says Sacramento superstar Chris Webber. "We know how the foreign guys feel when they come in with a different language and look." American-born white players say they've adjusted to minority status through long experience of being among the few white kids on their teams. "I don't even think about it anymore," says Szczerbiak.
It is never easy to sort out racial issues, even when they appear to be black and white. Hall of Famer Bill Russell, the first black coach in NBA history, marvels at how the public perceived the storied Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the '80s as a white team vs. a black team. But which was more important back then, Russell wonders--"that the Lakers had black stars or that the Celtics had a black coach?" Back then the NBA could count its black head coaches on one hand. Today half the teams are led by black coaches. It seems globalization has done a lot more for American basketball than simply expanding its popularity.