White men can jump

Posted: Thursday, January 28, 2010

Don Lewis thinks white men can't jump. What else explains the bizarre statement he issued last week?

According to the Chronicle newspaper of Augusta, Ga., Lewis is the commissioner of something called the All-American Basketball Alliance, which hopes to set up shop in 12 cities. "Only players that are natural born United States citizens with both parents of Caucasian race are eligible to play in the league," his statement said.

Yes, we're talking about a whites-only basketball league.

But Lewis, you'll be relieved to hear, is no racist. Shucks no, he says. It's just that white fans are tired of black players (cover your eyes, Kobe, D-Wade, LeBron) who rely on "street-ball" athleticism to make up for their lack of fundamental skills.

The AABA (Affirmative Action Basketball Association?) has an ice cream cone's chance in the Georgia sun of ever becoming a reality or, if it does, of surviving its first legal challenge. A reader on the Chronicle Web site wonders if the players would play in white robes with or without hoods. But this story, silly as it is, affords a chance to make a serious observation about excellence and expectation.

Back in 1997, Sports Illustrated ran a ground-breaking story, "What Ever Happened to the White Athlete?" which quantified the declining prominence of white players in mainstream sports. SI found a creeping sense of inferiority among young white student athletes. Whether they ascribed it to physiological superiority or to being hungrier and harder working, most seemed to accept that black athletes were simply better than they - so why go out for the team?

The obvious irony is that, well into the 20th century, it was an article of faith in this country that blacks were physically "inferior," lacking the strength, speed and intelligence to compete with white athletes. Now, we come into an era where white kids see "themselves" as the athletic bumblers.

But the new stereotype is as false as the old. Any list of basketball's all-time greats, after all, would be incomplete without the snow white likes of George Mikan, Larry Bird, John Stockton, Jerry West, "Pistol" Pete Maravich and Kevin McHale, to name a few.

Tellingly enough, if you put together a list of "today's" white basketball elite, you'd find it dominated by international stars like Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Steve Nash (South Africa, Canada), and Pau Gasol (Spain).

The common denominator, I think, is that they grew up in places where they didn't get the memo that white men can't jump, grew up unburdened by their supposed athletic impotence. Their ability to thrive in a sport where black men dominate suggests that sometimes, excellence is a question of expectation, of how you see yourself.

That should be a message of hope to young white athletes - and to young black scholars. Their plight, after all, is the mirror image of that faced by the white kid who fears to go out for the team, i.e., an academic achievement gap in which people who look like them are perennially on the short end and there is a dearth of role models to suggest it could ever be otherwise.

One often hears black kids speak in ways that suggest they have internalized the inevitability of academic failure in much the same way white kids internalize the idea that they can't run or jump. But success in any field is not some birthright of skin color, but, rather, a function of how hungry you are and how hard you work - a function of what you deem possible.

That's why people who expect to fail usually do. So here is the question we should ask our white kids struggling to hold on to the ball and our black ones struggling to master the equation: What if you expected to succeed?

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.



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