White Fans, Black Players: 1 Man's View of Race in College Basketball

David HirningContributor IJanuary 25, 2011

Isaiah Thomas of the Washington Huskies.
Isaiah Thomas of the Washington Huskies.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

OK, let’s get this out of the way up front: I do not consider myself, at least consciously, even a tiny bit racist. I grew up going to diverse, urban schools, my best friend from college is black, my freshman roommate was a black football player, etc., etc., etc. So keep that in mind when you read the followingpossibly controversialthoughts.

I love college basketball. Watch as many games as I can. I’m a Pac-10 guygrew up in Seattle rooting for the Huskies, then went to Stanford, now back living in my hometownbut I love it all. Big East, ACC, SEC, small conferencesbring it on. I believe that March Madness is the greatest annual sporting event in the world.

But I’ve developed a strange habit in the last few years: I am highly aware of the race of the players on the court. I often count up the white and the black players out there. What’s more, I feel a little surge of pride when I see a really good white basketball player make a great play. And for the life of me, I don’t know why this is. (I also notice and like it when I see a black player acknowledge a nice play by a white teammate. Racial harmony!)

Now, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the vast majority of the best basketball players on the planet are black. It doesn’t matter if it’s college or proby sheer numbers, it’s black players by a mile. Turn on a game tonightyou’ll probably see that eight out of the ten players on the floor at any given time are black. Deep South, Northeast, out West, doesn’t matter. That’s just reality.

And that’s great. I love watching these wonderful athletes play.

Are there great white players? Of course. Tons. I could name a bunch for you, both past and present. That’s not my point, though. They are still vastly outnumbered.

[Note: I’m using the term “black” in this article, rather than the more cumbersome “African-American.” That’s just the word I generally use. If you wish, mentally insert your preferred term.]

I think most fans would agree that the college game has never been better. (I won’t address the pro game here because it’s not really my thing.) The players are incredibly athletic and highly skilled. My first love, the Washington Huskies, boast an exciting, up-tempo brand of basketball, full of highlight-reel dunks and great defense. Isaiah Thomas is perhaps my favorite player in all of basketball (he’s 5’8” like me, but has a slightly better vertical). (Not that this is directly relevant to this discussion, but UW is coached by the highly popular Lorenzo Romar, who is a former Husky player, my favorite college coach, and happens to be black.)

It’s also true that the Huskies have exactly one white player: Brendan Sherrer, a walk-on who averages 2.5 minutes a game and only plays when Washington has a big lead late in the second half. (Of course, this makes him a huge favorite with the “Dawg Pack” student section, which has nicknamed him “the human victory cigar.”)

Given all of the above, why do I still take special notice when I see a white player on another team drain a three or make a great athletic move to the hoop? Not any particular player, just white players in general. Am I weird? Do I have race on the brain for some reason? I can’t figure it out.

I’d also like to make one more observation that may be only tangentially related to the above: I sometimes think about the fact that there are all these white people, fans who can afford the often high tickets prices, in the stands cheering on the young black men on the court.

Look at the student section the next time you catch a game on ESPN. It’s easily 80 to 90 percent white, very few black faces. These are students with parents who, by and large, can afford the high cost of a college education. (I don’t think it’s a secret that many top basketball players come from impoverished backgrounds and probably couldn’t afford college if they weren’t getting a full ride.)

The white students and the other fans are there to cheer on their heroesmost of whom are large black men, men oftentimes covered in tattoos and/or sporting jewelry and urban clothing. And I wonder how these same white people would react if they saw a group of young black men like these walking down the street towards them on a dark night.

They probably wouldn’t cheer or be eager to talk to these young men. They might cross the street.

Again, I don’t know why I have these thoughts from time to time. So I’m interested in how other basketball fans, be they white or black or yellow or green, feel about this situation. Or is it even worth talking about? What do you think? Does race in basketball matter?