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.

hide

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

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

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."

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Philadelphia 24 FINAL
Washington 27
San Diego 38 FINAL
San Francisco 35
Minnesota 12:00 PM
Miami
Baltimore 12:00 PM
Houston
Detroit 12:00 PM
Chicago
Cleveland 12:00 PM
Carolina
Atlanta 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Green Bay 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Kansas City 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh
New England 12:00 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 3:05 PM
St. Louis
Buffalo 3:25 PM
Oakland
Indianapolis 3:25 PM
Dallas
Seattle 7:30 PM
Arizona
Denver 12/22/14 7:30 PM
Cincinnati
Phoenix 99 FINAL
New York 90
Portland 114 FINAL
New Orleans 88
Utah 86 FINAL
Charlotte 104
Atlanta 104 FINAL
Houston 97
San Antonio 93 FINAL
Dallas 99
Indiana 73 FINAL
Denver 76
Milwaukee 102 FINAL
LA Clippers 106
Arizona 2 FINAL
Los Angeles 4
Colorado 5 FINAL
Buffalo 1
Philadelphia 7 FINAL
Toronto 4
Ottawa 1 FINAL
Montreal 4
Washington 4 FINAL
New Jersey 0
Tampa Bay 1 FINAL
NY Islanders 3
Florida 1 FINAL
Pittsburgh 3
NY Rangers 3 FINAL(SO)
Carolina 2
Chicago 2 FINAL(SO)
Columbus 3
Nashville 6 FINAL(OT)
Minnesota 5
Calgary 2 FINAL(OT)
Vancouver 3
St. Louis 2 FINAL(OT)
San Jose 3
VA Commonwealth 68 FINAL
Cincinnati 47
Charlotte 78 FINAL
Georgetown 81
SMU 62 FINAL
Michigan 51
Louisville 76 FINAL
Western Ky 67
Mount St Marys 45 FINAL
American Univ 46
Abilene Christian 33 FINAL
Boise State 77
UMass Lowell 63 FINAL
Duquesne 79
South Alabama 65 FINAL
IUPUI 71
Ohio State 74 FINAL
North Carolina 82
Massachusetts 65 FINAL
Providence 85
Syracuse 77 FINAL
Villanova 82
Citadel 61 FINAL
Virginia Tech 64
Belmont 73 FINAL
Fairfield 61
St Bonaventure 69 FINAL
Binghamton 51
Montreat 64 FINAL
Campbell 90
Delaware 74 FINAL
Fair-Dickinson 76
South Florida 62 FINAL
Florida State 75
Vanderbilt 60 FINAL
Georgia Tech 65
SC State 71 FINAL
Houston 63
Missouri 59 FINAL
Illinois 62
Truett-McConnell 55 FINAL
Jacksonville 84
Toledo 83 FINAL
McNeese State 69
Elon 71 FINAL
UNC Greensboro 64
Drexel 68 FINAL
Penn State 73
St Francis-PA 73 FINAL
Rutgers 68
Albany 64 FINAL
Yale 60
PSU-Beaver 74 FINAL
Longwood 106
Eastern Ill 60 FINAL
Indiana State 56
Indiana 82 FINAL
Butler 73
Marshall 58 FINAL
Arkansas State 67
Lafayette 69 FINAL
Kansas 96
Oral Roberts 63 FINAL
Memphis 78
Western Mich 61 FINAL
Northwestern 67
Delaware State 70 FINAL
Oregon 83
Fla Atlantic 56 FINAL
St Francis-NY 61
Arkansas Tech 57 FINAL
Stephen F Austin 94
Howard Payne 50 FINAL
Texas-Arlington 89
UMBC 66 FINAL
Kennesaw St 53
St Josephs (IN) 54 FINAL
Chicago State 76
Eastern Mich 77 FINAL
Missouri State 65
UCLA 44 FINAL
Kentucky 83
UC Davis 81 FINAL
Air Force 75
Houston Baptist 67 FINAL
