Basketball the White Way

by alex tagawa

When All-American Basketball League comissioner Don “Moose” Lewis announced the first season’s intended start date of June this year, he was not met with as much enthusiasm as he anticipated.

Instead, the All-American Basketball League has shocked many with its rule that “only players that are natural born United States citizens with both parents of Caucasian race are eligible to play.”[1] Lewis says he wants to focus on “a more fundamental basketball, which blatantly fits white players better,” rather than the “street ball” played by “people of color.”[2]

Lewis claims his motivation for starting this special professional league stems from the fact that whites are a minority in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Whites, however, are not the only minority within the NBA. There are not many Latino players in the NBA, and even fewer Asians.

Lewis insists that there was no racism behind the establishment of this league, but the appearances do not lend his claim credit. For one, even the name of the league is exclusionary and politically incorrect. What makes someone with two Caucasian parents exclusively “All-American”? Being “American” does not equate with being white. Being “American” means that you were born in the United States, or have become a naturalized citizen. It has nothing to do with your race or ethnicity. This incendiary name compounded with the segregation in the league invokes the outdated racist notion that whites are somehow more legitimate Americans than people of color.

Why is the so-called All-American Basketball League so problematic? After all, ethnic-specific teams have existed for a while now, and continue to be a valuable part of many communities.

For instance, Japanese Americans in California already have their own basketball league. The original Japanese American League (J-League), created for high school and young adult Japanese Americans, was founded in the 1920s out of necessity due to racial and ethnic discrimination. J-League player Robert Koga explains that this league was formed because “there were no other places for them to play at the time…[because of] size differential, because of segregation; they really had nowhere else to play.”[3] Especially since Japanese Americans have become so geographically spread out, J-Leagues today have helped bring Japanese American youth together and foster a sense of community. Without this program, many Japanese American youth would have little to no connection to the larger Japanese American community.

Much like the All-American Basketball League, J-Leagues have faced controversy due to qualifications that required a certain number of players to be at least part Japanese American. Many felt that these rules were exclusionary and that race and ethnicity should not be mandatory eligibility requirements, as these leagues were created under the context that Japanese Americans themselves were being excluded. In response, J-Leagues have updated the rules to allow people of other races and ethnicities to join.

In contrast, members of the All-American Basketball League have not experienced issues of discrimination like those of the J-League have. They have not been excluded from playing on mainstream teams due to their race or ethnicity, and they are not a marginalized group within the NBA. It is doubtful the establishment of this league will help foster a greater sense of community for whites; those on the team are most likely on it simply because they cannot make it into the NBA, not because they feel that they are missing out on a sense of white ethnic community.

It is problematic to advocate such blatant discrimination in an alternate professional league just because whites are a minority in the mainstream NBA league. Whites are not even the smallest minority within the NBA; Asian Americans are represented to a far lesser degree than whites, and yet, we are not starting our own professional league. For many Asian Americans, height continues to be a barrier to being scouted, as most are not as tall as their peers of other races. Most Asian American youth take a more positive spin on their lack of representation in the NBA, though, by continuing to enjoy watching and playing the sport.

Getting drafted into the NBA is a great honor that many individuals spend their lives training for. Perhaps a majority of players are black, but they have worked for it and are selected for their skill. The All-American Basketball League, if it survives its first season at all, will only set the precedent for other races to set up their own leagues, taking us back to the pre-1960s era of segregation. While racial and ethnic solidarity are valuable, this so-called “All-American” league lacks any feeling of solidarity, and instead creates a division between Americans where there should be none.

[1] Byler, Billy. (2010). Basketball league for white Americans targets Augusta. The Augusta Chronicle. Retrieved from http://chronicle.augusta.com/stories/2010/01/19/nba_563760.shtml.

[2] (2010). All-White Basketball Interview: Bomani Jones Presses Commissioner. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/23/all-white-basketball-leag_n_434065.html.

[3] (2010). Japanese American Basketball Leagues. Retrieved from http://www.discovernikkei.org/nikkeialbum/en/collection/5852/list.