In the NBA of yesterday, an owner could be explicit about structuring his roster around the race of the players. "No team should be all white and no team should be all black, either," Cavs owner and legendary boob Ted Stepien told a reporter in 1980. And why not? "Blacks don't buy many tickets," he went on, "and they don't buy many of the products advertised on TV. Let's face it, running an NBA team is like running any other business and those kind of factors have to be considered."
That was a long time ago, but as we know from recent events, NBA owners aren't exactly a swiftly evolving species. Does the Stepien philosophy of roster construction live on today? Do NBA teams with whiter fan bases also seem to have whiter rosters?
To find out, we looked back through the past 15 years of NBA opening-day rosters and recorded the race of each player on each team. We then compared each team's racial demographics to Nate Silver's (admittedly rough) estimates of the racial composition of current NBA fan bases.* These variables are plotted below:
Teams with whiter fan bases tended to have whiter rosters than teams with less-white fan bases (although at p=0.06, this difference wasn't quite significant by standard measures), while teams with blacker fan bases tended to have blacker rosters than teams with fewer black fans (p=0.01).
Not so fast, though. The white fan base vs. white player trend is very dependent on two teams: the Utah Jazz and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Take those teams out, and the trend becomes insignificant (r=0.12, p=.55). If you also remove the Wizards, a black team with a large black fan base, the trend disappears (r=0.04). The black fan base vs. black players trend is more resilient, but its significance also decreases as you start removing the most influential teams (p=0.08 without the Jazz and T'Wolves; p=0.21 if you also cut out the Wizards).
So let's take a closer look at these three teams: The Jazz were the whitest team in the NBA over the past 15 years, with white players accounting for 34 percent of their opening-day roster spots. The Jazz also have the NBA's second-whitest fan base (63 percent) and had at least four white players on their opening-day roster for 19 straight seasons (1992-2010), a streak unprecedented in the modern NBA. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, were the third-whitest team in the NBA (28 percent) and have the league's whitest fan base (65 percent). The 10 white players on the Timberwolves' 2012-13 opening-day roster were the most in the NBA since at least 1999 and likely the most since the '87 Celtics. The Wizards, in contrast, were the blackest team in the NBA (90 percent) and have the league's third-blackest fan base (44 percent). Only twice since 1999 did the Wizards have more than two white players on their opening-day roster. There might not be a league-wide connection between the race of fans and the race of players, but these squads certainly stand out.
It's therefore easy to speculate that the Jazz, Timberwolves, and Wizards are shaping their rosters to reflect the demographics of their fan bases. But before we jump to that conclusion, we thought we'd explore some alternative explanations for why these teams might have such a disproportionate number of white and black players.
One explanation we considered was that the Jazz and Wolves might not be targeting white players per se, but rather seeking cheaper and/or undiscovered Euro-league players—players who happen to be disproportionately white. This would make sense for small-market teams like the Jazz and Timberwolves, since they generally have a tougher time landing big-name free agents. However, the numbers did not bear this out. The Jazz were ninth in the NBA in terms of the percentage of players on their roster who were drafted or signed directly from Europe, at 9 percent. The Timberwolves were 13th in the league at 6 percent. Although both percentages were in the top half of the NBA, they did not go far enough in explaining the abundance of white players on each team.
Another theory we looked at was whether teams were more inclined to draft or sign players from their own geographic areas. This would explain why teams from Utah and Minnesota were disproportionately white, while a team from Washington D.C. was disproportionately black. Once again, however, the numbers proved otherwise. Despite a few examples of hometown signings, none of the three teams favored local players enough to account for the racial disparities between teams.
One explanation that seems to hold up under scrutiny is the influence of each team's general manager. For example, the Timberwolves were only 22 percent white in the 10 years before they hired David Kahn as GM, in 2009. After Kahn took over, the Timberwolves' white-player percentage nearly doubled to 43 percent (over Kahn's four-year tenure). The racial demographics of the Jazz and Wizards were more consistent, but that's likely because both teams had a single general manager for most of the past 15 years. (Kevin O'Connor was the Jazz's GM from 1999-2012; Ernie Grunfeld has been the Wizard's GM since 2003.) This suggests that the prevalence of white players on the Jazz and Timberwolves and of black players on the Wizards may have more to do with front-office leadership than with the demographics of each team's fan base.
And since we're on the topic of NBA executives and race, let's not forget about the Clippers. The embattled L.A. franchise had the third-fewest white players of any NBA team over the last 15 years (13 percent). That's a lot of "beautiful black bodies" for Donald Sterling to admire.
Racial classifications are not always as simple as black vs. white. We classified biracial players with partial African ancestry—e.g. Joakim Noah and Leandro Barbosa—as black, and foreign players with white features—e.g. J.J. Barea and Hedo Turkoglu—as white, but obviously, this is a simplification. The vast majority of players did not have these sorts of classifications problems.
The Thunder and the Nets recently relocated, so we excluded them from this part of the analysis since Silver's demographic estimates aren't applicable to most of their recent history. For the same reasons, we used the most recent 13 seasons for the Grizzlies (since they've been in Memphis) and the most recent 12 seasons for the Pelicans (since they've been in New Orleans). We also used only 10 seasons of data for the Bobcats, because that's how long the team has existed.
Ben Steinberg is a freelance writer and lawyer. Follow him at @Benyamean.