I'd like to make a $100 bet: By 2025 the NBA will have a Latino MVP. I'm willing to go one step further, I believe it will be a U.S.-born Latino MVP. I'll go one step further still and say that it won't be Carmelo Anthony (whose father is Puerto Rican).
Last season the NBA was less than 5 percent Latino, and most of those players were international. I'm practically giving money away. So here are my thoughts:
- Basketball—for some basic reasons that don't involve race or class—is fundamentally suited to be played in cities. Historically, groups that dominate U.S. cities have come to dominate basketball.
- Latino populations in the U.S. are rapidly urbanizing.
Cities are dense places, with many people competing for limited space. Below are the relative sizes of a baseball field, soccer field, football field, and basketball court:
That comes about to about 12 courts in the space of one football field. Additionally, these courts can be made from asphalt or concrete, avoiding expensive artificial turf or grass, which is hell to maintain in heavily trafficked areas.
Because of these characteristics, basketball has always been played in inner cities. (It is also suited for extremely rural areas, with schools too small to field football or baseball teams. This is why Indiana developed into such a basketball hotbed.) Back in the 1930s the largest of these inner cities—New York—was pretty Jewish, and sure enough, basketball was considered "a sport at which Jews naturally excelled," because they were "fast, generally short ... and alert mentally."
But these neighborhoods didn't stay Jewish for long. The Great Migration of 1910-1970 saw millions of African-Americans move out of the South to Northern and Western industrial centers. The chart below shows the rise of African-American populations in 314 U.S. cities from 1910 to 1990 (blue), compared to the rise of black players in the NBA starting in 1950 (orange):
(Data on urban populations comes from U.S. census data, data on participation in NBA comes from the Race and Gender Report Card and research by yours truly.)
As cities became more African-American, the NBA became more African-American, and as this urban growth stabilized, the number of black players in the NBA stabilized. Since talent develops over time there's a lag of about 10 years: The fastest African-American growth in cities was from 1950 to 1960, but the fastest African-American growth in the NBA was during the next decade, when the league went from approximately 28 percent black to 59 percent (although racism likely kept some black players out the NBA during that first decade).
In recent years, the Great Migration has reversed, as African-American populations are increasingly leaving Northern cities and returning to the South. Taking their place is America's burgeoning Latino population. The chart below shows Latino urban growth in 100 metropolitan areas from 1980-2010 (blue), compared to Latino participation in the NBA (orange):
Major American metropolitan areas have become more Latino at a rate of about 4 percent a decade, a pace that's accelerated since 1990. And slowly, with a similar lag to what we saw with African-Americans, the percentage of Latinos in the NBA has started to rise. In 1995-1996 season there were zero Latino NBA players; in the 2011-2012 season there were 23 (not counting Spanish players), including seven who were born in the U.S..
Only a few players make it to the top, but there is evidence that a strong base of Latino basketball is forming. In 1993 there were six Latinos in NBA front offices; by 2010-2011 there were 58, and in 2012 the NBA (briefly) had its first Latino head coach. In 1999-2000 there were 75 Latino men's basketball players in Division I. By 2009-2010 this had jumped 28 percent, to 96, plus another 61 players who were "Two or More Races," a category added in 2007. In August the ABA added Las Estrellas de Chicago, a Latino basketball team. A Latino basketball circuit has developed in Los Angeles.
Latinos still make up a small portion of the NBA, but I believe we're seeing the very beginning of what will prove to be a period of explosive growth. Asian-Americans, the other fast-growing U.S. urban group, burst onto the NBA scene with the rise of Jeremy Lin. Stars like Anthony and Brook Lopez may have more stealthily signaled the beginning of a new era for U.S.-born Latino players. I believe a decade from now Latinos will have a much more pronounced presence in the NBA, and within the decade after that—by 2025, to be neat—one of these players will happen to be the best in the world.
Care to bet on it?
Thanks to Samba Binagi.