Maps on Maps on Maps: A Geographic Survey of the NBA | Hometown Heroes

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We all watched Hoosiers and Space Jam more than a few times when we were kids. Some of us watched Above the Rim and He Got Game when we were in college. A shocking amount of adults have seen Juwanna Man. The one thing those movies -- along with Larry Bird, Carlos Boozer and Metta World Peace -- have taught us, is that very good basketball players can come from, literally, anywhere (including Moron Mountain, in Metta’s case).

For the sake of convenience, we’ll stay out of outer space and look only at the hometowns and home states of the 396 current NBA players that were born in the U.S. Of course, the most straightforward way to look at where NBA players come from is to look at where they were born, so that’s where we’ll start.

Well, actually, we’ll start where I grew up, in the northwest corner of Illinois. Like most kids my age, looking to find something they could be passable at, basketball was the sport of least resistance. I played in my driveway, in the park, and at the YMCA. I studied the sport, watching hundreds of basketball games each year.

However, by the time I was 15 or so, I had (thankfully) developed enough self-awareness to realize that I totally sucked at basketball, and that for the rest of my life, I’d have to accept my place on the couch, with a pizza, as a basketball fan. Not only did I suck, so did everyone else. Sure, some of my childhood friends played on the high school team. Most of us played some intramurals in college. By and large, though, everyone I know from my hometown, myself included, would probably suffer a severe, unspeakable injury by taking on a pro player in the post, or anywhere on the court for that matter. Needless to say, none of the NBA’s current players were born in the northwest corner of Illinois. Plenty of them, though, were born nearby, in and around Chicago.

Chicago, like you might expect, was among the largest producers of elite basketball talent. The Windy City finished third behind New York and Los Angeles. In fact, big cities -- not surprising -- have produced a lot of the talent currently playing in the NBA (see table). More NBA players were born in New York (23 players) than in any other city in the U.S. However, the nation’s capital -- the 25th largest city in the country -- has produced a remarkable 10 players, good enough for fourth. Seattle (8 players), and Baton Rouge (6 players) are also surprising given their populations -- and not for the obvious reasons, but we’ll get to that later.

The state-level numbers also show the same population correlation with California at the top of the list (60 players) followed by New York and Illinois. The top 15 player-producing states aren’t particularly surprising. Only two states are not among the 15 most populous states in the country-- Louisiana (4th in terms of player production and 25th in terms of population) and Maryland (tied for 13th in terms of player productionand 19th in terms of population).

Numbers on their own, though, tell only part of the story. The heat map below shows where the NBA’s breeding grounds are concentrated. Again, not too surprising. The three hottest areas are in southern California, near Los Angeles, in and around Chicago, and along I-95 between Washington, DC and New York. Despite having several large cities (e.g., Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas), most of the area between the Mississippi River and California is dark, producing relatively few players.

Where the numbers really start to get interesting is when you take a look at them relative to the general population. That is, to consider each state’s per capita production rate for NBA talent. For example, since there are 396 players born in the U.S., and since the nation’s population is about 311 million, the U.S., as a whole, has produced about 1.3 active NBA players per million people. This same method can be applied at the state level to see which states are producing more than their fair share of professional basketball players.

Not surprisingly, mid-sized states like Iowa  -- which is home to 3 NBA players (Harrison Barnes, Kirk Hinrich, and Nick Collison) -- find themselves at or below the national average, with about 1 active NBA player per million Iowans (with its population of 3.06 million).

However, some larger states  -- like Florida and Ohio -- find themselves below the national average for players per capita, an especially surprising turn of events given Florida’s position in the top ten of total players produced. The reasons behind this are difficult to explain#  because even the most logical line of thought -- that both states produce remarkable amounts of football talent that could explain the relative paucity of basketball players because of opportunities costs -- is challenged by the fact that Louisiana, the smallest state in the top 15 NBA player producing states, also consistently ranks among the highest, per capita, NFL player producing states.  

So, what is it? Does Louisiana have some sort of secret formula they add to school lunches to produce spectacular athletes at such an unlikely rate? Or is this a function of demographics and opportunities?

Even loopier than Louisiana’s overachieving, though, is Washington DC. The District’s player production -- 16.2 active NBA players per million residents -- blows the rest of the country out of the water. The next closest state is Louisiana at 3.7 players per million (see table and map, below), followed distantly by Maryland with 2.06 players/million.

The reasons behind this difference between Louisiana and DC on one side, and everybody else are myriad, an academic way of saying “difficult to parse and even more difficult to make sense of”, despite the mountain of data in front of us.

What does make sense when looking at the data is Maryland’s place in third. This is likely a function of the intense basketball producing hotbed that has created the Washington DC juggernaut. Kids born in Maryland proably end up playing against high level competition from neighboring DC, which may in turn help to propel those players -- who would likely also benefit from the increased attention placed on the area by college scouts -- get opportunities they would not get if they lived in Arizona or Colorado.

The struggle to find meaning in the numbers, beyond an Aristotilian confluence of events, is made even more surprising and challenging -- though I suppose that depends on who you talk to -- by the fact that there is a less-than-sturdy connection between (1) racial demographics within each state and (2) whether or not each state will produce professional basketball players.

That’s because, while the “genetic predisposition” argument for African-American participation in basketball is tomfoolery, the popularity of basketball within the African-American community is hard to deny. Furthermore, ignoring the fact that 79% of the NBA’s player are African-American is naive at best and disingenuous at worst.

So, given the fact that 4 out of every 5 NBA players are African-American, you would assume that the cities and states with the largest per capita African-American populations would produce the most NBA players. This is true for Washington DC (50% of DC’s population is African-American and it produces the most NBA players per capita). It’s also true for Louisiana, which has the third highest per capita African American population in the country. It is not, however, true for some other states with high per capita player production. Wyoming ranked 7th in terms of per capital player production, but ranks 42nd in terms of its African-American population. Similarily, while Washington ranks 6th in per capita player production, it ranks 36th in terms of its African-American population.

Now, we can explain away the Wyoming juxtaposition by mentioning the fact that even one player (in this case, James Johnson) would put it in the top ten considering how comically sparse Wyoming is (50th in population with 568,158); but Washington -- 13th in population with 6.83 million people --  throws a monkey wrench in the demographics argument.

There seems to be something more nuanced going on. The number of NBA players a city or state produces probably isn’t a function of demographics alone. Unexpected returns from “unlikely” places are probably a function of a series of thresholds; something like cluster-based economic development.

Some of the world’s biggest tech companies all seem to come out of Silicon Valley. ADIDAS opened up an office in Portland, OR to mooch off the talent that Nike had already attracted to the area. Some places just begin to develop -- unintentionally in most cases -- certain structural elements that allow them to produce far beyond their perceived/expected capabilities.

Something similar seems to be happening in Louisiana (specifically in and around Baton Rouge and New Orleans). Sure, some of the players out of southern Louisiana may be naturally talented. Some may have wound up in the NBA even if they were born in Maine. But, the fact that they had each other to play against and to learn from, and the infrastructure of coaches and supportive schools and communities, also likely played an enormous role in their success.

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