Duke, Butler defy racial stereotypes

INDIANAPOLIS – He’s been cursed by fans from North Carolina and taunted in road arenas throughout the ACC. Still, the chant that Duke guard Jon Scheyer remembers the most occurred during an AAU game back in high school.

Time and time again as Scheyer dribbled up the court, the opposing coach stood on the sideline and barked orders to his players.

“Get the white boy!” the coach said. “Get the white boy!”

Scheyer was the only non-African-American on his team.

“Obviously,” Scheyer said, “he was talking about me. I had a number and a name [on my jersey]. But instead it was ‘Get the white boy!’ “

No one, though, was ever able to stop Scheyer from reaching his potential.

Not at his Chicago-area high school, where he led his team to a state championship. Not at Duke, where he earned first-team all-ACC honors. And not in Indianapolis, where Monday’s NCAA title game between the Blue Devils and Butler has taken on an unfamiliar look.

Duke's Jon Scheyer doesn't like it when people make a big deal about him being white.
Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

Five white players could be on the court at tipoff. That’s the most since 1998, when six white players started in the Utah-Kentucky final.

Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard – two of Butler’s top players – are white. So are five of Duke’s top seven players.

Even though the race issue isn’t discussed in polite company, it’s been the subject of hushed conversations at the Final Four and will be obvious to anyone in attendance or tuning in at home. The subject is so taboo that even Larry Bird bristles when it’s brought up.

The Blue Devils, who have been described as “alarmingly unathletic,” powered past West Virginia by 21 points in Saturday’s national semifinal.

Hayward and Howard managed to lead small school Butler to victories over three Top 15 teams en route to a berth in the championship game.

Negative stereotypes about lack of speed, agility and leaping ability are being challenged.

“For me, it was always just about being a basketball player,” Hayward said. “I’d watch some of the great white players in the NBA and say, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ “

One of those players was Bird, the NBA Hall of Famer and Boston Celtics legend, who is now the president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers. Before his team’s game against Houston on Sunday, Bird became agitated when he was asked if he still thought negative stereotypes existed about white players.

“Who cares?” Bird said. “I mean, really … who cares? If you can play, you can play anywhere. It doesn’t matter what the stinking color of your skin is.”

Like many people, Bird doesn’t like to talk about the race factor in college basketball and the professional ranks. Last summer he was heavily criticized for selecting Tyler Hansbrough, who is white, with the 13th overall pick in the NBA draft.

Hansbrough was a three-time All-American, an NCAA champion and the leading scorer in the tradition-rich history of the Tar Heels’ program. But to some critics he was just another white player on a roster that already included former Duke standouts Josh McRoberts and Mike Dunleavy and ex-Notre Dame star Troy Murphy.

Hansbrough is out for the season because of health reasons, but McRoberts, Dunleavy and Murphy combined for 50 points in Sunday’s victory over Houston. The Rockets got a team-high 17 points from rookie Chase Budinger, a second-round draft pick from Arizona who is also white.

When he was in elementary school, Budinger said his friends laughed at him when he told them his goal was to become a professional basketball player.

“It was just because of the stereotype that’s out there,” he said. “It stuck with me. I told them, ‘I’m going to be a great player. You’re going to look back when I’m in the NBA and kick yourselves in the butt.’ “

Gordon Hayward is projected as a first-round pick in the NBA draft. Then again, so was Chase Budinger, and he slipped into the second round.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

For a time, Budinger was projected as a first-round pick in last summer’s draft, but he slipped into the second round. He thinks he knows why.

“I heard a lot leading up to the draft that I was soft and that I wasn’t athletic or quick enough to play in this league,” Budinger said. “That stereotype came from being white and from being kind of different.

“I grew up in a predominantly white suburb of San Diego and didn’t have the background some of these guys have, being from L.A. or Chicago.”

Players such as Duke’s Kyle Singler and Hayward are hoping the same thing doesn’t happen to them in the future. Both are potential first-round picks who will likely face similar questions about athleticism and speed.

“For me, growing up, it wasn’t about the color of anyone’s skin,” Singler said. “I just wanted to play against the best players, no matter if they were white or black. That’s how the game should be. People should respect the game and learn to appreciate the [individual] players.”

Butler guard Zach Hahn agrees.

“Everyone is born with an equal opportunity,” he said.

Duke’s Brian Zoubek, Brigham Young’s Jimmer Fredette and Syracuse’s Andy Rautins are white players who have flourished in this year’s NCAA tournament. St. Mary’s, Northern Iowa and Cornell reached the Sweet 16 with predominantly white rosters.

According to a University of Central Florida study released in 2008, 32.5 percent of Division I college basketball players were white during the 2006-07 season.

“I don’t like it when people make a big deal about me being white,” Scheyer said. “But that’s just the way it is. Ultimately, as long as you keep winning, how can people keep saying that?”

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Apr 5, 2010