Fear of a White Planet, or The Whiteness of the Wolves
You probably know the stats: the Wolves currently have 15 players on their roster. Ten of those players are what you might call “white.” Of the 12 players likely to see meaningful minutes this year, nine are white. This is a whiter team, both proportionally and in sheer volume, than any of the legendarily white mid-’80’s Celtics teams. This is about as white, I’d wager, as an NBA team can possibly be.
I bring it up not to encourage or endorse the message board/comment section paranoia that inevitably buzzes around issues like this. There’s no conceivable reason that Kahn/Adelman/Taylor (or whichever alliance of the above is actually making the Wolves’ personnel decisions) would have made skin color a guiding roster-building principle. Yes, Minnesota is a pretty white place and yes, we are crazy about Joe Mauer and hockey but we’ve also screamed ourselves hoarse in praise of KG and Kirby and Adrian Peterson and Clem Haskins among many others. The truth is, Minnesotans love a winner, just like everybody else; we’ll go nuts for anybody who can deliver the thrill. In fact, I find the feat of assembling this team even more fabulously weird for its un-intentionality.
But although almost nobody has failed to notice and remark upon the Wolves unconventional racial make up, our discussion of the issue has generally begun with the glib, occasionally paranoid one-liner and ended with a gaping moment of silence. The cultural complexity, the understandable and well-founded fear of giving offense, the sheer strangeness: it all tends to leave us a little stupefied.
So lets talk about it then. Throughout at least the last 40 years of its history, the discourse of blackness has been the NBA’s defining socio-cultural thread. This has been a troublesomely heterogeneous concept. It has included Russell and Kareem and their hoary dignity; Dr. J’s soulful glides to the hoop; enforcers from Maurice Lucas to Charles Oakley and beyond; the league’s late-’70’s rep for coke-blowing and malingering; Magic’s glitzy showmanship; AI’s tattooed, corn-rowed defiance; the Malice and the Palace; and so much more.
As with hip-hop and jazz’s early, socially transgressive days, the NBA has presented us with the shock of an inverted social-order. Blackness, and everything it means to us–coolness, anger, creativity, braggadocio just for starters–takes center stage while whiteness is pushed to the margins. For this reason, the League has been perceived by much of mainstream culture as a kind of dark, exotic carnival, a zone both of liberation and danger. (And the NBA has often marketed itself in response to this perception. The message seems to be, as it has historically been when black entertainment is sold to a white, mainstream audience: enjoy the spectacle, but don’t worry. When the show’s over everything will be back to normal. You are still safe.)
So our sheepishness at the Wolves’ new complexion is, I suggest, twofold. First, is the implicit belief that white dudes in the NBA are simply uncool, lovable mascots maybe (we’ve certainly had our share of those), but uncool all the same. And an entire team of such left-footed squares feeds that secret, persistent worry among Wolves’ fans that our crew is more amusing diversion than legitimate NBA team.
But even more discomfiting than that is the reality that the Wolves are not black, that they have somehow sidestepped that inverted order. If an NBA team is not a locus of black expression, we wonder, than what is it?
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Thinking on our Wolves, it bears remembering that “whiteness” has been synonymous with, essentially, “whomever is within the socio-economic mainstream.” At varying points in the American history this has meant: no Jews; no Catholics; no swarthy Mediterraneans (sorry Ricky); no hulking Central European Slavs (sorry Big Pek); hell, probably no Slavs of any kind (AK, Alexei Shved); certainly no Hispanics, even white ones (looking at you J.J. Barea).
These distinctions might seem like the crusty relics of the Mad Men-era, (although some of us still seem to struggle with that last one) but they point to a parallel change in the NBA’s ethnic makeup. Those Celtics teams, after all, featured lots of white dudes but exactly zero of them hailed from anywhere beyond North America. That, obviously, has changed. Indeed, a person could make a convincing argument that, along with the rule changes of the early 2000’s (cracking down on hand checking and overhauling the illegal defense rules), the influx of European and South American players into the league years has been the defining stylistic sea-change of the past decade.
