Analysis: NBA height spreading globally

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- The NBA All-Star Weekend has become a sort of World Festival of Height featuring the inordinately tall from all over the Earth.

The Houston Rockets' Yao Ming, the Western Conference's 7'5" starting center in Sunday's All-Star Game, exemplifies more than just the increasingly global reach of NBA talent scouts. He also illustrates a general trend in which stereotypically short peoples, such as the Chinese, have been sprouting upward in average height.


Overall, of course, Yao is not exactly representative of China's 1.3 billion people. His 6'-7" father and 6'-3" mother both played for China's national basketball teams. Even so, the number of Chinese 7-footers has been growing as the Chinese people have become more prosperous and taller.

Stephen Morgan, an economics professor at the University of Melbourne, found that the average Chinese 17-year-old boy was 2.7 inches taller in 1995 than in 1955. The diet of the average Chinese child, especially in the cities and along the coast, improved dramatically after free market reforms began in 1978.


In contrast, "Americans have not grown (in height) in 25 years," noted Richard Steckel, an Ohio State economist and anthropologist. Economic historians who study changes in average stature call themselves "auxologists." They use height data to augment better-known economic measures of well-being such as the per-capita gross national product.

For most of the last two centuries, Americans tended to be strikingly taller than Western Europeans, but that is no longer always true. In the wealthy and healthy Netherlands, young men now average just over 6 feet. That's about 2 inches more than their American counterparts.

Tall Dutchmen are generally less interested in basketball than in volleyball (in which the Dutch won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics). Still, the Netherlands did produce 7'-4" Rik Smits, who enjoyed a respectable 12-year career with the Indianapolis Pacers.

Players from the basketball-crazed Mediterranean countries are also finally starting to make a mark. Although the most lucrative professional leagues outside the United States are in southern Europe, athletes from the Romance language-speaking countries long had little impact in the NBA compared to their rivals from Eastern and Northern Europe, where the typical stature was greater. In the mid-1990s, for instance, Portugal's military conscripts averaged 4 inches shorter than their Dutch counterparts.


In Saturday's Rookie Challenge preliminary game, though, last year's Rookie of the Year, Pau Gasol, a 7-footer from Spain, is playing for the Sophomores. Emanuel Ginobili of the Spurs, an Argentinian of Italian descent, is on the Rookie team. (San Antonio's Tony Parker might be classed with them because he grew up in France, but his father was an African-American pro basketball player and his mother a Dutch-American model.)

The Iberian economies, which once lagged far behind the rest of Western Europe, closed much of the gap in recent decades. Infant mortality rates, which correlate negatively with height, had dropped to typical Northern European levels by the mid-1980s, so Steckel expects the height gap to narrow as well.

Similarly, West Africans are significantly shorter on average than their distant cousins, the much richer African-Americans. (American blacks account for 19 of the 25 All-Stars, vs. zero African players in either the main showcase game or the young players' game.)

Few Africans have yet done much in the NBA, and most of those who have are big men from Africa's well-nourished middle class. The great Hakeem Olajuwon is the son of the prosperous owner of a cement company. Defensive star Dikembe Mutombo's father was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris. Los Angeles Clippers center Michael Olowokandi is the son of a Nigerian diplomat and was raised in Britain.


Still, some parts of the globe seem to produce lots of tall people, no matter how bad the conditions. After all, height is influenced not only by environment, but by genetics, as well.

One of the two tallest players in NBA history was 7'-7" Manute Bol. An illiterate herdsman who once tracked a lion preying on his cattle and killed it with his spear, Bol twice led the NBA in blocked shots.

Bol is a member of the Dinka tribe of southern Sudan. A higher proportion of extremely tall people are believed to be found among the Dinkas and their neighbors along the Upper Nile than anywhere else on Earth. Bol, for example, says his younger sister is 6'-10."

Remarkably, the Dinka grow so tall despite numbering among the world's most tragically oppressed peoples. The black southerners, who are Christians and pagans, rebelled against the Muslims from northern Sudan who traditionally captured them for use as slaves. Roughly 2 million people have died in two decades of civil war.

Within Europe, especially tall people can be found in the gritty ex-communist countries in the Baltic and the Balkan areas.

In the All-Star Game, Cleveland's 7'-3" Zydrunas Ilgauskas will carry on Lithuania's proud basketball tradition. The heart of the 1988 Soviet Olympic team that beat America for the gold medal was made up not of Russians but of Lithuanians such as 7'-3" Arvydas Sabonis, now with Portland. Lithuania has medalled in all three Olympic basketball tournaments since the tiny country regained its independence from the Soviet empire.


The other traditional center of European basketball dominance is the mountainous and war-torn Balkans in the southeast. The region will be represented in the All-Star Game by Peja Stojakovic, the 6'-10" Sacramento forward from Serbia. Under its old name of Yugoslavia, Serbia medalled in the 1996 Olympics. Serbia's neighbor and rival Croatia medalled in 1992.

Europeans tend to grow tallest where the climate is cold but not frigid. Writing in 1965 before the Dutch grew quite so tall, the prominent physical anthropologist Carlton Coon noted, "In mean stature, we find the tallest people in Scotland, Iceland, Scandinavia, the eastern Baltic region, and the Balkans, particularly Montenegro and Albania. In general, the crest of tallest stature runs on the cold side of the winter frost line."

Coon pointed out that this pattern follows Bergmann's Law, a rule of thumb in biology that states that within a species, animal populations living in the colder parts of the range tend to be larger and heavier than those living in the warmer parts.

Thus, the tallest Indian tribes in the New World live around the U.S.-Canadian border and in the southern cone of South America. Likewise, the tallest East Asians are found in southern Siberia and northern China, the latter being a region that NBA scouts find particularly interesting.


In extremely cold climates, however, protruding body parts such as long legs radiate too much heat. So, Eskimos are much less lanky than the Blackfoot Indians on the southern Canadian prairie. Likewise, Russians are not as tall as Lithuanians. Coon noted, "Stature decrease as one approaches northern Norway and the Urals."

In contrast, the extremely thin Dinkas (NBA trainers could never bulk up Bol enough to rebound effectively) have a very high surface-to-volume ratio, which allows body heat to dissipate rapidly in their equatorial climate.

Height differences, however, cannot explain the most striking aspect of the All-Star rosters: There are 19 African-Americans but only one Euro-American, Indiana center Brad Miller. (In case you were wondering: New Jersey star Jason Kidd has a white mother. Also, Dallas guard Steve Nash is a white Canadian. The other European is German Dirk Nowitzki.)

The U.S. government's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that blacks and whites are virtually identical in stature, both at the 50th and the 95th percentiles. So, the answer to that famous sports bar bone of contention -- Why are blacks better than whites at basketball? -- must be found somewhere else.


(Steve Sailer is 6'-4".)

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