A new study says arriving to the NBA is more likely for players that come from wealthier, two-parent families, all but eschewing an outdated, presumptive narrative that most elite black athletes overcome poverty on their way to the top.
Based on “news stories, social networks and public records”, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a Harvard-educated economist who is a quantitative analyst at Google, constructs an argument that should change the way we imagine how professional athletes break through.
“Growing up in a wealthier neighborhood is a major, positive predictor of reaching the N.B.A. for both black and white men. Is this driven by sons of N.B.A. players like the Warriors’ brilliant Stephen Curry? Nope. Take them out and the result is similar.”
Though, say, a player like LeBron James, who grew up poor and was born in Ohio when his mother was just 16, emerged to become the league’s best player, there are more examples of players like Michael Jordan and Chris Paul, who grew in in two-parent, middle class homes.
“These results push back against the stereotype of a basketball player driven by an intense desire to escape poverty,” he says.
Stephens-Davidowitz says this makes the unlikely story of LeBron James as much of a social phenomenon as it is an athletic one.
In fact, Stephens-Davidowitz argues that poverty is an inhibitor to success, athletic and otherwise.
“Poor children in contemporary America,” he writes, still have substandard nutrition, holding back their development. “They have higher infant mortality rates and lower average birth weights, and recent research has found that poverty in modern America inhibits height. In basketball, the importance of every inch is enormous. I estimate that each additional inch almost doubles your chances of making the N.B.A.”