Where are all the white American NBA players?
The league’s white players talk about what it’s like to be the minority
J.J. Redick will be entering his 11th season in the NBA this week and for the first time he has noticed he is part of a small — and shrinking — club as a white American NBA player.
The NBA certainly has its long list of European players. But the Los Angeles Clippers starting guard says he recently noticed that there are not a lot of white Americans in the NBA anymore. As the team opens their season on Wednesday, Redick says it will be the first time in his NBA career that he will be the lone white American on his team in an African-American dominated league.
“This is the first year where I’m like, ‘You know what, there are not a lot of white guys in the NBA,’ ” Redick told The Undefeated. “I was looking at the free agent list of guys still out there. I saw Chris Kaman, Kirk Hinrich. Those guys have all been in the league since I’ve been in the league.
“I was messing with Doc Rivers about it. The best white guy is probably Kevin Love. It’s interesting. Someone who has way more time on their hands, it would be an interesting idea to kind of figure out what is happening.”
Well, The Undefeated actually had the time to try to answer Redick’s question and explore why there are so few white Americans in the NBA.
According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the NBA was 74.3 percent black during the 2015-16 season and 81.7 percent were people of color. The study said that the NBA was 18.3 percent white last season, which was 5 percent less than the season before. The league was also a record 22.3 percent international last season.
That 18.3 percent of whites in the NBA from TIDES also includes non-Americans such as Europeans, Canadians and Australians of white descent. Entering the 2015-16 season, the NBA had 42 white American-born players. The NBA had its inaugural season 70 years ago with a league full of white players. As of Sunday, there were 43 white Americans on 30 NBA teams with the season starting Tuesday. Eight teams didn’t have a white American player entering last season, while seven teams don’t have one now.
“There is always a distinction between the white European and the white American,” Redick said. “It’s not just a racial thing. It’s a cultural thing that is sort of different. I grew up playing for Boo Williams. I grew up battle rapping in dorm rooms and hotel rooms in AAU [Amateur Athletic Union]. For me, this is kind of normal.”
Redick was one of five white American NBA players — and one former white American NBA player — who agreed to discuss what it is like to be a white American player in the league. Redick, Houston Rockets forward Ryan Anderson, Chicago Bulls forward Doug McDermott, Memphis Grizzlies forward Chandler Parsons, Washington Wizards forward-center Jason Smith and former NBA guard Jimmer Fredette of the Shanghai Sharks took part. Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love and Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward were also invited to participate and respectfully declined to talk about what is certainly a tough subject.
What is it like to be a white American in the NBA?
Jason Smith: There are not too many of us. You have to have that ambition and work ethic to try to prove to people that you are good enough. It’s really an honor because there are only 450 of us in this NBA. To be one of those 450 is an honor to me.
Doug McDermott: When they see a Dirk [Nowitzki], they’ll go, ‘Well, that’s a white player.’ But, they’re not American guys … Just from an outsider perspective, I bet a lot of NBA fans when they see a white guy, they’re always probably from Spain, or you know Germany, or France. But there’s very few of us. We’re proud of it.
Ryan Anderson: You don’t really label yourself as just a white guy, you know what I mean? If you can play …
Chandler Parsons: We play basketball because we play basketball. We don’t see color when we’re playing basketball. It’s about competing, camaraderie and having the ultimate goal of winning a championship. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing with a bunch of Europeans, black guys, Asian guys, Latin guys. It doesn’t matter, because you guys are all there to do one thing, and that’s playing basketball.
Jimmer Fredette: I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to have been able to play basketball in the NBA. It’s an honor to be able to play the game I love for my profession and I hope I can give every white American kid out there hope that they can make it to the NBA no matter what race they are or where they are from.
Who is the best white American NBA player?
Anderson: Kevin Love is supertalented. I grew up playing against Kevin Love quite a bit in college and everything. But, there is no harder-working white American basketball player than J.J. Redick.
Parsons: Me, of course.
