If you have ever coached a group of young Caucasian players then you have most likely heard the question „Why can’t I dunk like this black player?“. Whenever I start to coach new athletes, I always stumble upon the same question sooner or later – for a young basketball player, being able to dunk is the first thing on the bucket list. It is not bad though – any kind of motivation is good if it makes you put some extra effort into the training. However, when you work hard for a long time and suddenly, an African-American opponent makes that one move look so easy, then the question of inequality rises.
White men have been mocked by their inability to jump for decades, every basketball fan should remember the amusing 90s movie „White Men Can’t Jump“. The one where one white guy is trying to prove to everyone that he can play basketball and Wesley Snipes weares way too revealing tank tops. It is obvious that African-American and Caucasian players are not equal when it comes to their physique. Several studies have highlighted the fact that African-American males can jump higher than their Caucasian counterparts. However, there is still a lot of confusion as to why exactly this is. This article is not about racism, it is about jumping ability and athleticism and pointing out the things we have to accept. Because even though I respect athletes who give their maximum effort, I can never promise my players that they will become Michael Jordan if they work hard enough.
Genetic differences between African-American and Caucasian players (i.e. things you cannot control as a player)
Following are some inherent characteristics that generally benefit the jumping ability of African-American players:
- Higher center of gravity: affects how fast the athlete can move his feet when hitting the ground, provides better balance (1)
- Longer legs: (as opposed to longer torsos in white people) long legs help in developing speed, whereas torsos are just extra weight (2). This correlates with vertical jump height (3), provides greater stride length and longer acceleration paths (which is crucial for jumping)
- Narrower hips: more efficient stride
- Less body fat = more muscle mass: larger quadriceps muscles and more developed musculature in general
- Up to 20% more testosterone: favours the feneration of more explosive energy, making them more active and masculine, and making them mature faster *
- Faster reflexes: for example patellar tendon reflex . This reflex is a reflex of proprioception which is helpful for maintaining balance and support in walking and jumping
- More fast twitch muscles: up to two-fold difference between blacks and whites in terms of anaerobic enzymes, this enhances anaerobic performance (4)
- Longer arm span: helps with improved execution of the dunking movement
- Comparatively long tendons and short muscle bellies: tendons have more elasticity than muscles which give greater energy storage
* Black babies are more advanced in motor development (even when living in poverty). By the age of 6 black children already excel in sports that require a short burst of power and they perform better in running at high-speed and the vertical jump (5)
„Talent is an accident of genes – and a responsibility“ – Alan Rickman
By reading the previous paragraphs, one should not give up and change his or her sport. Or take things self-evidently and quit putting effort in the training due to absence of „good genes“. Without proper training, no advantage is clear.
Moreover, there is not one certainty that can be brought forward as a main reason for black players being better at dunking, likewise, it is not possible to clearly predict who will become a great athlete. There are many discussion points: nature vs nurture, environment and culture, or how the game is presented – as a matter of life and death or just fun entertainment etc. John Wooden, legendary UCLA basketball coach has said“ Black athletes have just a little more ambition“. Stereotypes are made to be broken. These days, athletic basketball players come from different backgrounds from all over the world from China to Spain and Argentina to Finland. Just because someone has a genetic advantage does not mean that others should give up. However, facts tell a different story: already in 1997, 34% of white middle school and high school athletes stated that they do not believe they have a chance against African-Americans in basketball or football African-Americans are especially appraised for their athleticism and they make up over 75% of all NBA players (6), while the percentage of white NBA players is 19%. In NCAA the applicable numbers are 57% and 29% (7).
Perhaps there is a swimming coach out there who has a similar problem: maybe he has to reply to hundreds of questions concerning the fact why Caucasian athletes are more successful swimmers than African-Americans. Come to think of it, every race has its own characteristics: Asians have good flexibility and reaction ability so they are good in gymnastics and diving, Northern Europeans have great upper body strength and are known for their good performance in field events, also higher fat percentage gives them an advantage in swimming. People from the Oceanian region tend to be very big and have an advantage in American football and rugby. Africans are known for their running ability etc. But it is important to keep in mind that there are always some people who make it against the odds: Christophe Lemaitre looked like someone from outer space when he was in the 100m finals next to all the black sprinters. I remember seeing Brent Barry jumping like superman from the free throw line in 1996 and winning the All-Star Slam Dunk Contest . Barry has stated in his interviews that all the spare time he had, he spent it playing in the inner city with black guys and finding his game.
A quote from „White Men Can’t Jump“ says: “A white man wants to win first, look good second. A black man wants to look good first, win second“. It is true that on a large scale, African-Americans are known for their jumping ability because they tend to make it more about show and entertainment while Caucasian players often focus too much on carrying out the act without any mistakes. One thing is for sure: you have to have strong legs in order to dunk and no genes will be helpful when proper work-outs are not implemented. White men can obviously dunk but they just have to stop comparing themselves with their black colleagues.