Larry Bird was the last one and arguably the best one.
Bird, with his blond hair and “Hick from French Lick” persona, was the last of what no one knew would be a dying breed. A breed that at this particular moment in the NBA is completely extinct. The complexion may still be prevalent, but geographically speaking, it no longer exists.
An American-born white player capable of being the best player on a championship team.
Think about the league’s history. Think about the players who have come along since Bird’s three straight MVPs in the 1980s to dominate the NBA, to claim its unofficial title as best player in the world. It is a list that includes a whole lot of melanin … and Dirk Nowitzki. And even as Nowitzki knocked off Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James en route to his only title in 2011, destroying his opponents as the singular superstar on a veteran-laden Dallas Mavericks team that operated eerily similarly to Hakeem Olajuwon’s 1994 Houston Rockets championship team, James and Bryant were still the first two names to leave someone’s mouth when discussing who was the best player in the world.
But Nowitzki is German. Just look at that last name. Despite his European descent and Bird-like skin tone, Nowitzki cannot save this reality — the NBA is a black man’s game with international visitation, and the American-born white best player is no longer.
That does not mean there are no American-born white players in the league. There are still plenty. As of Dec. 17th, there are 36 American-born white players in the league, with the Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers having the most on their current rosters with three players. Six teams — the Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz, and Golden State Warriors — have zero players on their rosters. Compare that to the 1996-97 season, where 13 teams had at least three such players on their opening-day rosters, including a Jazz team with six.
The best among these players are arguably the Boston Celtics’ Gordon Hayward and the Cavaliers’ Kevin Love. Love has held the title of best American-born white player in the NBA for some time now. He has become the knee-jerk reaction to the question. Love, a five-time All-Star, is the only one in the league with multiple All-Star game appearances, with Hayward and the Bucks’ Kyle Korver the only others to reach an All-Star game in their careers. Love is the only current American-born white player to make an All-NBA team, after making the second team in 2011-12 and 2013-14. David Lee (third team in 2012-13), while playing for the Golden State Warriors, is the only other American-born white player to make an All-NBA team this decade.
But none of these players have ever been in the discussion for best player in the world. That is no longer in the cards. American-born white men still play baseball in large numbers. They are still holding their own on football rosters. But the NBA is black and international. And it is becoming even more so.
The top player under 21 in the league right now is the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic. Prior to getting hurt recently, he was averaging a gaudy 29.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg, and 8.9 apg. Asinine numbers for a 20-year-old. He was putting up numbers only Oscar Robertson had seen in his career. No 20-year-old has entered the league and been this dominant this quickly, not even James. Scouts and coaches knew he was special before he came into the league, but if they knew he was going to become one of the top five players before his 21st birthday, maybe the Atlanta Hawks don’t make that deal on draft day. As good as Trae Young is, he isn’t Doncic, and probably never will be.
Doncic represents the brightest star among the league’s whiter complexions. Last season’s All-NBA teams included exactly zero American-born white players. The All-Star game didn’t have any either. American-born white stars are mostly nonexistent.
And yes, stating the full phrase of “American-born white” is necessary.
The beauty of humanity is in its complexities. We cannot say just Europeans because not all Europeans are white. The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo is arguably the best player in the world right now. He is Greek. He is not white. The Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving was born in Australia. He is not white. There are complexities within all of the racial and ethnic dynamics of a team sport with an international reach only surpassed by the world’s most popular sport, soccer. Since the 1992 original Dream Team gave the world its first real glimpse at the level of basketball being played in the United States, basketball began turning into the global game it is today. And in the process, it has diminished the role of the American-born white superstar.
But look in the crowd at the games. The league’s game attendees are still primarily white. In a sport dominated by black and international players, a lot of the cheers we all hear are from the mouths of white fans. Ownership of the league’s teams? Only one black man, the Charlotte Hornets’ Michael Jordan. The league’s coaches? Still dominated by white men. The brain trust of the league is still within the hands of white men. The racial dynamics of the league are a microcosm of what has always been an American staple of black labor for white overseers. The difference now is the millions of dollars being placed in the hands of these black laborers. But like Chris Rock said, “Shaq is rich. The white man that signs his check is wealthy.”
The league is a melting pot. Due to the NBA’s international players, despite the dominance of black players on rosters, people all over the world can find someone who looks like them on the court, representing their athletic hopes and dreams. There are no masks or no helmets. There is nothing covering the faces of the men who get a chance to play in the world’s best league against the world’s best players. It is this amalgamation of cultures that makes the league such a beautiful place, and one of the few spaces where the American-born white male is not at the center of it all. Yeah, they may be in most of the suits, but international players and black players can claim the floor as their own and there is nothing wrong with that.
The NBA’s early years were dominated by white players, but that was primarily due to the racism permeating throughout the country. Bill Russell and Robertson were two of the biggest stars in the league at the time. But, they still suffered through the pain and anguish of what it meant to be a black man in America. After the merger with the ABA, the league started to show signs of what it would become. It would only be a matter of time before the likes of Bird would be no longer.
Bird was the last American-born white player to be the best player on a championship team. Before him, guys like Dave Cowens, Bill Walton, and George Mikan all had their time to shine. That light is just dim now. It is no longer bright.
It’s the midnight sky, black with white stars — they just aren’t born in America.