Race Reversal: Whites In NBA Face Ironic Twist On Diversity

Matt Geiger is a rangy, goatee-sporting, 7-foot center for the Charlotte Hornets, an average player who performs with reckless zeal. On this night, in the clowning atmosphere of his team's locker room, he is a juicy target for postgame ribbing.

One teammate draws a cartoon-like pickle-headed figure on the chalkboard. "That's Geiger!" shouts a teammate approvingly. "You gotta get the big eyes," another player implores the artist. As others join in, point guard Muggsy Bogues observes that Geiger is slipping on his pants minus underwear.

"Oh, he ain't got no drawers on!" exclaims Bogues, who cracks up laughing.

Geiger ignores the playful barbs of his African-American teammates because he is too busy describing what it is like to be white in the NBA. "Yeah, there's a little razzing," explains Geiger, one of two whites on the Hornets' 12-man roster, "but it's all in good fun."

Geiger is a rarity: a white man trying to fit in among blacks, who dominate his profession. In 1957, 93 percent of the NBA's players were white. Today, in the NBA's 50th anniversary season, about 80 percent are black. It is one of the most unusual circumstances in the American work force - whites as minorities in a high-paying industry closely scrutinized by the public. Typically, it is blacks and other minorities who must conform to the norms of a mostly white workplace.

The 50-year commemoration of Jackie Robinson integrating major-league baseball has brought renewed attention to racial issues in sports. And the NBA, now in the midst of the playoffs, is an intriguing laboratory for exploring how whites fare in an exclusive, predominantly black society.

Throughout the season The Washington Post interviewed players, coaches and others about this unique world of racial interaction. Some white players talked of being anonymous pros who can't get into competitive summer pick-up games in black neighborhoods because no one will choose them. Some black players talked of being big stars on the court but feeling under-represented in the ranks of team management.

"There's not that equality in the front office," says Detroit forward Grant Hill, "so we don't really dominate the game."

For many white players, the NBA is an entry point to deeper racial understanding.

"It's a great experience for a white player in the NBA because you see life through other people's eyes," says Steve Kerr, a three-point shooting specialist with the NBA champion Chicago Bulls. "You see what it's like to be the minority at times."

Geiger still remembers a Miami shopping spree with ex-Miami Heat teammates Keith Askins and Bimbo Coles, neither a recognizable star. Sales clerks treated the black players as though they didn't exist. "To be there and really see the looks on their faces and to have us talk about it later in the day, it just gives you an understanding of what it's like," Geiger said.

But white players also realize they operate in a privileged environment.

"In the real world, you're not going to have 12 guys - 10 black and two white - travel together seven, eight months out of the year," said Scott Brooks, the only white New York Knick player. "We do everything together. I think that's the greatest gift athletics brings to society."

"At the same time," adds Kerr, "we live in sort of a utopian society where everybody is doing well financially. And you don't have the same sort of racial resentment and competition that you have a lot in the working world."

In interviews, white players discussed everything from affirmative action to rap music to inner-city life to racial stereotyping. Some said their association with black players in the NBA has heightened their empathy for those who face discrimination and helped them drop preconceived notions about blacks. Others said they feel constant pressure to prove they belong in the league. And some clearly struggle with the decline of white superstars as the NBA's popularity climbs.

Jon Barry, a reserve guard with the Atlanta Hawks, is one of five Barrys to become big-time basketball players. His brother, Brent, is the Los Angeles Clippers guard who won last year's NBA slam-dunk contest. His father, Hall of Famer Rick Barry, is one of 18 white players cited by a special NBA panel as one of the league's 50 greatest players. But when approached about the status of white players in the league, young Barry responded: "You mean the dying breed?"

Only four white players were among the 24 stars the fans and coaches picked to play in this year's all-star game. No white player finished the regular season among the top 15 scorers or 10 leading rebounders. Just one - Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton - was among the top 20 assist leaders.

White players finished first in the league in free-throw shooting, field-goal percentage and blocked shots. And Western Conference champion Utah is the only team in the league to have a majority of whites starting.

But for many young white athletes, the league has become a stagnant slice of the job market. If the league names a "50-greatest" team from 1990 to the year 2000, Jon Barry hypothesizes, "there are not going to be many white guys on that team."

The exception to the trend is the burgeoning crop of Eastern European players who have found a pipeline to the NBA, players such as the Washington's Gheorghe Muresan, Chicago's Toni Kukoc and Boston's Dino Radja.

How blacks came to dominate the NBA and why the number of white players has dropped so dramatically over the past five decades is a subject many white players wrestle with.

"Maybe with more blacks in the league, a lot of them are inner-city kids and that's all they do," says Jon Barry. "I think maybe the suburban types or the white people have more things to do. . . . If you're in the inner city, those guys go play ball . . . from 9 in the morning to 9 at night."

That explanation doesn't account for players such as Grant Hill and Dennis Scott, blacks raised in the suburbs. But it was a common piece of sideline sociology among white players interviewed.

Atlanta forward Christian Laettner, however, took exception to Barry's thesis. "The white kids are still trying as hard as they've ever tried," says Laettner. "They're probably trying now harder. . . . I work camps in the summer, it's all white kids."

But to star in the NBA these days, says Laettner, you have to be tough and durable and most important, very athletic. "And it seems the people who can be really athletic and really good once you get to the higher levels, more and more it seems to be the black group," he said. "That's just the way it is."