Moreover, I would argue that, although there is much overlap, our cultural assumptions about white American players differ significantly from those about white Europeans. (I hope you’ll join me, too, in assuming that fair-skinned South Americans who cut their teeth in the Euroleague and play in the Euro style–guys like Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino and Tiago Splitter–are “European” in our cultural imagination.) Consider the classic white American archetypes: the pass-first, floor-general point guard; the outside shooting specialist; the doofy, hustling big man. Call it the Stockton-Hornacek-Ostertag matrix. These archetypes draw on a shared set of elements: a lack of overwhelming athleticism; unselfishness (playing the “right way”); a lack of ostentation.
Now consider the the Euro template: high skill-level at all five positions, especially when it comes to shooting; bold, occasionally flashy guard play; a finesse mentality, leading often to the accusation of “softness.” There are overlaps, sure–in the lack of spectacular athleticism and in the focus on fundamentals–but I hope you’d agree that we’re dealing here with two distinct types.
When it comes to the Wolves, Ricky Rubio, Andrei Kirilenko and Alexei Shved all play what one could reasonably term a European style (with major caveats of course–AK was once the Association’s Defensive Player of the Year; Rubio cannot shoot). Nikola Pekovic, by the looks of him, would seem to fit that dreaded Ostertag model, although his exacting footwork, soft touch and lack of a developed post game complicate the picture (the European game favoring, as it does, the face-up and the pick-and-roll for its big men). J.J. Barea, with his incredible quickness and his willingness to freestyle and dominate the ball defies any of the aforementioned white-guy modes. (Indeed, Billy Packer might say that he brings a “playground mentality” to his work.) Kevin Love, the Wolves best player, is as we’ve discussed before, a strange hybrid of the blue-collar banger and the Euro stretch-four, even going so far as to develop a serviceable face-up game.
Of the Wolves four remaining white Americans–Robbie Hummel, Chase Budinger, Greg Stiemsma and Luke Ridnour–only Hummel and Stiemsma fully embody the white-dude stereotype (and Hummel will not play in the NBA this year). Ridnour straddles the line between floor general and shoot-first point guard, generally leaning toward the latter. Nor does Budinger, despite his truly brilliant complexion, fit neatly into a stereotypical mode of whiteness. The athletic, open floor finisher with the smooth three-point stroke and questionable team defensive instincts? You might as well call him “Typical Young NBA Player.”
As usual, the facts on the ground cut against the grain of our inherited assumptions, perhaps beyond the point of recognition. There is no unified, coherent conception of whiteness and blackness in American culture at large, and so it is in the NBA. And whatever coherence the terms do possess–that of the Stocktonian floor-general, for instance–are so riddled with exceptions and complications (Steve Nash? Chris Paul?), not to mention the heavily problematic politics of the entire conversation, that its worth wondering whether they have any usefulness for us at all. The post-millennial NBA, with its Euro-inflected team concepts and its multivalent stars, has brought us a game that makes our old racial assumptions seem tired and inadequate.
Take Rick Adelman’s offensive system, itself an adaptation of the Princeton offense (so very white) to fit the Euro and NBA skill-sets of his formative teams. Structure that around Ricky Rubio’s open-floor genius, the Rubio-Love/Rubio-Pekovic pick-and-roll and the Wolves newfound ability to space the floor with Shved and Budinger, (not to mention whatever individual scoring skills Brandon Roy still has at his disposal) and you’re left less with a classical, Sloan-ian “white” team than some kind of new-school, outside-in Euro/NBA hybrid.
The Timberwolves will feature: an undersized, no-jumping, three-point shooting superstar big man; a former All-Star with no knees; a rail-thin, whispy-haired Russian; a smiling, telepathic Spaniard. They might be the worst defensive team in the league or they might be the fifth seed in the West. They will be, without a doubt, a weird, unpredictable team. In that, they are an appropriate exemplar of an NBA that his outgrown its old racial discourses. The League remains a wellspring and reflection of black American culture and so the Wolves’ racial makeup is startling. But, more than ever, the game spills over the boundaries we draw around it. It is a game of excesses, an overflowing of personalities and cultures and styles. Attempts to proscribe that excess will always be futile.