Worth the Distraction?

War Production Co-Ordinating Committee poster from World War II

War Production Co-Ordinating Committee poster from World War II

League trends aside, nearly a dozen execs say privately that the media glare that would come with a Collins signing just isn’t worth the distraction to most teams. Locker rooms are fragile places already and not always receptive to change, and though NBA players as a whole are extremely professional with the media, it’s not their favorite half hour of the day. The easier it is, the better. If he were a rotation player or better, the thinking goes, the cost/benefit analysis might produce a different outcome.

– Kevin Arnovitz, What we’re learning from Jason Collins

It’s been several months since Jason Collins “came out” to the NBA and the general public. Kevin Arnovitz’s post at True Hoop is worth reading for it tackles many important issues.  But, as you may have guessed, my focus is on that excerpted paragraph above.

In particular, at what point does talent outweigh distraction? And when should a “distraction” be perceived as distraction?

By nature, whenever I confront a current-day issue, I instantly think back to previous events that help shed light on the situation. So, it may surprise you that The Onion provides the best summation of American society’s general attitude toward talent and distraction. In their always satirical fashion, The Onion  in Our Dumb Century tackled America’s entry into World War II with the following headline:

Women, Negroes found temporarily useful

Now what does this have to do with Jason Collins and the NBA?

Well, you see, the Arsenal of Democracy prior to entering World War II was paralyzed by economic depression and then stagnation. Women and Americans of African descent were the last hired and first fired in such dire circumstances; and they certainly weren’t encouraged to be strong and assertive like the “We Can Do It!” poster from World War II calls for.

Sure a white woman or black person of either gender could be just as (in)competent as a white man in any number of areas, but justifying giving them a spot ahead of a white man when they were just as competent was not acceptable. With all other things equal, the situation was demonstrably unequal due to gender and race. It’d take a special talent (or circumstances) to upend this situation.

But when America was stretched to its limit, the distractions of race and gender were cast aside and (unsurprisingly) women and African-Americans proved instrumental in the United States coming out triumphant in World War II. And, temporarily, their importance was trumpeted:



(Of course, as soon as the war was over, women and negroes found out their usefulness was indeed temporary. They were expelled en masse from factories and the military to make way for white males returning to “normal.” Obviously, the war-time experience was not forgotten, however, as the two groups successfully fought for greater and more equal inclusion in American society.)

So, what has any of this have to do with basketball? Desperation making distractions worthwhile.

During World War II, the National Basketball League (NBL) actually used several black players in its previously all-white league. The catalyst? The war-time draft sucked so many talented white players away that the desperate NBL was forced to use black players to fill in the gaps.

In 1947, the New York Knicks in the newly formed Basketball Association of America (BAA) were desperate for any good talent and so they gave former college star Wat Misaka a try. The Japanese-American was cut after a mere three games posting an uninspiring (even for the era) field goal percentage of 23.1%.

BUT! here comes the rub

During the three years of the BAA’s existence, 79 players shot below 25% from the field. Misaka placed fairly high in this pack of mediocre players, ranking 24th in FG%. BUT! here’s that rub: just eight players played fewer games than Misaka did. Despite being in the top-third of FG%, he was in the bottom-third of games played.

For his part, Misaka refuses to believe anti-Japanese sentiment, racism, or discrimination played a role in his dismissal, but it sure seems odd that he was given the heave-ho after three games while guys like Bob Dille – who shot way worse – played infinitely more games.

Yes, one could justify Misaka not being in the BAA because he just wasn’t that good. But how do you explain the Dilles of the world persisting for so long despite being so terrible? That’s the real question that deserves attention and the one that brings us now back to Collins.

The question shouldn’t necessarily focus just on Collins’ own abilities. We all know he’s a big man who can provide spurts of solid defense and rebounding. It’s what he’s always been, but now he has the added detraction of advancing age. And he posted a rather pedestrian WS/48 of .048 last year. As it turns out, nearly 150 NBA players last year had a WS/48 under .050. Observing the list, you can see most of those mediocre players will be back in the NBA for the 2013-14 season.

Explaining Collins’ absence requires not just examining him, but all of these other players. When GMs are finding space for Lou Amundson, you have to ask, “Well, why not Collins?” And in the case of zombified Marcus Camby, “No, seriously, why the hell not Collins?”

All things appear to be equal between Collins and these other men concerning their (in)competency to be NBA players.

Except, well, that one thing and the supposed distraction it may cause for a team. Perhaps Collins’ homosexuality would be a “distraction” but just remember that once upon a time the same basic argument was made for restricting the access women and racial minorities had to employment and promotion.

Including them would have disrupted the peace of the workplace, the harmony of co-workers, and the tranquilizing facade of normalcy.

“Mainstream” American society has generally proven hesitant to lead on matters concerning racial and gender equality. Whether it was the temporary usefulness of women and Negroes in World War II, the fits and starts it took for racial minorities to fully integrate in pro basketball in the mid-20th century, or the current frontier we find ourselves in  concerning homosexuality. Only when push comes to shove – when the distraction becomes worth it – does equality advance and overturn the norm.

Curtis Harris

Curtis Harris is a historian and subscribes to the following ethos espoused by Abraham Lincoln in 1858: "I have always wanted to deal with everyone I meet candidly and honestly. If I have made any assertion not warranted by facts, and it is pointed out to me, I will withdraw it cheerfully."