Widely regarded as the best white baller of all time, Larry Bird in 2004 opined that the NBA needed more white players since the league's fans were mostly white. "And if you had just a couple of white guys in there, you might get them [the fans] a little excited. But it is a black man's game, and it will be forever. I mean, the greatest athletes in the world are African-American," the Hall of Famer added.
Predictably, Bird's statement sparked reactions from every sector of the league and beyond, highlighting just what a hot-button topic race has become not only in the NBA but also across the rest of the world. Historically, however, the NBA began as an all-white league, the color line finally being broken during the 1950-1951 season. That was the time Chuck Cooper became the first non-white person to be drafted, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton the first to sign an NBA contract, and Earl Lloyd the first to play in an NBA regular-season game. And that signaled a dramatic shift in the tide.
At one point in the late 1970s, the NBA became almost exclusively black. However, the trend has been going in the opposite direction in recent years, with more white players, many of them being foreign superstars, making their mark in the world's premier basketball organization.
Here are some statistics to put in perspective the current state of the white man in the NBA: the highest-paid white man in the NBA is the second highest-paid player in the league. However, the list of 60 highest-paid NBA players today contains only 10 white men. Here are those players:
10 Danilo Gallinari / Denver Nuggets / Salary: $10,146,925 in 2013-14
Danilo Gallinari is nicknamed "Gallo", which is Italian for "rooster". Unfortunately, the 6-foot, ten-inch forward doesn't have a lot to crow about these days. After showing some promise with the New York Knicks, he was traded to the Denver Nuggets in February of 2011. There, he averaged more than 14 ppg in each season from 2010 to 2013. Sadly, he injured his ACL and was declared out for the remainder of the 2012-13 season. Worse, it was recently reported that the operation he underwent didn't sufficiently repair his ACL, thus ruling him out of the 2013-2014 season as well.
However, Danilo is still only 25 years old, and he could still have a bright future ahead of him if he successfully recovers from his injury.
9 Andrea Bargnani / New York Knicks / Salary: $11,862,500 in 2013-14
Italian-born Andrea Bargnani was drafted first overall by Toronto during the 2006 NBA Draft. With the Raptors, Bargnani slowly improved his game, helping bring the team their first-ever division title and their first playoffs berth in five years. Unfortunately, the next season, the Italian was widely criticized for playing poorly, again causing Toronto to be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The Raptors weren't ready to give up on their acquisition, though, and kept developing him. However, in July of 2013, the team decided to look elsewhere and traded Andrea to New York, where the 7-footer injured his elbow and hasn't been back since.
8 Nikola Peković / Minnesota Timberwolves / $12.1 million in 2013-14
Montenegrin cager Nikola Peković won three consecutive Serbian League titles, two Adriatic League and Serbian Cup titles, and was named the 2008 MVP of the Adriatic League. Those accomplishments, among others, were good enough to get Peković selected 31st overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2008 NBA Draft.
Actually, many draft experts considered Nikola to be worth a top 10 pick. Due to his contract situation with his team in Europe, however, he was selected much lower. Nevertheless, he proved his worth when he started at center for the Timberwolves after Darko Miličić was injured in the 2011-2012 season. Peković delivered by averaging 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds in 26.9 minutes on the court per game.
Today, Nikola is recovering from a sore right ankle. His return will certainly be appreciated by Minnesota, who are struggling to close out games in their starting center's absence.
7 David Lee / Golden State Warriors / $13,878,000 in 2013-14
Golden State Warrior David Lee recently experienced a serious disappointment. He had been an All-Star in 2010 and 2013, but this season he was bypassed in favor of Portland's LaMarcus Adridge, Houston's Dwight Howard, and Dallas's Dirk Nowitzki. However, the mere fact that Lee was being touted for an All-Star slot speaks volumes of his viability as a power forward/center. In fact, this 2013-2014 season, David has been averaging 9.8 rpg and 19 ppg on 51.6 percent shooting. Hopefully for Lee, the All-Star snub is just a one-time oversight.
6 Andrew Bogut / Golden State Warriors / $14 million in 2013-14
While it's the high scorers that NBA fans usually cheer for the most, it's often said that it's defensive players who really make the difference between teams winning and losing close ones. And defense is the name of Andrew Bogut's game.