While Laettner has gradually earned respect around the league, many white players have not. New Jersey center Jack Haley, who at 6 feet 10 and 242 pounds is unimposing by NBA standards, epitomizes what some black players claim is an informal policy on many teams: reserving end-of-the-bench roster spots for white players of marginal skill.

Selected by the Chicago Bulls in the fourth round of the 1987 NBA draft, Haley spent a season in Spain. He has since shuttled between NBA teams, never logging many minutes. His most prominent role was as the towel-waving, bench-riding teammate/-pal of Dennis Rodman in the 1993-'96 seasons.

Ask Knicks forward Buck Williams if there are white players in the league simply because of their race and Williams, president of the National Basketball Players Association, doesn't hesitate. "Yes, there's no question," he says. But he adds, "I think diversity is a good thing. I think we should have more diversity in corporate America."

The NBA, with only 348 jobs for players, provides an interesting twist to the affirmative-action debate. In the larger society, high-achieving blacks often feel as though their success is under a microscope.

"It's reverse in our industry," said Williams, who is black. "If you come in as a white ballplayer it's taken that you're a token, whereas in corporate America we're looked at as tokens."

In 1980, Ted Stepien, then the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, publicly voiced the view that maintaining a quota of white players on teams was good for business. "I think the Cavs have too many blacks, 10 of 11," he said, eliciting a rebuke from the league office. "You need a blend of white and black. I think that draws and I think that's a better team."

Two episodes in the late 1980s called further attention to the league's uneasy racial atmosphere. First, the Detroit Pistons' Rodman and Isiah Thomas suggested that one of the NBA's best players, Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics, was overrated, because he was white. Both apologized. Then, white center Jon Koncak signed a six-year, $13.2 million contract with the Atlanta Hawks that put him among the league's highest-paid players, though he was largely a role player. Some black players sneered in outrage.

Chris Childs, the starting Knicks point guard who is black, says it should come as no surprise that race drives some personnel decisions even in the NBA. "Is there racism in America? Then, that's the answer to that question."

Rex Chapman, the Phoenix Suns' guard who is white, is not so sure. "I think it boils down to who can play and who can't," he says.

The NBA may soon have to confront the same diversity questions that other industries grapple with, says Frederick Lynch, a Claremont McKenna College professor who has written widely on affirmative action.

"What if you produced team after team after team that is all black?" he asked, adding that if "you never saw white players on the court, I think little red flags would go up in the front office."

The concerns were different in 1950, when the Boston Celtics made Duquesne star Chuck Cooper the first black player drafted by an NBA team. Early black stars, such as Bill Russell, performed spectacularly on the court, then walked outside the arena and found they couldn't use the same restrooms as their white teammates.

"It was tougher being a black player (then) than it is being a white player today," says Red Auerbach, the former Celtic coach, now vice chairman of the team. "It's as simple as that. . . . We went into some cities where you couldn't get food."

Ironically, though black players are the major stars in a league in which the average salary is $247,500, many feel little sense of empowerment. "Why are there more white coaches in the NBA than black coaches?" asks the Bullets' Juwan Howard, whose seven-year, $105 million contract makes him one of the highest-paid players in the league. "That's a point that I try to bring across. Same with ownership and GMs."

Seven of the NBA's 29 teams ended the '96-97 regular season with black head coaches; Johnny Davis of Philadelphia has since been fired and the Celtics' M.L. Carr, who remains a team executive, stepped down.

Isiah Thomas, the Toronto Raptors general manager, has just signed a deal to become the first African American to own a majority share of an NBA club.

According to the latest "racial report card" produced by the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, the NBA has made more progress integrating management than any other major sports league. Last season, 28 percent of people running the day-to-day operations of NBA franchises were African American, compared to 13 percent in the National Football League and 4 percent in Major League Baseball.

If black players sometimes believe their careers are confined to the court, white players sometimes feel their on-court success is hampered by tough-to-beat stereotypes.

"Oh, yeah," says Rex Walters, a 6-3 guard with Philadelphia. "The perception is different of a white guy. The first thing you think of with Rex Walters is I'm a shooter."

The Bullets' Tim Legler, who won the league's three-point contest at the All-Star Game, can definitely shoot the ball. But the rap on Legler indeed on most white guards "automatically from Day 1," he says is that he's not quick enough, a defensive liability. "You can stop your man nine times in a row and if on the 10th time your man gets around you and dunks on you, you're too slow," he explains. "It's a form of labeling that goes around in the league."

Legler tells this story: When Quinn Buckner, who is black, took over as coach of the Dallas Mavericks before the start of the 1993-94 season, he relegated Legler to the end of the bench. "He came in immediately and didn't have respect for me," says Legler.

After a practice, Buckner asked Legler and Greg Dreiling, the only other white player, to get off the team bus. Legler later learned Buckner wanted to dress down some of the black players about using offensive language, but never understood why the white players were excluded.

Buckner wouldn't comment on that episode, but said Legler's conclusion that his race affected his standing with the Mavericks is "so far off base it's unbelievable. . . . I don't do anything based on race."

To anyone who has followed the debates about diversifying the work force, Legler's conclusions have a familiar ring.

"I've always contended that one of the most difficult things to do is be white and make it in the NBA," he said. "The decks are stacked against you."