Fear of a White Planet, or The Whiteness of the Wolves

Benjamin Polk —  September 16, 2012 — 21 Comments

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?

*      *     *

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.

Benjamin Polk

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21 responses to Fear of a White Planet, or The Whiteness of the Wolves

  1. Ben. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I admit to feeling uncomfortable with the racial makeup of the roster. The problem I’ve had with trying to engage people on this topic is that it tends to begin and end with the question of intentionality. Well, obviously it isn’t intentional in the sense that the front office went out looking for white guys because they are white guys.

    The thing is, if it were intentional, I wouldn’t be uncomfortable, I’d be furious. But there are other issues, some of which you address. I agree that the influx of Europeans and South Americans in the league has changed both the stylistic and racial calculus of the league. It’s not as if the Wolves are running the Nebraska offensive line out there.

    Still. I am uncomfortable. Perhaps what I am most uncomfortable about is that I cannot articulate well why. It might just be that I have no experience engaging with an NBA team that is so non-black, and I don’t know what to expect. Perhaps it’s because I desperately want them to win (I’ve been waiting long enough), but I fear, maybe with excessive pessimism, what assumptions people might make if the are successful with this racial makeup.

    Of course, they might just suck again.

  2. Thanks, Ben, for this intriguing article. While most of Minnesotans rarely feel the effects of racial tension, most of us certainly are not colorblind especially when noting the oddity which is the Timberwolves lineup. I concur with Eric that if it truly was the case that Kahn/Taylor/Adelman were building this team to intentionally be white, then I’d be horrified. But rationally, it all makes sense. The Wolves two cornerstones are white not but because they were what was best for the franchise (Love>Mayo and Rubio>everyone drafted behind him in the 2009 draft except maybe steph curry). Kahn is buying up the Euro stock because it is at a good value (Pek and Shved may each be worth triple what they’re making by the end of the year and AK’s value may be higher than his contract if he maintains his Olympic-level play). And every pundit knew Minnesota’s biggest need was an athletic wing who could spread the floor and they only signed Buddinger because he was the best available after a failed run at Batum.

    I disagree that the NBA has outgrown its old racial discourses (irony within the article?) but success has a way of defeating stereotypes. If the Piston’s are 90% black and they remain terrible and the wolves are 60% white and halfway decent– stereotypes 0 timberwolves 1.

  3. What I meant by “outgrown” was that the game has grown in a such a way that those discourses no longer make sense, if they ever did. Did not mean that those discourses are no longer employed when people discuss the game. That, of course, is pretty persistent. Thanks for the thoughtful commments guys.

  4. Very good article Ben. I am actually not uncomfortable with this roster make-up. In fact, I haven’t even thought about it until this article. What bothers me is that people would actually have the disrespect to claim that we are only signing, and trading for white/european players. The European players have taken off in the last few years, and we were the first to jump on the bandwagon (I expect other low-tier teams to follow suite soon). I am excited about this team in the upcoming years, regardless of racial make-up.

    Nonetheless, great article Ben!

  5. I’m glad someone finally brought this up. I’ve been excited about this for a while, just because of the uniqueness of it. I think its amazing that most of the Timberwolves best players are white. And I’m black. I can’t say I’ll be a fan (I’m primarily a Piston fan), but I’ll definitely watch out for them (because of their uniquness, and Houston because of all their young first round talent).

    Plus the fact that when Rubio is healthy, they could actually be an upper echelon team, because most of their players can be really productive. And they’ve got the black guy that could possibly be an X factor to help get them deep into the playoffs. The main thing they lack/need is defense in the post, and a healthy Rubio/Roy. If those things develop, they can be dominant.

    I don’t think this was done on purpose, but I do think that darker skin tones tend to be happier and healthier nearer the equator, for natural and subconscious reasons related to melanin, sunlight, and vitamin D.

  6. Truth is, the color of the team should not matter. On paper, this is a very good team made up of some proven players who just happen to be white. Although, I would likely be more concerned if the majority of them where white americans. But we have a Spaniard, Puerto Rican, 2 Russians, and a Montenegrin.

