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Study finds growing up in wealthier neighborhoods increases chances of making NBA

Nov 5, 2013, 1:46 PM EDT

AP Money Found AP

The narrative is a strong one and something linked to the NBA today through guys like Derrick Rose — he grew up in a poor area of Chicago where basketball was his escape from the troubles around him. The game eventually provided him an escape from the neighborhood. LeBron James has a similar tale, a poor family and a single mother who used basketball to escape that life.

There is a sense among fans (and even some in the league) that most NBA players have a similar story, that a drive to get them out of tough circumstances pushed them to the long hours on the court needed to hone their skills and make the league.

Except that’s not really true.

In a fascinating piece in Sunday’s New York Times, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz went though tons of data on NBA players and where they were born and raised, comparing it to the overall populations where they were born, and what he found was that having a little bit of money in the family increased a child’s chances of making the league.

The results? 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….

But this tells us only where N.B.A. players began life. Can we learn more about their individual backgrounds? In the 1980s, when the majority of current N.B.A. players were born, about 25 percent of African-Americans were born to mothers under age 20; 60 percent were born to unwed mothers. I did an exhaustive search for information on the parents of the 100 top-scoring black players born in the 1980s, relying on news stories, social networks and public records. 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.

Why? There is one obvious reason: Proper nutrition at a young age has been show to lead to increased height, something confirmed in multiple studies. Families with the money to properly feed their children healthy foods get taller kids, and height helps in basketball.

More than that studies also have shown children from better off families tend to do better at developing, as the story puts it, “skills like persistence, self-regulation and trust.” Again things that help one reach the level of professional in a sport. There are other factors in here as well; you really need to go read the entire article to see the argument fleshed out.

Obviously, there are stories all over the bell curve on this. There are guys like former NBA player Derek Anderson who was homeless and on his own at 14 but had the drive to make the NBA. There are wealthier youth who may have the physical skills but not the drive to hone them.

Still, it’s an interesting idea that our preconceived notions of the average NBA player often miss the mark like a Michael Kidd-Gillchrist jumper. Having some money helps people on the path, as it so often does.

  1. onbucky96 - Nov 5, 2013 at 2:00 PM

    Poor family and a single mother? I’m confused, didn’t LeBron have a Hummer2 in high school? I’m sure it was all legit…

    • antistratfordian - Nov 5, 2013 at 2:49 PM

      His mom got the loan for that Hummer because her son was LeBron James, who by that time was already a celebrity – not because they had money.

      • asimonetti88 - Nov 5, 2013 at 4:02 PM

        That’s the point he’s making. They got the car because of a loan that should have made him ineligible to play, just like him trading his autograph for those jerseys should have, but he got away with both of them.

      • antistratfordian - Nov 5, 2013 at 4:28 PM

        Well he was suspended for the jersey thing, so he didn’t get away with that.

        Obviously the Hummer issue was a big deal at the time and it was thoroughly investigated by the Ohio High School Athletic Association. The OHSAA did not find it in violation of their guidelines as they were currently written (it wasn’t a gift from an agent or similar outside source trying to lure or persuade James). They DID say they might have to rewrite the guidelines to account for “current times.”

      • asimonetti88 - Nov 5, 2013 at 6:26 PM

        Oh BS they both should have resulted in ineligibility as the rules are written, he just got away with them because he’s LeBron James. I think the rules are stupid, if you can make money on your name or likeness you should be allowed to, but if they are going to have the stupid rules, they should apply to everyone, not just those whose star power isn’t enough to get them off.

      • antistratfordian - Nov 5, 2013 at 7:02 PM

        The jersey incident DID result in ineligibility. The hummer incident did not. They would not have hesitated to rule him ineligible for the Hummer just like they didn’t with the jersey – but they didn’t find anything in the documentation between the bank and Ms. James to indicate a violation.

        Hey, they were hounded about this… if someone could prove that they were protecting James people would’ve lost their jobs. But no one could prove that. The guidelines as they were then written did not foresee the possibility of an athlete quite like LeBron coming along and his mom getting a legitimate loan from a bank is not the same as accepting a gift from an agent – there are completely different motivations there. And banks often have requirements for loans that are completely up to their own discretion.

  2. cg2424 - Nov 5, 2013 at 2:04 PM

    The totally unrelated MKG dig in the last paragraph jasl;jkfhl;sjkgaskl;ghas;fjkasdl;dgf

  3. kclanton80 - Nov 5, 2013 at 2:08 PM

    growing up wealthy improves your chances at everything! period.

    • johngalt1783 - Nov 5, 2013 at 2:36 PM

      Isiah Thomas said this years ago. He talked at length about the difficulties in escaping the Chicago inner city and the daily life in the inner city all of which made it difficult to escape the inner city and go on to play in the NBA.

      There have been some great players in America’s inner cities who never made it to college even as a one and done player and therefore never to the NBA.

