It's easier to hit a half-court shot blindfolded than it is to talk about racial issues without offending someone, which is why Tyrone Terrell isn't shocked at how many names he's been called lately. Ever since Terrell, chairman of the African American Leadership Council in St. Paul, Minn., suggested last week that the Timberwolves had intentionally loaded their roster with white players to appeal to Caucasian fans, waves of angry comments have been rolling in. "We've had about 2,500 hits on our web page asking me to resign and saying I'm a racist," he says. "I'm neither bothered nor surprised by that."
If you look only at the most basic numbers, you might think that Terrell's suspicions are well-founded, since the Wolves are a racial anomaly by NBA standards. Nearly 80% of players in the league are African-American, but only five of Minnesota's 15 are. The Wolves are so white that they've been called the Cream Team, a term that's even part of the handle for a Twitter account started by fans. "How did we get a roster that resembles the 1955 [Minneapolis] Lakers?" Terrell asked in a Minneapolis Star Tribune article last week. "I think everything is a strategy. Nothing happens by [accident]."
But does it really make sense to think that general manager David Kahn or owner Glen Taylor expect fans to judge the players more by the color of their skin than the content of their record? Kahn has called the charge "patently false," and logic suggests the team's makeup is probably more the result of the NBA's international scouting than any grand design. The nonblack players on the roster from outside the 50 states include two Russians, forward Andrei Kirilenko and guard Alexey Shved; a Spaniard, point guard Ricky Rubio; center Nikola Pekovic from Montenegro; and guard J.J. Barea from Puerto Rico.
During the off-season Minnesota made lucrative offers to an African-American free agent, forward Jordan Hill, as well as forward Nicolas Batum, a French-born black player. (See how complicated racial categorizing becomes?) But Hill declined and Batum, a restricted free agent, returned to Portland when the Blazers matched the offer. Also, some of the most popular players in Wolves history, including Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Tony Campbell, are African-American. There's no reason for team executives to think that limiting the number of black players would be a solid marketing strategy.
Still, Terrell isn't alone in his concern. Ron Edwards, former head of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission, told the Star Tribune that he found it "somewhat disturbing" when he saw only one black player on the floor at times for the Wolves last season, and that he too believes it's part of a calculated strategy. Terrell says some fans, particularly in the black community, have thanked him for speaking up.
But it's more likely that they are reacting the way people often do when a minority group begins to upset the status quo. African-American players have been the majority in the NBA for so long that when another group begins making inroads, some find it objectionable. Sound familiar? It's essentially American society with the roles reversed. The fact that the Timberwolves have relatively few black players doesn't necessarily mean anyone has been unfairly treated, though Terrell is unmoved by such discussions. "People ask me what I would say if the team wins the NBA championship," he says. "I'd still say it's wrong."
It only seems wrong to those who have become so accustomed to seeing black players dominate the league that they have a difficult time accepting a team that looks different, as the Wolves do. Their best leaper is probably forward Chase Budinger, a fair-skinned redhead who could hold his own in any dunk contest. Their flashiest player is Rubio, as creative with the ball as any player, black or white, schooled on American asphalt. Their best player, All-Star power forward Kevin Love, is among the most skilled big men in the league. It's unfair to assume that a team like the Wolves could have been assembled with anything other than winning in mind.
None of the team's African-American players seem troubled by the makeup of the team, but in a broader sense there have been hints of a certain resistance in the league, perhaps a subconscious one, to the change from the way things used to be. When Asian-American point guard Jeremy Lin introduced the world to Linsanity last season, opposing players seemed to give him credit only grudgingly, and there was a concerted effort to prove that he wasn't as good as advertised—remember how Deron Williams seemed to take Lin's success so personally that he played him like it was Game 7 of the Finals? Or how the Heat focused all their defensive might against Lin? It felt as if something more was at stake than just the game at hand. Even his then teammate Carmelo Anthony referred to the offer Houston made to Lin as a restricted free agent last summer as "ridiculous." When was the last time you heard one player be anything but supportive of another player's chance for a major payday?
Given the national climate, it's not so surprising that a roster like the Timberwolves' wouldn't pass without notice. But it's a stretch to assume that it was put together with race in mind. Some issues aren't that black and white.
Timberwolves critics are reacting the way people often do when a minority group upsets the status quo.