The composition of race and ethnicity in the National Basketball Association (NBA) has changed throughout the league's history. The first non-white player to play in the league was an Asian American, Wat Misaka, in 1947. African Americans entered the league beginning in 1950. According to racial equality activist Richard Lapchick, the NBA in 2021 was composed of 73.2 percent black players, 16.8 percent white players, 3.1 percent Latino players of any race, and 0.4 percent Asian players. There were 6.6 percent of the players classified as "other" races. The league has the highest percentage of black players of any major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada.
African Americans first appeared in the NBA in 1950. Chuck Cooper was the first black player drafted in the NBA. On April 26, 1950, Harold Hunter signed with the Washington Capitols, becoming the first African American to sign a contract with any NBA team in history. However, Hunter was cut from the team during training camp and did not play professionally. On May 24, Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton was the second African-American player to sign an NBA contract.[a] Earl Lloyd was the first to play in the NBA. Hank DeZonie also played that year. In 1953, Don Barksdale became the first African American to play in an NBA All-Star Game.
With the emergence of African-American players by the 1960s, the NBA game was stylistically being played faster and above the rim. Many of the league's great players were black. At that time, African Americans believed they were limited by an unofficial league quota of four black players per team.
Puerto Rican Butch Lee in 1978 was the first Latino in the league. Wang Zhizhi became the first Chinese player in 2001. In 2010, Jeremy Lin became the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA.
In 2011, Richard Lapchick with The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) of the University of Central Florida reported in their annual Racial and Gender Report Card that 17 percent of the league's players were white, the lowest since the report began in 1990.[b] Hall of Fame player and Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird, who is white, stated in 2004 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," said Bird.
More recently, a number of commentators and fans have remarked on the league's dwindling number of white American players. While a TIDES study found that the NBA was 18.3 percent white in the 2015–16 season, this number also included non-Americans, most notably Europeans. During the entire 1996–97 season, only three NBA teams did not field an American-born white; on the opening day of the 2016–17 season, eight teams did not have a white American on their roster, and an additional 10 teams had only one. At the latter point in time, fewer than 10 percent of NBA players were American-born whites (43 out of a possible 450).
Bill Russell in 1966 became the first non-white and African-American head coach in the NBA. In the late 1980s, teams began hiring black coaches in large numbers. At the start of the 2015–16 season, there were seven black head coaches in the league, down 50 percent from three years earlier, and the fewest in 16 years. At the conclusion of the 2016-17 season there were eight African-American head coaches.
Robert Johnson of the Charlotte Bobcats (now known as the Charlotte Hornets) was the first black majority team owner in the NBA in 2004–05. He was succeeded as Bobcats owner in 2010–11 by another African American, Michael Jordan. In 2013–14, Jordan and Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé, who is Indian, marked the first time in the history of major pro sports leagues in the U.S. that there were two non-white majority owners in a league. The number of NBA teams with non-white majority owners increased to three in September 2019 with the league approval of Taiwanese–Canadian entrepreneur Joseph Tsai's purchase of Russian Mikhail Prokhorov's 51 percent share in the Brooklyn Nets. Tsai had previously held a 49 percent interest in the team, having acquired that stake from Prokhorov in 2018, and exercised an option to purchase the remaining interest before its 2021 expiration date.
Among NBA fans during the 2013–14 season, African Americans (844 minutes) and Asian Americans (719) spent the most time watching the league, followed by Hispanics (of any race, 390) and whites (290). Furthermore, according to a Nielsen's survey, the NBA has the highest share of black viewers, with 45 percent of its viewers being black and 40 percent of viewers being white, making it the only top North American sport that did not have a white majority audience.
During the 2016–17 season, 66 percent of the league's viewers were racial and ethnic minorities. Its audience was 47 percent blacks, 34 percent whites, 11 percent Hispanics (of any race), and 8 percent Asians.
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