Smith: Ryan Anderson. I played with him in New Orleans. I would have to go with him or Gordon Hayward. There are not very many of us, but there are some good ones out there.
Redick: Is it Kevin Love? Who am I missing? It’s probably Kevin Love. Who’s a starter?
Has anyone ever said anything to you racially on the basketball floor?
Redick: I remember Rodney Stuckey, who I am fine with, we were in Detroit and he said something to me. I can’t even remember what it was, but the way he said it and the way his tone was, ‘white something,’ I lost it. I remember we both got a double technical. I can’t remember specifically what it was. It was a long time ago. We were all good. For the most part, it doesn’t come all that often.
Anderson: There might be a few, like, ‘white guys can’t jump’ jokes. I’m a shooter. I’m not the most fast, athletic, running player. So, there’s a lot of just little jokes like that. But at the same time, if you can play, there is no race. There is no color in basketball and that’s the beauty of it.
Parsons: Being white in the NBA, there are a lot of stereotypes. It’s almost like a joking thing among guys in the league about the stereotypes, whether it’s music or food or the way we dress. It’s just stereotypes that are kind of like an ongoing thing that goes on in the NBA …
There’s stuff where people call me, ‘white boy,’ or things like that. Same thing with stereotypes. Obviously, I’m a shooter because I’m white or I’m slow and less athletic because I’m white. But not hate. When I dunk on somebody, it’ll be like, ‘Oh, Chandler Parsons is deceptively athletic.’ Why wouldn’t I just be athletic?”
Fredette: The only thing I can think of is in AAU when you would see a team with all black players and then one or two white kids, the joke would be that the ‘white boys’ would always be the shooters. That was me on my AAU team, so I was always spotted as the shooter by other teams.
McDermott: A couple guys [at USA Basketball camp] have joked have been like, ‘Oh, token white guy.’ That’s just the way it is, you know. They assume I’m just floor space, but I feel like I’m showing them that I can do a lot. You know I’ve played with a lot of good players here [at USA camp], and they’ve all been obviously very respectful …
You got to gain a little more respect. I think I first started to get that a little more, I would say, when we [Creighton University] joined the Big East from Missouri Valley [Conference] because, you’re playing a lot more predominantly black teams. You kind of hear in some of the warm-ups, like, ‘Who is this white boy?’ all that stuff. It’s just awesome when you can get through that. And, I think that gave me a lot of confidence, going up against bigger athletic guys before coming in to the NBA.
A lot of African-Americans that have found success in the league have come up from tough backgrounds or long odds to become NBA players. Was that the same the case for you?
Smith: I definitely came from small-town America: Greeley, Colorado. Not too many people know where I came from. My hometown had 1,500 people, if that. I graduated high school with 67 people. I went to Colorado State, which is not a basketball-oriented school, either. I’m really blessed to be where I am today …
The only time I played against African-Americans is the Big Time AAU tournament in Las Vegas. There were a couple AAU tournaments down near Denver. For me growing up, it was a bunch of farm kids.
Fredette: Coming from a small town in upstate New York had its challenges to get noticed. For me, I wasn’t very heavily recruited. BYU [Brigham Young University] was the biggest school that offered me a scholarship, actually. I just didn’t have anyone watching my high school games. I played AAU against the best with the Albany City Rocks, but going into the game college coaches had no idea who I was and mostly were there to watch other players.
McDermott: The crazy part about it is, I’m from Iowa. And if you think about the white Americans that played in the NBA, a lot of them, they’ve come from Iowa. So, Raef LaFrentz, Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich, Kyle Korver, myself. Harrison [Barnes] was one of the only black guys on my high school team. So, it’s crazy how it all works out. The white Americans in the NBA, a lot of them come from Iowa.
Has it been hard for you to discuss the racial tension with your African-American teammates and how to react as a team to the playing of the national anthem?
Redick: My mother’s side is Swedish. My dad’s side is Irish. They were sold an American dream. They came here voluntarily. African-Americans were the only people that didn’t come here voluntarily. They were forced here. And so culture, it’s just different and been different. For white America, and I include myself because I’m white, it’s interesting to me how we can pick and choose the parts of black culture that are acceptable and not acceptable. It’s interesting to me as a whole that’s what we choose to do.