  4. nygrwy - Nov 5, 2013 at 2:26 PM

    If black ( I hope this isn’t taken in the wrong light. They are they superior athlete) kids grew up with money and could harness their physical abilities through top camps and coaching there would be so much more talent in the NBA. Instead with no Guidance they are all trying to copy And 1 moves before even learning the weave. Fundamentals is everything in basketball but even with all the talent in the world you still need to learn them to be the best.

  5. hansob - Nov 5, 2013 at 2:34 PM

    Come on… he’s making assumptions based on COUNTY per capita income? That’s hardly an indicator or a “wealthy neighborhood”. Counties in urban areas have every kind of neighborhood, wealth-wise.

    An example: Hennepin County in Minnesota is listed as having the highest per capita income in the state ( This is also the county that the poorest parts of Minneapolis are in. It just gets bumped up by the rich suburbs surrounding it.

    What a terrible study.

    • hansob - Nov 5, 2013 at 2:53 PM

      Derrick Rose grew up in Englewood in Chicago. That’s in Cook County. Which has the 7th highest per capita income in Illinois out of 102 counties (

      So according to this guy’s logic, Rose grew up in a wealthy neighborhood.

      • antistratfordian - Nov 5, 2013 at 3:19 PM

        Stop it. Counties are not neighborhoods. Counties contain all sorts of different neighborhoods, towns and cities.

      • hansob - Nov 5, 2013 at 3:44 PM

        that’s my point.

      • davidly - Nov 5, 2013 at 4:26 PM

        Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, and though he says “I recently calculated the probability of reaching the N.B.A., by race, in every county in the United States.” he doesn’t give provide any data, just prints his conclusions, which doesn’t lead me to want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

        The benefit of the doubt would be that by “in every county” he means “all inclusive” and not simply the per capita income from each county. But I suspect that if he provided that data, we’d find out that that is exactly what he did.

        Either way, for all his “exhaustive search for information”, he demonstrates no correlation.

        It doesn’t surprise me that you are receiving so many “thumbs down”; of those who actually read linked articles, few considered the facts therein, and of those, I doubt critical thinking skills are at the forefront when they have a prepackaged solution at the head of the article.

        At any rate, he ends his piece in Captain Obvious fashion with, “Anyone from a difficult environment, no matter his athletic prowess, has the odds stacked against him.” You think?

      • asimonetti88 - Nov 5, 2013 at 4:05 PM

        Your logic makes no sense. Orange County is likely one of the top counties on that list, but I can tell you that there is no freaking way that you would consider Santa Ana or Anaheim a “wealthy neighborhood”.

    • louhudson23 - Nov 6, 2013 at 4:22 AM

      No,location is only one part. But hey,,,you are on a narrative roll…go with it…..

  6. antistratfordian - Nov 5, 2013 at 3:06 PM

    Your chances of making it to the NBA also doubles with every inch of height. So if you’re the son of an NBA player and you’re 7 feet tall your chance of at least getting a shot at the NBA is about 100%.

    You have to give credit to those 5’9 – 5’10 – 5’11 players who didn’t grow up in a wealthy neighborhood, who were raised by a single mother, and still made it to the big leagues. Guys like Allen Iverson – completely defying the odds.

    For guys like the Barry brothers, Steph Curry, Kobe Bryant, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Patrick Ewing Jr., Austin Rivers, Damien Wilkins etc. the path was a lot easier.

  7. tampajoey - Nov 5, 2013 at 5:01 PM

    Everyone knows the NBA is loaded with privileged rich white kids and the poor black guys don’t have a chance.

    • louhudson23 - Nov 6, 2013 at 4:23 AM

      That isn’t what it says at all.

  8. mannyicey - Nov 6, 2013 at 5:39 PM

    I tend to agree with the original writer on this one. Basketball talent is pretty common in certain areas, but the talent must be first groomed and honed, then displayed to the right people. That takes two things: Time and Money. It’s not cheap getting someone to the level of being a D1 prospect- let alone NBA caliber. You can be born with the talent, but you also need to groom that talent and give it direction. Plus, that talent must be seen be the right scouts, the right coaches and the right executives. That costs money!

    Let me say this: My son is a solid D2 prospect. He’s 15 and almost 6 feet tall. He runs the 1 and 2. He has good skills, but he’s getting shots that better poorer athletes can’t get. Why?

    1. I pay over $500 for AAU.
    2. I pay over $400 per year for coaching (or camps).
    3. I pay over $250 on shoes per year.
    4. I pay almost $700 on groceries. (have two athletes for sons.)

    In short, you can drop $2k per year easily for basketball and it only increases the better he gets (for instance, he’s going to be traveling everywhere on Earth next summer. That costs even MORE money!)

    So who’s paying for all of this? Sponsors? That can be risky! It’s cleaner when your parents can foot the bill because you don’t have amateur eligibility issues down the line.

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