Timberwolves: Pale in comparison to the rest of the NBA

When Wolves offseason moves built a squad that's glaringly white, skeptics chimed in about motives.

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From left, the Wolves Lou Amundson, Chase Budinger, Jose Barea, Alexey Shved and Nikola Pekovic.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Dante Cunningham noticed when he reported for work in Minnesota this fall that his new Timberwolves team is unlike any for which he has ever played.

"Day One, we were all in the elevator and I kind of looked up," he said about a crowded ride with many of his new teammates, "and I was just like, 'Where is everybody?' "

Everybody, in this case, being black teammates. Come opening night on Friday, Cunningham will be one of five black players on a 15-man Wolves team that has reversed the National Basketball Association's historical racial percentages with a roster that is the league's whitest since the Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s.

Raised in Washington, D.C., and educated at Villanova, Cunningham played his first four professional seasons for three different teams in a league where American-born black players constituted 78 percent of roster spots last season and have been at least 75 percent since 1991-92.

Twin Cities black leaders have noticed, suggesting the franchise strategically has rolled back the calendar by decades in a league that long has been at the forefront of diversity among America's professional sports leagues.

"How did we get a roster that resembles the 1955 Lakers?" asked Tyrone Terrell, chairman of St. Paul's African American leadership council. "I think everything is a strategy. Nothing happens by happenstance."

That strategy, Terrell and others in the black community believe, is to sell tickets to the Wolves' fan base, which is overwhelmingly white.

"Patently false,'' said David Kahn, Wolves president of basketball operations. He and other Timberwolves executives instead call it a coincidence of circumstance and a purposeful plan to scour the globe for the best players they can possibly obtain. They will start the season with players from Russia, Montenegro, Spain and Puerto Rico, a total of five international players among a group that also includes five white American-born players.

Included is injured All-Star Kevin Love, the game's greatest American-born white player -- a vanishing species in the league -- since John Stockton starred for Utah in the 1990s.

When everyone's healthy, the Wolves will start Love alongside Europeans Ricky Rubio, Andrei Kirilenko, Nikola Pekovic and American Brandon Roy, a three-time former All-Star who in attempting a retirement comeback on degenerative knees is their only black starter.

Roy said he never noticed the distinction until a friend mentioned it after he signed as a free agent with the Wolves in July.

"It's just basketball," Roy said. "I never really had to feel like I'm the only black guy out here. I've played on teams that maybe had all black guys and the feeling is just the same when I'm out there on the floor playing with these guys.

"The only problem we have is in the weight room, arguing over what music we're going to listen to."

A changing game

From a historical perspective, the NBA long has been the leader in America's professional sports in providing opportunity for blacks. It was the first to have a black head coach, a black general manager and the first to have blacks claim more than 80 percent of roster spots in a single season.

For many blacks, the NBA is identified as an important part of this country's civil rights movement.

In 1957, the league was 93 percent white. The number of black players rose throughout the 1960s, even though many believed there was an unspoken quota system among league owners that former Celtics great Bill Russell, the NBA's first black head coach, once described as "you're allowed to play two blacks at home, three on the road and five when you're behind."

The number of black players increased dramatically in the 1970s. By the early 1980s, the NBA's popularity sagged, and some blamed it on too many blacks playing before a fan base that was quite white.

In 1984, the league promoted to commissioner a lawyer named David Stern, who insisted teams remain color blind when building rosters. Later that season, the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers played the first of consecutive NBA Finals in which race -- the Celtics had eight white players including superstar Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge on their 11-man roster, the Lakers with stars Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy were perceived as the black team -- was a prominent story line.

The league's television ratings and revenues soared.

In the present-day NBA, the number of American-born white players continues to diminish -- 85 were on rosters in 1990, 48 by 2005 and nine were regular starters a season ago -- while the sports blossoms globally and the number of international players rises.

Turning back the clock?

Ron Edwards, a longtime Minneapolis civil rights advocate, said he remembers a day last winter when he was watching the Wolves and the only black player on the floor was Wes Johnson, a situation he calls "somewhat disturbing." His sentiments grew stronger, he said, as he watched the team's roster grow even more white this offseason.

"It raises some real questions to me about what's really intended," Edwards said. "I think, personally, that it was calculated. Is this an attempt to get fans back in the stands? Minnesota, after all, is a pretty white state.''

Terrell calls it "scary" that the Wolves would assemble a roster almost 70 percent white in a sport so dominated by blacks. For Edwards, the numbers trouble him by the "historical view," what he calls a "nullification of diversity and a reversal of history."

Both men say their concerns are heightened by the fact the team does not have a black in a position of power in the front office. The team is one of the NBA's few without a black general manager, assistant general manager or head coach; the Wolves have had two black head coaches in their history: Sidney Lowe and Dwane Casey.

Team owner Glen Taylor did not respond to a request seeking comment.

Kahn said he has "consistently" believed that the team's front office should become more diverse and said he is "working behind the scenes" to make that happen this season.

Regarding the concerns voiced by some in the black community, Kahn said: "Well, I can say everybody is entitled to their opinion, but I don't think they're entitled to their own set of facts. There's absolutely no fact that matches that statement. ... The last thing I'm going to do is become defensive about it. In this case, I have nothing to be defensive about.

"Every decision we've made here has been intended to make the team as good as can be, as quickly as can be.''

In search of players

The Wolves targeted free agents Nicolas Batum and Jordan Hill -- both young, promising black players -- the moment free agency began last summer.

They painstakingly re- configured their roster so they could make Batum a $45 million-plus offer sheet that Portland matched. They offered Hill more money than his team did, but he chose to return to the powerful Lakers, and a chance to win a NBA title.

"What if Batum and Hill were here?" Kahn asked.

Instead, the Wolves' major offseason signing was Kirilenko, a former All-Star who's seven years older but has a game similar to that of Batum, to a two-year, $20 million contract.

"We're dealing with guys we thought could help us," veteran coach Rick Adelman said. "It just happened that's how the whole thing worked out. I don't think there's anybody we have here who isn't a proven NBA player.''

Adelman has referred to his players as a "smart team, a very smart team," a tag that likely will be repeated often this season in a world where black players often are stereotyped as athletic and white players as smart. He said players were not acquired specifically to fit his renowned and intricate passing offense.

In fact, Adelman scoffs when his system is mentioned and says there is no such thing. He says he has adjusted his offense to his talent for all of his 971 NBA career victories, eighth all-time.

"Rick likes good players, period," Kahn said. "Who doesn't?"

Both Kahn and Adelman insist each player individually was chosen for his unique skills and collectively for their athleticism, whether, like bouncy Kirilenko, Chase Budinger and Alexey Shved, they are white or they are black.

A byproduct has been what coaches and players alike consider a unified, improved locker room rid of what Love last summer called "bad blood," a reference to surly white center Darko Milicic rather than black Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph.

"Obviously, our team is a little unique in [racial makeup], but everybody on our team gets along and everybody on our team can really play," guard Will Conroy said. "You've got a guy like Chase Budinger who can jump out of the gym and then you've got Brandon who's not jumping out of the gym, which is the opposite. Usually you have the black guys jumping out of the gym, but on our team it's switched around."

Cunningham has been asked since that first day in the elevator more than once about the last time he was on a team on which the white players outnumbered the black players.

"Honestly, I couldn't tell you I've had more than two or three white guys on a team before," Cunningham said. "It just happened to get dealt this way. There's just as many athletic white guys on this team as there are black guys who are athletic. It's no big deal. We're here to play ball, so regardless of whether we're white or black or yellow or purple, we're going to go out and play."

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