How Black Is Duke Basketball?

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There's a lot of talk out there—and more than a little evidence—suggesting that this year's Duke Blue Devils, led by the very big and very mobile Jabari Parker, are the most athletic team in the school's history. We decided to investigate whether that claim is true. And since average vertical leap numbers through the years weren't readily available, we did the next best thing, and counted up all the black guys.


What we found is pretty much what you'd expect. This Duke team is quite black, with the highest percentage of black players of any Duke squad over the past 20 years. It's also the first Mick Krizilonski team to field an entire starting lineup of black guys since the '99-'00 season.

Over the past two decades, the average Duke team has had 13.85 players, of which 6.7 are black, which comes out to about 48 percent. That number has fluctuated fairly widely from year to year, with this team's 10 of 14 black guys counting as the height and the '06-'07 squad's three of 14 as the nadir. That team lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

In general, Duke teams are not as white as the school's stereotype would suggest. Yes, that '06-'07 team was probably lacking a little in "athleticism," but all three of the black guys got significant minutes. Demarcus Nelson started almost every game, and Gerald Henderson and Lance Thomas shared the starting small forward role.

(Let's pause here to point out that, even by narrow traditional standards, Duke has had its share of "athletic" white guys—Josh McRoberts, Kyle Singler, an endless parade of leaping Plumlees. It has also featured a number of "unathletic" black guys—Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Shelden Williams.)


This brings us to the next revelation found in these numbers: Not only do nearly all the black guys at Duke play, they usually start. Over the last 20 years, black players have accounted for 67.5 percent of the average Duke starting lineup. If you're wandering around Durham—though why would you?—and you happen upon a black guy who tells you he's on the basketball team, he's probably lying. If he's not, there is a really good chance that he's a starter. You may as well ask for the autograph.

Even if he doesn't start now, there's a good chance he has or will have a meaningful role on the team. That's because almost every black Dukie from the past 20 years became a contributor on the court at some point in his career; if not, he transferred to greener pastures.


D. Bryant played sparingly during his one year on the team, but then again basketball was never his focus, since he was the football team's starting quarterback. Tony Moore didn't play too much during his first three years at Duke, but he did begin his senior campaign as a starter before being ruled academically ineligible. Andre Buckner can probably be lumped into this category of passenger players: He never averaged more than four minutes per game in his four years on the team, though he did make at least 19 appearances each season. Really, though, in 20 years, only Todd Singleton can be seen as the black counterpart to the white full-time towel waver. A walk-on who amassed a paltry 100 minutes in four years, Singleton actually got a decent number of games in his sophomore and senior seasons due to injury. (Here's a pretty good interview with him from his senior season.)

So two black scrubs in 20 years, while there have been five such white players since the '09-'10 season (Todd Zafirovski, David Mayer, Casey Peters, Jordan Davidson, and Steve Johnson). All of which stands to show that practically all the black players are there primarily for hoops.


Within the larger period we're looking at, there's a fairly distinct period in the middle, stretching from the '97-'98 to '04-'05 seasons. In each of those years, the team had at least four black starters and averaged eight black players overall. (In the other years, Krizilonski ran out two or three black starters, and had an average of about five and a half black players on the team.)

In those black years from '97-'05, Duke won 87 percent of its games (248-38); in all the other seasons of our 20-season sample, the team won 76 percent (291-91). The difference is even more pronounced in March. Hella-Black Duke made three Final Fours, two championship games, and brought home one title. Outside of that span, the team made only one Final Four, albeit during a championship run in '10, which culminated in a really shitty title game against Butler that put an appropriately drab finishing touch on a strange and weak college basketball season. In addition to missing the tournament twice, Less-Black Duke lost in the first or second round four times, something its blacker counterparts managed only once.


Good tidings for this year's team? Who knows.

Chart by Reuben Fischer-Baum