Sunday, November 3, 2013

Most black NBA players didn't grow up in poverty

[LeBron] James was born poor to a 16-year-old single mother in Akron, Ohio. The conventional wisdom is that his background is typical for an N.B.A. player. ... But it isn’t.

I recently calculated the probability of reaching the N.B.A., by race, in every county in the United States. ... 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. ...

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. ...

From 1960 to 1990, nearly half of blacks were born to unmarried parents. I would estimate that during this period roughly twice as many black N.B.A. players were born to married parents as unmarried parents. In other words, for every LeBron James, there was a Michael Jordan, born to a middle-class, two-parent family in Brooklyn, and a Chris Paul, the second son of middle-class parents in Lewisville, N.C., who joined Mr. Paul on an episode of “Family Feud” in 2011. ...

[The] data suggest that on average any motivational edge in hungriness [from growing up in poverty] is far outweighed by the advantages of kids from higher socioeconomic classes.

What are these advantages? The first is in developing what economists call noncognitive skills like persistence, self-regulation and trust. We have grown accustomed to hearing about the importance of these qualities for success in school, but players in team sports rely on many of the same skills. ...

The second relevant advantage of a relatively prosperous upbringing is height. The economist Robert W. Fogel has demonstrated the impact of improved early life nutrition on adult height over successive generations. Poor children in contemporary America still have substandard nutrition, holding back their development. ... I estimate that each additional inch almost doubles your chances of making the N.B.A.