Commentary

Purple and Gold take on a new color

The Los Angeles Lakers have accumulated five American-born white players

Originally Published: January 5, 2012
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Mike BrownAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesMurphy and Blake along with Walton, Kapono and McRoberts are the Lakers' white American players.

If you've noticed something unusual about the Los Angeles Lakers' roster this season, well, the players have, too.

"It's ... different to walk in the locker room and see four or five other white guys in there," Luke Walton said.

Amid a long-term decline in the number of American-born white players in the NBA, the Lakers have accumulated five on this season's team: Walton, Steve Blake, Jason Kapono, Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy. Flipping through the pages of the Lakers' media guide shows this is the most white American players the team has had since the 1977-78 squad had Tom Abernethy, Brad Davis, Ernie DiGregorio, Don Ford and Dave Robisch.

"We joke about it," Blake said. "It's all fun and games."

Whatever one-liners you might think up, Blake has already beat you to it:

"There was a bunch of white guys [on the court], I said, 'Man, we should be having more backdoor cuts.'"

Or: "When we're all out there, we're the slowest team in the NBA."

They haven't been all out there yet. But the sight of Blake, Kapono, McRoberts and Murphy on the court with Metta World Peace during a nationally televised game was enough to set Twitter afire and eventually led to a #TheLakersAreSoWhite hashtag that had people of all races chiming in with jokes such as, "#TheLakersAreSoWhite they warm up to Dancing Queen."

The Lakers are the only NBA team currently capable of putting an all-white-American lineup on the floor. Only three other teams -- the Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks -- have as many as three white American players. Coach Mike Brown admits he's heard calls from the fans for him to play all five, but so far he has resisted. That's left World Peace as the odd man out on the court, as if Ron Artest's name change didn't make him stand out enough.

"I've never had that before," World Peace said of his teammates. "It's kind of cool."

When told that Brown has labeled him the leader of that second unit, World Peace's eyes lit up.

"Obama!" he said.

The irony is that the decision to play five white players is up to Brown, the first full-time African American head coach in Lakers history (Magic Johnson took over the team on an interim basis for the final 16 games of the 1993-94 season). Brown's presence should mitigate any notion that the Lakers are attempting to manipulate their team for appearance's sake.

"Whatever it is, it is," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said of his roster's racial composition. "We're just looking for the best players to win games. Whatever it turns out to be, that's what it is."

Because NBA teams are as much a sociological experiment as they are assemblies of talent, you can't alter the mix this drastically without affecting people. But it's who is making the adjustment that might surprise you.

"It's actually way more [unusual] having more white American players on your team than being the only white American," Walton said.

"You definitely notice it, because there's not that many white players in the league. But it doesn't matter at all."

Or does it?

A study of officiating over 13 seasons showed slight variances in calls according to race. White officials call more fouls on black players and black officials make more foul calls on white players, to a degree of up to 4.5 percent. No coach has the ability to alter his lineup according to the racial composition of the officiating crew as much as Brown does. In a business in which the slightest of edges counts, it would be fascinating to see Brown put that study through a real-world test.

It also would be interesting to see if having so many white players on a high-profile team could have any long-term effects on the dwindling number of white American players in the NBA. The ranks of foreign-born players have swelled to almost one-fifth of the league. International players have become so embedded in the NBA that you can come across, say, Denver's all-international front line of the Brazilian Nene, Italian Danilo Gallinari and Russian Timofey Mozgov and it doesn't seem as jarring as an all-white American front line would be. That's because the percentage of white NBA players born in the United States has dropped from 25 percent in the early 1990s to about 12 percent this season.

As Sports Illustrated once examined in depth, the absence of white players on a sport's highest stage becomes self-perpetuating, causing white children to doubt their ability to become pro basketball players and devote their attention elsewhere. Fewer participants means a shallower talent pool, which means there might not be a future version of John Paxson or Steve Kerr available to hit championship-winning shots.

If you think about it, the Lakers now have a cluster of white players because they have five individuals who were at ease being outsiders.

Blake is from Miami, a city in which non-Hispanic white people made up 12 percent of the population in the most recent census.

"I was a minority down there," Blake said. "It's the way things were. I don't think anything of it, because it's the way it is. It's a comfort level for me."

It's not just comfort, it's curiosity and a willingness to learn about another culture. When Blake was with the Trail Blazers and they took a tour of historical Martin Luther King sites, he was right there learning alongside his black teammates. (Although Blake did look a little out of his element when he went onstage with fellow Lakers Matt Barnes and Darius Morris at a 50 Cent performance on "The X Factor.")

As Walton advanced from high school to the University of Arizona to the NBA, he became accustomed to playing with fewer and fewer white people. In Walton's rookie season with the Lakers, 2003-04, every player was black except for him and Slava Medvedenko of Russia. On a team stratified with stars Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton and veterans such as Derek Fisher, Rick Fox and Horace Grant, Walton wound up hanging out with the younger guys: Kareem Rush, Brian Cook and Devean George, all of whom are black.

"In the NBA, it's more than race," Walton said. "It's age and where you're at in your life. My first couple years in the league, I was single and hanging out with all the other young guys. All of us were still trying to make it in the NBA. We were doing a lot of the same stuff, working out together. We all lived close to each other. You actually bond more on that than actual black, white or that kind of stuff."

Said McRoberts: "You're with these guys more than you're with your family. That's kind of what it becomes. You don't really see race or color or anything like that. I think it's more, you're comfortable with the guys, you know everybody. It's something that doesn't play a part."

In high school, McRoberts was the only white player on an Indiana AAU team that included Mike Conley, Eric Gordon, Greg Oden and Daequan Cook. With no scouting reports, opponents just assumed McRoberts was the weak link.

"We'd go out to the jump ball circle, they're all fighting over who gets to guard the white guy," McRoberts said. "We'd come out the first play and Mike would just throw it at the rim, I'd get dunk after dunk. They'd figure it out pretty quick.

"It's fun, because I'm not much of a shooter, and everybody runs at you like you're going to just stand out there and shoot 3s."

I like players like McRoberts who defy stereotypes. If you see a Lakers player on the receiving end of an alley-oop pass this season, it's most likely to be him. I asked Gary Vitti, the Lakers' trainer, if he had measurements of who had the highest vertical leap on the team. He said he'd have to dig it up when he was less busy, then he disappeared into the locker room at the practice facility. A few seconds later, he popped his head out the door.

"It might be the white boy," he said with a grin.

He didn't need to be more specific ... not even on a team with as many white players as the Lakers.


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