UC Riverside 78
Davidson 80 FINAL
Coll of Charleston 68
USC Upstate 53 FINAL
Miss State 51
NC Central 94 FINAL
Miss Valley St 60
Illinois State 77 FINAL
Murray State 89
Louisiana 85 FINAL
Northwestern St 89
Oakland 77 FINAL
Pittsburgh 81
Detroit 55 FINAL
Rhode Island 69
Presbyterian 60 FINAL
UT Martin 77
Monmouth 74 FINAL
Wagner 66
Southern U 39 FINAL
Wyoming 57
Iowa State 83 FINAL
Drake 54
Wake Forest 50 FINAL
Florida 63
High Point 80 FINAL
James Madison 71
Texas Southern 71 FINAL
Michigan State 64
New Hampshire 60 FINAL
Sacred Heart 73
Northeastern 78 FINAL
Santa Clara 72
Huston-Tillotson 56 FINAL
Texas State 90
Purdue 63 FINAL
Notre Dame 94
Prairie View 44 FINAL
Sam Houston St 61
Xavier 88 FINAL
Auburn 89
Bluffton 53 FINAL
Akron 92
NJIT 84 FINAL
Central Conn St 76
Hofstra 77 FINAL
Columbia 82
Boston Univ 62 FINAL
Dayton 78
Iona 81 FINAL
George Mason 86
Valparaiso 75 FINAL
IUPU-Ft Wayne 72
Texas A&M 64 FINAL
Kansas State 71
Morgan State 69 FINAL
Manhattan 73
Saint Josephs 75 FINAL
Marist 58
East Carolina 54 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 66
Richmond 65 FINAL
Pepperdine 63
La Salle 67 FINAL
Towson 53
Incarnate Word 110 FINAL
UMKC 104
CS-Bakersfield 59 FINAL
Idaho State 50
Iowa 44 FINAL
Northern Iowa 56
Milwaukee 56 FINAL
SIU Edwardsville 61
Long Beach State 68 FINAL
Texas 78
TX-San Antonio 57 FINAL
TCU 88
SE Missouri St 67 FINAL
Arkansas 84
Lehigh 84 FINAL
Arizona State 81
New Mexico 69 FINAL
New Mexico St 67
Oklahoma 67 FINAL
Washington 69
Utah Valley U 61 FINAL
Weber State 73
Jacksonville St 60 FINAL
Northern Colorado 69
St Edwards 55 FINAL
Grand Canyon 81
NC State 69 FINAL
West Virginia 83
TX A&M-CC 75 FINAL
CS-Northridge 68
Cal Poly 50 FINAL
Gonzaga 63
Fresno State 68 FINAL
Pacific 71
Montana State 60 FINAL
Portland 87
Ball State 57 FINAL
San Diego St 70
South Dakota St 68 FINAL
Utah State 65
Stanford 77 FINAL
BYU 79
Utah 59 FINAL
UNLV 46
Nevada 3 FINAL
Louisiana 16
Utah State 21 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 6
(23) Utah 45 FINAL
Colorado State 10
Western Mich 24 FINAL
Air Force 38
South Alabama 28 FINAL
Bowling Green 33
BYU 12/22/14 1:00 PM
Memphis
Marshall 12/23/14 5:00 PM
Northern Ill
Navy 12/23/14 8:30 PM
San Diego St
Central Mich 12/24/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Rice
Illinois 12/26/14 12:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
Rutgers 12/26/14 3:30 PM
North Carolina
NC State 12/26/14 7:00 PM
UCF
Cincinnati 12/27/14 12:00 PM
Virginia Tech
Duke 12/27/14 1:10 PM
(15) Arizona State
Miami-Florida 12/27/14 3:00 PM
So Carolina
Boston College 12/27/14 3:30 PM
Penn State
(25) Nebraska 12/27/14 7:00 PM
(24) USC
Livingstone 77 FINAL
UNC Greensboro 81
Loyola-Chicago 58 FINAL
Dartmouth 70
Georgia Tech 65 FINAL
St Francis-NY 59
Auburn 49 FINAL
St Johns 56
East Tenn St 56 FINAL
Jacksonville St 57
Western Mich 71 FINAL
Detroit 57
Cal-Irvine 42 FINAL
Wright State 80
Gardner-Webb 47 FINAL