    As an african-america who’s loyal to the Wolves, I personally get sick of players passing up on Minnesota because of the weather and other cultural concerns. I’ve been to just about every part of the US and from a social perspective, you don’t get anything on the East coast, West coast or South that you can’t experience here in Minnesota. If our money can only land us players of the caucasian flavor, then whatever, let’s role with it. I know for a fact that Kahn and company pursued other players of color, but in the end, you can only bring in people who want to be here, just so happen’s, the majority of them are light in complexion.

  7. Nice discussion of the issue. The influx of Europeans has been the main factor, I would say, in making a pale roster at least potentially feasible – perhaps not fully defensible, but not competitively unimaginable. It’s possibly the most interesting roster in the Association, with so many guys possessing unconventional skill sets – Rubio’s trancendent passing coupled with subpar shooting, Love’s Frankenstein combo of Ruland and Bargnani, AK-47′s spring-loaded boxscore-stuffing, Barea’s rabid field mouse offense, etc… The only question is what to call them. The White Shadows? The Pale Riders? The Beach Boys? The Snowmen? Vanilla Thunder? The Albino Wolves? I hope they all stay healthy so we can see how it works.

  8. pagingstanleyroberts September 17, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    I agree with Brian. To me, the Wolves are just exploiting an underutilized market. Ultimately, these are the guys who agreed to come here, and with the exception of Tolliver (seriously, when was the last time any free agent waited on the Wolves because he wanted to return so badly), a lot of free agents want extra incentives to play here compared to anywhere else. The team hasn’t been successful, and they’re not willing to overcommit just to get certain guys (like they mistakenly did with guys like Marko Jaric and Mike James). They’re taking what they can get when it comes to good players.

    A quick correction (to Mike): Budinger was acquired before the draft, not signed during the free agent period.

  9. There is also a less synical explanation for our hesitation to believe in a mostly white T-wolves roster: Success. We havn’t experienced a ton of success, with caucasian players in Minnesota. Which doesn’t neccesarily mean much, being that we only had a about a 5 year window of “success” while KG was here. But during that time, management kept surrounding him with black players. Guys like Marbury, Brandon, Cassell, and Sprewell (along with many others).

    But what have we had for success with white players? Szczerbiak? I loved Wally. But at the end of the day, he was a very one-dimensional player. Rasho? He was Darko, before Darko was Darko. Great size. Maybe not the same hype-level, as far as potential. But he had potential just the same. He just had no confidence, and completely disappeared during key times.

    And where do you go from there? Gugliotta? Longley? Both guys who were successful in other places… but not here. So I think what it really boils down to, is that no matter how great Kevin Love is… and how much he dominates… we hesitate to think that he can really carry the team. And it is simply because we have never seen a caucasian player, having much of an impact on this team. We have to remember that though we are not the Charlotte Bobcats, we are still a young team, and have not had a long history of success. So this is just another step on the ladder of building a winning atmosphere.

    Take the Celtics for example. If you overhauled their roster, and brought in equally good players, who happened to be white, what would the reaction be? Most Celtic fans would not care. And why? Because they don’t want black or hispanic players on their team? No. It is simply because within that organization, it has happened before. Many times they have won with a mostly white roster. So it isn’t a stretch for them to believe that it could happen again. Whereas, with the Timberwolves, winning has been very rare. And when we did have a taste of it, it was with Kevin Garnett and host of other very good african-american players.

  10. Man people have been talking about this for months on Twitter & I havent really seen much negativity, more good natured joking then anything.

  11. Great commentary Ben, especially about how our stereotypes of the “white player” are out of date in an era of increased internationalization (both foreign players coming here, and influences of the NBA-style game bleeding over into international leagues).

    I think what makes it feel awkward to me is the perception of how the team will be marketed to a mostly-white fan base and local community. Minnesota is a very white place; once can’t help but wonder if the marketing team team high-fived when they realized they had 10 white guys to sell to white fans instead of 10 black guys. However open-minded and cosmopolitan people in Minneapolis and Saint Paul are, there’s definitely still a sense of trepidation about the “urban culture” from rich white people in the suburbs. Again, I certainly don’t think it’s intentional–I never sensed any racism in the one year I worked for the Wolves–but it strikes me as terribly convenient from a marketing perspective.