I can do my rap music and listen to that, and that’s OK. But we are going to racially profile young black men because they are ‘criminals.’ It’s just a stark divide between perception and reality … It’s just such a rich culture and a rich history. There are so many layers to it.
I would say this with what is going on in our country, the things that Rosa Parks fought for, the things that Martin Luther King was fighting for, there has been progress. In a way, you can make an argument that things are better. But on the other hand there are some other things where they are still starting behind the eight ball. So there is still a lot of progress to make.
Anderson: We’re uniting as a family. The NBA is a family. It’s a tough topic. It’s a tough conversation. We live in a world where you can’t really have an opinion. You can’t really say one side or the other or else you’re against something. We got a great group of guys that want to talk about that stuff, and I want to see change. There are a lot of bad things going on around. It is definitely a scary time, but I think we all want change.
Parsons: I’m comfortable talking with them because they’re my friends and my teammates. I wouldn’t be uncomfortable talking with them because of the color of their skin. That doesn’t matter to me. I see them every day. I see us as all equal. Kaepernick, I’m all for protests. Each person has their own individual right. I think it’s a good thing to make people aware and to show that we’re not only just athletes, but we’re leaders. Each person has their own individual right to protest. I just hope that doesn’t make teams or sports or different races even more divided.
Smith: We just wanted to broadcast a sense of unity. That’s what a lot of people are trying to bring notice. This country is kind of broken right now. We’re going against each other way too much … It’s going out of control. We just wanted to come together as a team no matter what race, no matter what background, no matter what religion.
Redick: The only time I felt white in a black locker room is with the Donald Sterling thing. That was one time where I was like, ‘Ooh, this is different.’ I was more aware all of the sudden. Even when I was a kid, I was not aware. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t the minority, but I was one of the exceptions, I guess, in the locker room or on the team or on the bus. I did say something and I can’t remember quite what I said. We met as a group and we discussed everything. I don’t remember what I said, but I did speak up.
For me, it was hard. You see what he said and as a human you’re appalled by it and disgusted. There was nothing really groundbreaking there. You then kind of, ‘Oh, s—, he’s talking about Blake [Griffin’s] dad. He’s talking about Chris [Paul’s] son.’ I can see why it was so personal. The eye-opening thing to me is when I made it personal, I get why people are so upset beyond him saying something stupid and ignorant. It was personal.
What have you learned about black culture while playing in the NBA?
Anderson: I like hip-hop, yeah. I mean it’s funny because, well, I like all kinds of different music. I think honestly my favorite kind of food is soul food. Like, I love soul food. Like, in college, one of my teammates brought me over to his family, and his mom cooked the best meal of my entire life.
Smith: I like to listen to hip-hop, I like to listen to country and I like to listen to rock. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, a white guy coming from small-town America, he likes to listen to country.’ Being around basketball has opened my eyes to so many different things culturally, whether it be food or music, how people grew up. I’m usually a top-40 type of [music] person. Drake has been my go-to the last couple of years.
Fredette: I have met many great friends playing in college and AAU. Some of my best friends in the world are black, including my college roommate of three years. I have definitely picked up on slang, music and food as I have had many different teammates from all over the country and world.
McDermott: I listen to more rap, hip-hop in the locker room. I love being around that culture. It’s very fun to be around, getting to know guys from different backgrounds that maybe didn’t come from as good a background as I did. It makes you realize how blessed you were, you know, growing up.
Why do you think there aren’t more white American NBA players?
Redick: It does seem there are less and less white Americans. I’d like to know with [Kirk] Hinrich and Steve Blake out this year, how many white guards are there this year in the NBA? Are there even five? If you’re 6-feet-10 inches, can walk, are skilled and can chew gum and all that, defend the rim, you’ll have a job. It doesn’t matter what your skin color is. You’ll have a job.
