The Genetics of Basketball Part 2

The Rabbit and the Elephant

Paul Gasol high five with Stryde at the end of the Chicago Bulls game (cropped)

Speculation, speculation, speculation: This is what characterises most genetic theories about group differences in sport. Such theories are typically speculative in three ways.

Firstly, they assume that any observed physical difference must have a genetic origin. For example, just because Kenyan runners have thinner ankles, it does not follow that genes for thin ankles are more common among Kenyans. It might be that they eat less.

Secondly, they assume that the differences matter. The best evidence that thin ankles help distance runners is that Kenyans run well, but this is a circular argument. Dutch speed skaters wear orange but the colour of the body suits is not why they are so fast.

The third and final assumption is that economic factors are of little or no significance, if they are acknowledged at all. A few extra millimetres of ankle fat, on an athlete, is often given just as much weight as the gluttonous expansion of the Rift Valley running camps.

North v South

The easiest way to rise above such speculations is to enlist the help of some basketball players. There is overwhelming evidence that being tall is an advantage in the sport, and so the second of the assumptions disintegrates, as though dropped from a great height.

The first assumption also falls away because Dutch people are, on average,  three inches taller than Italians. The height differences between Northern and Southern Europeans are, to a large extent, down to genes, as recent research has convincingly demonstrated.

Therefore, Northern European nations should be better at basketball, and NBA star Pau Gasol of Spain (above), should be an exception, unless culture trumps the role of genes.

Bengt-Petersen-1964

But Spain, France and Italy are consistently the top Western European countries. Even Greece, with two thirds of the population of the Netherlands, has won the EuroBasket twice. Although 7-footers like Gasol are rarer, there are still plenty of them, boosted by their passion for the sport. Their rivals in less enthusiastic countries have less success.

Germany has performed moderately well, although less well than Greece, while Dutch basketball has never really taken off. The Scandinavian countries are the most hopeless of all. Despite their best efforts (above right), no Danish player has ever appeared in the NBA. One Norwegian has done so but Norway is yet to even qualify for the EuroBasket.

Never Forget the Elephant

Genetic speculators enjoy asking what would happen if historical and economic factors were removed. Would small genetic differences result in different patterns of success?

The speculators are right. They would. If genes are symbolised by a fast-breeding rabbit, pushing a basketball around a court, the rabbit would be large enough to make it move.

But the elephant in the room is culture and should not be ignored. Once it has lumbered onto the court, it can knock the ball in whatever direction takes its fancy, and the rabbit along with it. However quickly it breeds, the rabbit will never have the size to push back.

Eliminating the first two assumptions makes it possible to seriously examine the third. Even with the certainty that the rabbit is not, like Harvey, a figment of the imagination, it must then be tested against the elephantine power of history, economics and culture.

Next week: Basketball and IQ – the surprising ways that they have changed over time

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