Hometowns and Success in the NBA
Is the NBA really a legitimate way for players to escape poverty? Here, we tackle the narrative that young males can hold onto their NBA dreams as a way to get out of the neighborhoods they grew up in.
"Making it" in the NBA is difficult for even the most talented players. Only 3.4 percent of high school players make it to the NCAA, and of that small percentage, only 1.2 percent of NCAA players go to the NBA.
We took a look at the landscape of modern-day NBA rosters to see where players hail from. How many players come from cities with higher-than-average median incomes? Also, how many players in the NBA today escaped poverty – or are kids with more money getting a better shot at becoming a pro? We looked at American NBA players born between 1977 and 1999 to find out more about the income level of their home towns to see if we can spot the trend.
Players and Their Hometowns
First, we looked at the median household incomes in NBA players' hometowns. Overall, it's readily apparent that a majority of players come from cities that were above the average household median income in 2000 (64%, accounting for nearly two-thirds of NBA players).
However, the percentage of NBA players who were born in cities below the median household income actually has decreased over time. Those born between 1977 and 1988 from these below-average-income towns made up eight percentage points more of the NBA than their peers who were born between 1989 and 1999.
We then looked at which cities produced the most NBA players and whether they're above the average median household income. The top cities that had below-average incomes included Philadelphia with 19 players; Baltimore with 14; Detroit with 13; and 11 players hailed from Memphis. On the flip side, above-average income cities like Los Angeles and Chicago produced more NBA players (36 and 34 respectively). Other top contributing above-average income cities included Houston (20), Atlanta (14), Brooklyn (14), and Queens (14).
Tallying Those Salaries
Next, we examined the average career salaries for NBA players based on where they were from. At a glance, the numbers show that players born in below-average-income cities tended to earn less as professional athletes than those who were born in cities with above-average household incomes.
Take for example the top city on the above-average side: New York City. Players who hailed from the Big Apple earned an average of $42.3 million. That's a couple million more than the average salary for those who called Philadelphia (the top city on the below-average household income list) home.
Most of the average salaries on the above-average side, in fact, were higher than those on the below-average side, with the lowest average salary of $4.6 million belonging to players who came from Detroit. There weren't any single-digit average salaries from players who were from the top 10 above-average household income cities.
The Awards Gap
Finally, we looked to see if there was a gap between players born in cities that were either above or below the median household income regarding NBA awards (which include All-Star appearances, rebound champions, Sixth Man of the Year, and more).
Overall, those who were from cities with below-average incomes had a tick more awards than cities with above-average household incomes . However, as with the previous section, there was more of a divide when we separated players by the year they were born.
Players who were born between 1977 and 1988 were 5% more likely to earn awards if they were from areas with below-average incomes. However, that script flipped in more recent years. NBA players who were from those below-average areas and were born between 1989 and 1999 received 40% fewer awards than the other players.
While these findings don't take into account the different parts of town these players were born in (and we're aware that there are different pockets of average incomes throughout each city), we did find a trend on how players from different income levels might reach the NBA and what their success levels might be when they get there. Most interesting was the shift when we compared players born between 1977 and 1988 to the guys who came after them.
To determine the economic background of each NBA player, we collected data from the 2000 U.S. census, specifically the median average household income of every U.S. and Puerto Rican city. If the median household income in a city fell below the median household income nationally, it was labeled "below average."
The locations where NBA players were born come from the NBA player data set on Kaggle and basketball-reference.com. Only contemporary players were used, beginning with the oldest active NBA player today, Vince Carter, who was The time frames of 1977 to 1988 and 1989 to 1999 were determined by trying to get the same amount of time on both sides. In total, 872 players were analyzed. All international players currently in the NBA, like Dirk Nowitzki or Giannis Antetokounmpo, were excluded from the study.
NBA player salaries and awards are sourced from basketball-reference.com. Awards include Sixth Man of the Year awards, MVP, scoring champions, and more.
Cities are big. Because of that, there will be pockets of each city that are richer or poorer than others. Exact locations of NBA players' births were unavailable, so the results may vary.
Median household income was determined using the 2000 U.S. census because it was the first one that included the American Community Survey. Because we couldn't get earlier data, we were unable to get as clear of a picture of what economic conditions were like in these cities in the '80s and early '90s. Someone born in Brooklyn, New York, in the late '70s may have had a different experience than someone born there in the '90s.
Fair Use Statement
Whether you're from Compton, California, like DeMar DeRozan, or Palo Alto, California, like Jeremy Lin, where you come from may determine your success in the NBA. If you would like to share this with your network of followers, feel free for any and all noncommercial purposes. This way, your readers can digest the full breadth of our research.