Kennesaw St 50
(7) Stanford 40 FINAL
(11) Tennessee 59
Alabama A&M 47 FINAL
Ole Miss 71
Central Michigan 45 FINAL
(1) South Carolina 80
Nebraska Omaha 50 FINAL
Creighton 67
FIU 69 FINAL
Western Carolina 83
Houston 65 FINAL
Nicholls 47
St Thomas Aquinas 45 FINAL
Army 70
St Bonaventure 72 FINAL
Niagara 60
Texas State 57 FINAL
Stetson 75
George Mason 65 FINAL
ULM 53
Grambling 38 FINAL
Kansas State 61
Missouri 79 FINAL
Wake Forest 64
Robert Morris 59 FINAL
Cornell 70
Air Force 44 FINAL
Abilene Christian 80
Hampton 53 FINAL
James Madison 85
American Univ 64 FINAL
MD-Eastern Shore 52
Texas Southern 63 FINAL
TX A&M-CC 68
Tenn Tech 49 FINAL
NC A&T 54
Presbyterian 45 FINAL
NC Central 33
Penn 58 FINAL
Drexel 67
Lipscomb 38 FINAL
Xavier 62
Vermont 40 FINAL
Green Bay 60
Charleston Southern 70 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 80
Ohio Christian 62 FINAL
Akron 97
Jacksonville 62 FINAL
Murray State 80
(17) Rutgers 66 FINAL
Iona 58
Indiana 88 FINAL
Oakland 61
Indiana State 64 FINAL
SMU 55
Denver 51 FINAL
Purdue 65
TX-San Antonio 48 FINAL
Texas Tech 64
UCF 57 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 79
Campbell 66 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 55
Florida A&M 67 FINAL
SE Louisiana 69
Northwestern St 61 FINAL
Jackson State 62
Lehigh 61 FINAL
Arizona State 81
Valparaiso 65 FINAL
SIU-Edwardsville 77
Liberty 60 FINAL
Minnesota 74
Wofford 60 FINAL
North Florida 68
Montana State 61 FINAL
Washington St 82
Marshall 56 FINAL
(22) West Virginia 69
Morgan State 40 FINAL
Chattanooga 55
Northeastern 65 FINAL
Harvard 67
Furman 51 FINAL
(15) Georgia 58
(18) Michigan State 65 FINAL
(9) Baylor 84
Ohio U 52 FINAL
Massachusetts 59
Prairie View 48 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 86
Toledo 64 FINAL
Southern Ill 48
High Point 57 FINAL
(12) Nebraska 83
Winthrop 20 FINAL
Wichita State 66
William Jewell 59 FINAL
UMKC 51
Louisiana Tech 52 FINAL
Utah 67
Southern Utah 51 FINAL
Gonzaga 70
Hawaii 85 FINAL
Loyola Marymount 76
San Jose St 62 FINAL
San Francisco 77
CS-Northridge 65 FINAL
San Diego State 54
Norfolk State 36 FINAL
East Carolina 65
Saint Peters 49 FINAL
Loyola-Maryland 59
Arizona 60 FINAL
Stephen F Austin 72
Northwestern 92 FINAL
Eastern Illinois 44
Oral Roberts 52 FINAL
Wisconsin 70
Florida Atlantic 44 FINAL
New Mexico St 57
La Salle 76 FINAL
Georgia State 68
(16) Oregon State 73 FINAL
Nevada 50
Sacred Heart 72 FINAL
Villanova 49
Delaware 59 FINAL
Cincinnati 67
Troy 75 FINAL
Tennessee St 71
Saint Louis 68 FINAL
Utah Valley U 66
Washington 74 FINAL
UC-Riverside 71
Pacific 43 FINAL
Long Beach St 53
Old Dominion 69 FINAL
Miami-Ohio 63
Austin Peay 62 FINAL
Montana 83
Lewis-Clark State 48 FINAL
Idaho 74
(21) Miss State 73 FINAL
Illinois-Chicago 36
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Who is your favorite pro sports coach in the Twin Cities?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close