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Race and Beyond: Hoop Dreams Versus Hoop Reality

SOURCE: AP/J Pat Carter

Miami Heat's LeBron James tries to get around Los Angeles Clippers' Jared Dudley during an NBA basketball game in Miami.

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Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a “race-aware number cruncher.”

I’ve never met the man, so my best guess is that he might not consider himself as such. His self-provided online CV describes him as a quantitative analyst for Google and an op-ed writer for The New York Times, where I’ve become somewhat familiar with his insightful essays on race and other social issues.

As someone who’s spent considerable time attempting to describe America’s pushmi-pullyu fixation with all things racial, I’m well aware that it’s virtually impossible to bring empirical rigor to our deeply held notions of racial differences. Yet over the past year or so, Stephens-Davidowitz has attempted the impossible by engaging in a sort of intellectual alchemy. His work finds the correlations and probabilities of human behavior that are often hidden by our unconscious racial attitudes.

I love stories that fly in the face of our stereotypical notions on race, such as the one of the all-white Lone Peak High basketball team that plays basketball with the verve and style typically assumed as the exclusive province of black, inner-city hoopsters. Stephens-Davidowitz’s recent article in The New York Times hits a long shot to bust another popularly held but mistaken racial stereotype about basketball players.

Ask the hardcore fan or the casual observer of professional basketball about the typical player, and odds are they’ll say a poor, black kid from the inner city who overcame great odds to escape a dire future. Think about LeBron James, who was born poor to a 16-year-old single mother in Akron, Ohio, and today is widely acknowledged as the best player in the NBA.

Is James’s experience the template for success in the game? Not so fast, writes Stephens-Davidowitz:

A majority of Americans, Google consumer survey data show, think that the NBA is composed mostly of men like Mr. James. But it isn’t.

Growing up in a wealthier neighborhood is a major, positive predictor of reaching the NBA for both black and white men.

Employing the statistical insights gained from his recently acquired doctorate in economics from Harvard, Stephens-Davidowitz compiled the “probability of reaching the NBA, by race, in every county in the United States” to reach his conclusion that black NBA players are about 30 percent less likely than average black males to be born to an unmarried mother or a teenage mother, which positively correlate with higher poverty rates.

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 suggests that on average any motivational edge in hungriness is far outweighed by the advantages of kids from higher socioeconomic classes.

What Stephens-Davidowitz reveals goes far beyond the playground or even sports. His work sheds light into the dark recesses of prejudice that capture the imaginations of too many black boys who believe a baller’s life is their best hope and empowers an entire economic system that fuels such a lie.

As Stephens-Davidowitz makes clear, top professional athletes succeed in their careers for precisely the same reasons that other well-compensated workers do: They work hard and employ noncognitive skills like persistence, delayed gratification, and cooperation with others. Those traits aren’t exclusively held by middle-class kids—certainly, poor kids can be and are often highly motivated, but such life skills are more likely to be recognized and rewarded in places where affluent parents have the means and opportunity to push them on their children and to push their children ahead of those who don’t have such benefits.

To test Stephens-Davidowitz’s theory, I asked around among those familiar with the proving grounds for future NBA players. Unlike a generation or two ago, youth basketball talent is discovered early and groomed through year-round play on Amateur Athletic Union, or AAU, teams. Colleges seek AAU players as often or more often than some top high school players, one prominent AAU coach told me. He insisted on not being identified by name or team because he didn’t want to upset either the parents of the kids he coaches or the college coaches that recruit them. Yes, he said, it’s that serious a business.

“It’s expensive for a kid to make a traveling AAU squad,” the coach said. “Our best players have parents who support them, travel with them, and provide the money to make it possible for them to be on the team. Yes, from time to time, there’s a promising kid who might make our team but just can’t afford to because his family isn’t there to support him.”

Think again of LeBron James. Even his rags-to-riches story isn’t what it seems. Stuart Warner was a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor at the Akron Beacon Journal and later the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who followed James’s rise from schoolboy talent to professional MVP and two-time world champion. He told me that it was true James was born at a terrible time in Akron, when violent crime tripled during a period of about three years in the neighborhood where his mother lived.

“But his mother was the child of a middle-class family and he was largely raised by middle-class families who took him in during periods when his mother was otherwise indisposed,” Warner said. “If anybody was raised by a village, it was LeBron. And the village recognized early that he was special and supported him.”

In other words, as Stephens-Davidowitz argues, disadvantage doesn’t produce success on its own. “Anyone from a difficult environment, no matter his athletic prowess, has the odds stacked against him,” he writes.

Or, examined from another angle, the path to success—even in the NBA—is more of a slam dunk for those who enter the game with family, community, and organized advantages on their side.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here