Did LeBron James beat the odds?

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
2:54
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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LeBron James
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
LeBron James might look like a born NBA star, but according to a new study he doesn't fit the mold.
Upon receiving his second consecutive Final MVP last June, LeBron James said, "I'm LeBron James, from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I'm not even supposed to be here."

It's hard to blame a guy for a little unbridled euphoria after winning back-to-back titles, but James' remark seemed a little odd on the surface. As Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wrote in the New York Times on Saturday morning in a column titled, "In the N.B.A., Zip Code Matters," "How could such a supremely gifted person, identified from an absurdly young age as the future of basketball, claim to be an underdog?"

It turns out that James' claim is quite reasonable, according to Stephens-Davidowitz, a quantitative analyst at Google and Ph.D. in economics from Harvard.

Stephens-Davidowitz collected data from Basketball Reference, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the U.S. Census to calculate the probability of reaching the NBA.

Among Stephens-Davidowitz's more salient findings:
  • Growing up in a wealthier zip code increases the likelihood an African-American or white male will make the NBA.
  • Stephens-Davidowitz estimates that "black N.B.A. players are about 30 percent less likely than the average black male to be born to an unmarried mother and a teenage mother."
  • African-American NBA players were far more likely to be born to married parents.
  • Each additional inch of height almost doubles an American male's chances of making the N.B.A.

You can find some fun interactive elements about who makes it to the NBA here.

Digging through these findings can be treacherous because it's easy to get caught up in a discussion of pathologies and pseudo-patholigies that runs off the rails. But as Stephens-Davidowitz notes, his conclusions seem to buck some popular mythology about ballplayers at the highest level:
These results push back against the stereotype of a basketball player driven by an intense desire to escape poverty. In “The Last Shot,” Darcy Frey quotes a college coach questioning whether a suburban player was “hungry enough” to compete against black kids from the ghetto. But the data suggest that on average any motivational edge in hungriness is far outweighed by the advantages of kids from higher socioeconomic classes.

People are driven to excel by all sorts of cultural and personal factors, but material circumstances weight heavily in the equation, too, which could very well be what James meant when he said he wasn't supposed to be on that podium.

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