Depending on whom you ask, the hotbed for NBA talent might lie in D.C., Seattle, Prince George's County (Md.), Baton Rouge, or, uh, Slovenia. Thousands of people have played professional basketball—there are a lot of places vying for the crown. So: Where do most players actually come from?
To find out, I geocoded the "hometowns" of 3,802 NBA and ABA players (out of 4,139 total) from the incomparable Basketball Reference database. Designating hometowns, i.e. the place where players grew up before their talent began to emerge, is somewhat subjective, and I'm bound to have made a few mistakes. For a detailed methodology, and direct access to my data, see the bottom of the post. Here's a map of all the players:
The map at the top shows the decade-by-decade change in the geographic composition of the NBA, with the mean population center of the league marked in orange, and the mean population center of only the players from the 48 contiguous United States marked in blue.
We can watch, on that map, as the NBA grows from a regional league to a national one and then to an international one. For two decades, the mean population center of the NBA's American players sat in Indiana, just to the northeast of the mean U.S. population center. Post-merger, these two means have tracked each other almost perfectly, as the population of the western U.S. has grown. In 2012, the mean center of the NBA was only about 20 miles from the current population center of the United States. American NBA players, and Americans, come from the same place. Meanwhile, the huge surge of international players, which started in the late '80s, has sent the mean center of all NBA players well eastward, toward Europe.
So where's the real hotbed of talent? It depends on how you look at it. Here are the states that have produced the most NBA players:
Not a great showing for northern New England—Matt Bonner is its sole representative. California's 405 players, 10.7 percent of all players, is good enough to take first, while New York's 361 players, 9.5 percent of all players, is second.
Of course it's no surprise to see California and New York, two of the most populous states in the country, out in front. To get a better picture of what states have produced a disproportionate number of NBA players, we can adjust for population*.
Indiana, home of Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, and lovable-crazy Zach Randolph, truly is basketball's breadbasket. Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana produce a lot of players as well, and Illinois and New York—two large states that almost always get cut down in per capita adjustments—come in fourth and sixth.
States might not make for the most accurate lens, though. For example, three players from Alexandria, Va., Washington, D.C., and Hyattsville, Md., all would have grown up in the same basketball region, even if none of them had grown up in the same state. To account for this, here's a look at the U.S.-raised NBA players by metropolitan (and micropolitan area):
Of all U.S.-raised players (Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands excluded), 81 percent came from what the census now calls "urbanized areas." (For players who played in the NBA during 2012-2013, this figure was 86 percent.) As for the the 2010 U.S. population as a whole, just 71 percent came from urban centers—basketball has always drawn significantly from urban populations.
The New York metro area, by far the most populated in the U.S., produced 394 players, while Chicago managed to top Los Angeles by just four players. This gap is actually widening—in 2012-2013 only one L.A.-raised player debuted in the NBA (Justin Holliday, who had all of 142 minutes played). Chicago debuted three—Anthony Davis, Patrick Beverley, and Quincy Miller.
Once again, we can adjust for population to get a clearer picture of which metro areas have produced a disproportionate amount of NBA talent:
Small-city Indiana comes in strong again, with Muncie taking the top spot, and Terre Haute coming in fifth. (Anderson also cracked the top 10, at No. 8.) Mississippi also had two in the top 10, with Jackson at fourth and Meridian at ninth.
But the Muncie metro area, with its population of 119,000, might not be big enough to deserve the NBA hotbed crown. Here are the rankings for the 20 largest metro areas in the United States:
It's a narrow victory here for Philadelphia, which beat Chicago by about one NBA player per six million inhabitants. Other surprises: St. Louis, which offered a surprisingly strong showing, and Baltimore and Atlanta, which didn't.
So what's the rightful center of NBA talent? Historically, it's tough to argue against Indiana. Philadelphia and Chicago make strong cases, as far as big cities go. Fast-growing states like Arizona and Texas are on the rise—Texas sent five players to the McDonald's All-American Game this year, tops for any state. But the number of international stars continues to rise. Give it a few more decades, and the NBA's talent hotbed might hover above the mid-Atlantic ridge.
* I used 2010 populations. The relative populations of states has changed quite a bit from the creation of the NBA to present, so for a more precise population adjustment you could average each state's population by decade, weighing the average against the size of the NBA that year. This would lead to a higher per capita figure for fast-growing states like Arizona and Florida, and a lower figure for slow-growing states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Methodology: Figuring out the hometown, or the place that a player grew up, is tricky, and there are bound to be some mistakes in my data. Birthplace isn't perfectly accurate, as many players moved while they were very young, and high school doesn't work either, because so many promising players attend prep programs. You can see my complete list of hometowns in this Google Doc, or download an Excel, or KMZ file. The "Check Type" column designates how I came to assign each player his hometown. The particularly difficult cases were military brats, and players whose fathers were mobile NBA players themselves. Here's an explanation of the designations:
- Born (only): 182 entries. Basketball Reference listed a birthplace, but not a high school. I used the birthplace.
- High school (only): 325 entries. Basketball Reference listed a high school, but not a birthplace. I used the high school.
- High school (auto): 2,371 entries. Basketball Reference listed a high school and a birthplace, and they were in the same state. I used the high school. This is somewhat of a shortcut, but I think it's a reasonable one and without it the volume of research would have been beyond my means. I did double check the top 10 prep schools, to better locate players who attended these schools from in-state.
- Born (intl auto): 226 entries. Basketball Reference listed just a birthplace for an international player, or the birthplace and high school were in the same country. I used the birthplace.
- High school: 429 entries. Basketball Reference listed different states (or countries) for birth and high school. I looked for media reports, official bios, interviews, obituaries, and other biographical information about the player, and determined that the high school location more accurately described where the player grew up.
- Born: 196 entries. Basketball Reference listed different states (or countries) for birth and high school. I looked for media reports, official bios, interviews, obituaries, and other biographical information about the player, and determined that the birthplace location more accurately described where the player grew up.
- Other: 73 entries. Basketball Reference listed different states (or countries) for birth and high school. I looked for media reports, official bios, interviews, obituaries, and other biographical information about the player, and determined that neither the birthplace nor high school location accurately described where the player grew up.
The missing 377 players had neither a birthplace nor high school listed in the database. Almost all of these players are from the first decade of the league, or the early days of the ABA. For post-merger biographical details, Basketball Reference has a near-perfect record. Once again, some of this is subjective, and there was a lot of information to keep track of. There are bound to be some mistakes—in the comments, let me know of any you happen to find.