In 2011, Bogut was the NBA's blocks leader, while this 2013-2014 season, if Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson can have his way, his 7-foot center will be in for even more recognition. Jackson has been campaigning for his ward:
He’s [Bogut's] been spectacular, protecting the paint, setting screens, rebounding the basketball, being a leader, being durable. If he’s not here, you’re asking basically a power forward to be a center, and to do it for a lengthy period of time is a recipe for disaster. But he’s been awesome, and certainly should be in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year.
Warriors fans will certainly wait to see if their star center can get the prestigious prize.
5 Brook Lopez / Brooklyn Nets / $14,693,906 in 2013-14
American Brook Lopez, twin brother of Portland Trail Blazer Robin Lopez, is at a crucial period in his career. Just when The Brooklyn Nets center was averaging a team-high 20.7 points, he injured his foot on December 20, 2013 in a game in Philadelphia. Brook had previously hurt the same foot in December 2011 and later had a screw replaced in it during the offseason in 2013.
To permanently repair the fractured fifth metacarsal in his right foot, doctors performed a procedure called a "metatarsal osteotomy", in which another bone was repositioned in his foot to unload and protect the injured area. As a result, Lopez will miss the remainder of the 2013-2014 season, and there's no certainty that the latest procedure will put an end to the talented center's fitness woes.
Surprisingly, the Nets have been winning many games without Lopez, the smaller lineup seemingly working wonders for the team. Only time can tell if there will still be a place in the rotation for Brook when he returns.
4 Kevin Love / Minnesota Timberwolves / $14,693,90 in 2013-14
Power forward/center Kevin Love has been playing in the NBA since 2008, but it was during the 2010-2011 season that he proved that he deserves to be considered among the league's best. That period saw Kevin leading all players in rebounds and being named the NBA's Most Improved Player. And what makes the 6-foot, 10-inch center even more dangerous is his outside shooting, a strength that allowed Love to take home the NBA Three-Point Shootout championship in 2012.
This 2013-2014 season, Kevin has been averaging 25.6 points and 13.2 rebounds per game, creating buzz about him possibly being named the 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player. He's actually a long shot to win the award, but even just being considered is an honor in itself.
3 Marc Gasol / Memphis Grizzlies / $14,860,523 in 2013-14
A player picked 48th overall in the NBA Rookie Draft would be lucky to be given a decent amount of playing time. However, Catalan-Spanish national Marc Gasol has done much more than just that. Despite being picked quite late during the 2007 draft, he somehow carved out a place in the underrated Memphis Grizzlies lineup. In fact, his 53% shooting clip during his rookie season marked the highest field goal percentage at the end of a season for a rookie, breaking the record held by -- guess who? -- his brother, Pau Gasol.
And it's not just shooting that makes Marc such a valuable team member. The younger of the Gasol brothers was named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.
2 Pau Gasol / Los Angeles Lakers / $19,285,850 in 2013-14
Anyone who's wondering what if feels like to constantly be the subject of trade rumors should put themselves in Pau Gasol's shoes. In 2008, he was actually acquired by the Lakers in what, at that time, was considered a scrap deal. Gasol, however, proved he was no mere lineup filler and blended in with his team as though he had always been destined to be part of the Lakers. In fact, Pau played a crucial role as the team won back-t0-back championships in 2009 and 2010. Nevertheless, Pau continued to be the subject of trade rumors, and in fact, would have had to give up his white, purple, and gold uniform had the league not vetoed the trade involving Chris Paul during the 2011-2012 season.
The story is hardly any different today as there is heavy speculation that Gasol will be dealt to the Suns before this season's February 15 trade deadline. Whether or not that exchange pushes through, Pau will likely continue exerting his best efforts to play any team role he's assigned. He always has, anyway.
1 Dirk Nowitzki / Dallas Mavericks / $22,721,381
At 35 years of age, German national Dirk Nowitzki is still displaying the effectiveness that earned him eleven straight All-Star appearances (2002-2012), an NBA Championship (2011), and the MVP Award (2007). For a while, however, he seemed to be suffering from the effects of advanced age and a long NBA career.
In the two seasons following Dallas's title run in 2011, Dirk didn't look like his former outstanding self. And despite his recent revival, to the observant NBA fan, Nowitzki still doesn't play the same as he did at his peak. Instead, Dirk has somehow managed to adapt his style to the reality that he's no longer a young player; he's been passing more, giving his teammates opportunities to contribute.
Today, the Mavs are firmly in the hunt for a playoff spot, and Dirk is proving why he still deserves to be, to this day, among the highest-paid players in the league -- the second-highest paid player in the NBA, in fact.