The narrative is a strong one and something linked to the NBA today through guys like Derrick Rose — he grew up in a poor area of Chicago where basketball was his escape from the troubles around him. The game eventually provided him an escape from the neighborhood. LeBron James has a similar tale, a poor family and a single mother who used basketball to escape that life.
There is a sense among fans (and even some in the league) that most NBA players have a similar story, that a drive to get them out of tough circumstances pushed them to the long hours on the court needed to hone their skills and make the league.
Except that’s not really true.
In a fascinating piece in Sunday’s New York Times, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz went though tons of data on NBA players and where they were born and raised, comparing it to the overall populations where they were born, and what he found was that having a little bit of money in the family increased a child’s chances of making the league.
The results? 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….
But this tells us only where N.B.A. players began life. Can we learn more about their individual backgrounds? In the 1980s, when the majority of current N.B.A. players were born, about 25 percent of African-Americans were born to mothers under age 20; 60 percent were born to unwed mothers. I did an exhaustive search for information on the parents of the 100 top-scoring black players born in the 1980s, relying on news stories, social networks and public records. Putting all the information together, my best guess is that black N.B.A. players are about 30 percent less likely than the average black male to be born to an unmarried mother and a teenage mother.
Why? There is one obvious reason: Proper nutrition at a young age has been show to lead to increased height, something confirmed in multiple studies. Families with the money to properly feed their children healthy foods get taller kids, and height helps in basketball.
More than that studies also have shown children from better off families tend to do better at developing, as the story puts it, “skills like persistence, self-regulation and trust.” Again things that help one reach the level of professional in a sport. There are other factors in here as well; you really need to go read the entire article to see the argument fleshed out.
Obviously, there are stories all over the bell curve on this. There are guys like former NBA player Derek Anderson who was homeless and on his own at 14 but had the drive to make the NBA. There are wealthier youth who may have the physical skills but not the drive to hone them.
Still, it’s an interesting idea that our preconceived notions of the average NBA player often miss the mark like a Michael Kidd-Gillchrist jumper. Having some money helps people on the path, as it so often does.