The National Basketball Association (NBA) has been touted as possibly one of the most diverse organizations in professional sports in North America. According to Jonathon Landrum, Jr., of the Associated Press, the NBA has the “highest percentage of African-American players of any major professional… leagues” in the United States and Canada (Landrum, 2012).
Efforts to diversify the league started in the late 1940s with the 1947 debut of Wataru Misaka, the first Asian-American, as well as the first non-white player, to play in the NBA. In 1950, Chuck Cooper became the first black player to be drafted in the NBA. In that same year, Harold Hunter became the first African-American player in history to sign a contract with an NBA team (Wikipedia). And also in 1950, Earl Lloyd became the first black player to play in a National Basketball Association game (Landrum, 2012). The first Latino to be hired into the League, Puerto Rican Butch Lee, started his career in 1978. And in 1966, Bill Russell became not only its first non-white coach, but also its first African-American coach (Wikipedia).
Diversity has not been a particularly hot button issue for the NBA. Dr. Richard Lapchick, a noted authority on race relations and diversity, conducted a survey in 2011 which found that the league was composed of “78 percent black players, 17 percent whites, four percent Latinos, and one percent Asian” (Wikipedia). While not necessarily in good taste, it was stated by Hall of Fame (white) basketball player Larry Byrd, former Indiana Pacers head coach and current Pacers president of basketball operations, that the league needed “more white players since the league’s fans are mostly white… And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them [the fans, not the guys] 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” (Wikipedia). A back-handed compliment, to be sure; but Byrd’s observation was poignant enough to confirm that the NBA is leaning more towards the end of the spectrum in favor of opportunities for African-American males.
A blemish on the face of this significantly diverse organization though came in 2014 with the Donald Sterling scandal. The owner of the Los Angeles Clippers had a telephone conversation publicized when he was recorded telling his girlfriend to not bring her black friends to Clippers games and to not publicize pictures she had taken of Sterling with Magic Johnson. On April 29, 2014, four days after the Sterling conversation went public, the NBA Commissioner Adam Silver formerly banned Sterling from the NBA, fined him $2.5 million, and endeavored to force Sterling to sell the Clippers (Kim, 2014). Even the Reverend Jesse James was pressuring the NBA’s board of governors to force Sterling to sell the team, as there is “no place for racism within our society” (Kim, 2014).
Huffington Post blogger Grace Ji-Sun Kim commends the NBA Commissioner for his swift, poignant action in dealing with Sterling: “For this moment, it sends a message to the team, the players, and everyone else involved that racism has no place within the NBA…” (Huffington Post, 2014). She also acknowledges that Silver has the authority to act with such urgency, whereas the courts and legislatures do not have such a luxury and must undergo long, drawn-out processes in order for a decision to be reached and action to be taken. But Silver, a white man, demonstrated through his actions and rulings that the NBA has no tolerance whatsoever for racism in its many forms, regardless of the prestige and power the culprit may hold. The way that the NBA dealt with the Donald Sterling scandal allowed the NBA to cement itself as not only a diverse organization which fosters growth and