I don’t know if it’s other sports. Part of it is the game is faster. Players play in space. There is more of an emphasis on shooting. Maybe they are not being taught in suburbia. I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer to that is.
Anderson: It is hard to stop and think there really aren’t a ton of white American basketball players out there. I know a number of my friends that grew up hoping to have this dream of playing in the NBA. A number of white guys, that were point guards or guys that were bigger than me. I was fortunate enough to make it.
McDermott: It is just the European presence in the NBA now. When you see drafts, and there’s white European versus a white American, they’ll probably go for the European. That’s kind of the way it’s gone, you know. I can pretty much name every white American in the NBA. So, I feel blessed and fortunate to be here, but you know it’s just kind of the way it is. It’s the way it’s been, I guess, for a while now. Doesn’t mean there won’t be more, but I’m glad that I’m able to be in the NBA, and follow my dreams …
You look at the Warriors and their two best players [Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson] are — at least last year, the last few years — are two guys that are probably more suburban anyways. Growing up around a suburban area there were a lot of activities for us to do. You know we were privileged enough to play baseball, go to the golf course, tennis, stuff like that. Country club sports that maybe some kids don’t get to enjoy. And a lot of them stick to maybe one sport, and they’re all in on that sport. When a lot of kids that I grew up with were involved in a lot of different things.
Smith: You don’t see a lot of them because it’s hard. If everybody could do it, it would be easy. It’s very, very hard to do what NBA players do because you are not just going against your fellow peer. You are not just going against the guys in college. You have to keep in perspective. There are 450 out of 7 billion people. The odds are against you.
Fredette: The NBA will take the best players they can find no matter what race they are. Teams are in the business of winning, and if a player can help their team win, they will take him no matter what race. You are going up against all players from all over the world. European, Australian, South American, and Asian players are all very good, and it’s becoming more and more competitive to be a player at this level.
Parsons: The NBA is a collection of some of the most athletic guys in the world. And white guys just aren’t that athletic.
What advice would you give to a young white American kid who dreams of playing in the NBA?
Anderson: I grew up having a junior high coach that told my mom I would never play college basketball because I was chubby and I was out of shape. I always want to tell kids, ‘Do not listen to people that tell you that you can’t do something.’ You can do anything, really. I mean look at guys like Muggsy Bogues and Steph [Curry]. Guys that are tiny, but have made it. And, obviously they’re very skilled but, it took a lot of work to get to where they’re at. My biggest advice is: Don’t listen to anyone that tells you that you can’t do something.
Parsons: Play golf.
But seriously, I would tell the same thing to a white kid that I would tell to any kid. ‘If you love basketball, work hard and believe in yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black or whatever.’
Fredette: I would advise them to reach for their dream. If you work hard enough and play well enough, you can make it and be successful. I would tell them also that you need to make the right decision on which college to go to. You have to get the right exposure and give yourself the best chance of being in front of NBA personnel. Then go out and play your game and don’t change.
Smith: You have to keep in perspective. There are 450 out of 7 billion people. The odds are against you. You have to work harder than not only everyone on your team, but everyone in your state and in your country and on and on and on. But even then you might not have the opportunity and you may be one of the most talented players on your team.
McDermott: I go back home and you know I see a lot of kids with my jersey, and they’re always asking questions at my camps and stuff. You know, it means a lot. I was that kid one day, going up to guys like Kyle Korver and Kirk Hinrich so … It’s cool to follow their path. And, I hope to open up the doors for many more.
Redick: First of all, you better grow. I get a lot of parents who come up to me and they’re like, ‘My son wants to play in the NBA.’ I’m like, ‘You’re 5-10 and your wife is 5-6.’ Just tell him to get a good education, you know. The thing I always tell kids is that I played at Duke, it was a great experience, but the only reason why I could go to Duke was because I had good grades. That’s the thing I try to give to anybody, really. If you’re a 5-9 white guy, good luck to you, bro. Good luck to you, man.
ESPN.com reporter Tim MacMahon contributed to this story.