    I bumped into Jerry Zgoda the other day, and he mentioned that the abundance of whiteness on this Rick Adelmen-system team also fits into the stereotypical “intelligent” vs “athletic” dynamic/coded language we often hear about white and black players (particularly around draft time). He agreed that signing mostly white players was not intentional–like other commenters have noted, that would be a damning scandal in the country’s most racially diverse sport–but that it was certainly unusual.

  12. As I’ve said before, if you feel this team is lacking in color then sign Birdman!!

  13. Yes, and thats something I wish I had touched on more in the piece. I do think that we should be a bit uncomfortable with the way a majority-white team might appeal to (and might be marketed to) such a white fan base. Especially since, although most Minnesotans consider themselves open minded, there are still some pretty serious problems around race in this city.

  14. I think we’re pretty diverse actually. Look just because their skin color is white doesn’t mean they’re actually “white.” A good amount of our roster comes from different countries so we’re not all from the same town, neighborhood, etc if you get where I’m coming from. We have a Puerto-Rican, a Spainiard, two Russians, a Montenegrin, and a couple of African Americans, and Caucasins. Why is race an issue in basketball? Why does it matter? I wonder if this article would even flair up in conversation if we had a lot of “black” guys on the roster? So really what the hell is the point of this article. So we have a lot of “white” guys, you know what, who gives a flying #$%. This really has nothing to do with basketball at all. I feel like this article is just making race an issue for this basketball team, and that’s actually a shame.

  15. You’re right, but in all fairness, they are far from average white players. They are far more athletic and capable than a lot of the white players in the league. In fact one can go as far to say that they are white players that play as if they were black.

  16. Hey, I just want to give a shout out to the conversation that happened here in comments. This was a great article, but an equally rewarding comments section.

    I think the thing that will be remembered about the Wolves is that this is the first time this happened. Because I do think it will happen again, for all the reasons you mention, Ben. Basketball is a global sport, and there’s a lot of swarthy (but white!) Europeans and light colored Latinos who excel at the game. This kind of roster is bound to pop up again from time to time, and people will always mention this team when it does. Especially because this team’s gonna win some games. :D

  17. I know that people see this because it is so contrasting… But as Eric says to begin with, we know this was not deliberate.. Who were the other superior options? The wolves needed a good 3, tried for batum, settled for AK (who I think will actually fit the system better, since he will play great help D behind Love), ran at Roy… Who should they have gotten? Crawford? I feel like, outside an unlikely lopsided trade, they really couldn’t have done a better job this offseason.

    There’s no question they would max offer Harden, or any other great shooting guard… Just has happened that they’ve gotten tremendous value out of some players who might have even been undervalued. Love, Rubio, Pek, Luke, all on very decent contracts. All solid players. Buddinger plays for 1.3 mil, and will be much more effective slashing to the basket than Beas will ever end up being. Lou williams would have been alright to pick up, but he’s about the only one I can think of.

    Now, if there were any way to construe the team composition as any sort of racial bias, I would be furious… Any mindset of the team I watch where they don’t get the best available player for some bullshit reason sucks.

    It will be interesting to watch. The team has a lot of really good things going for it right now,(knock on wood, injuries) and might be very good. Early, there will be a lot of comments on the tv broadcasts for sure (‘it’s amazing how a team that lacks atheticism can get up and down the floor’, the thing we like about the wolves is the hustle, etc. We all know the code words.). But what if they’re very good? I’m really not interested in hearing the announcers explain that one.

    Interesting article, thanks for putting it out.

  18. I can’t believe it’s entirely a coincidence. Maybe black players don’t like the idea of playing in Minnesota, so they go get white ones. Maybe it’s a marketing strategy.

  19. Freddie Freeloader December 17, 2012 at 5:12 am

    is this still coming up in the city or region? I remember one so-called civil rights activist talking about it and a couple comments on the sports shows…. other than that … nothing.
    Is that because some people are past racism? Or because they are winning a lot of games for the first time in like 7 years

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  1. Why the Wolves’ Whiteout Does Not Matter | Punch-Drunk Wolves - September 17, 2012

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