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‘This white boy got bounce’: Bucks’ Pat Connaughton on disproving stereotypes

The fifth-year guard relishes shattering the ‘Billy Hoyle’ expectations of him

MILWAUKEE — Eric Bledsoe was skeptical.

The then-Phoenix Suns guard was preparing for a 2017 preseason game against the visiting Portland Trail Blazers when he read a scouting report that noted how defenders would need to keep an eye on a little-known shooting guard by the name of Pat Connaughton. Connaughton, he was told, was athletic. But Bledsoe, who was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks a month later, didn’t pay the note much mind.

Forty seconds into the second quarter of the game, the two teams were stacked together in a straight line during an inbounds play, with Bledsoe and Connaughton holding up the rear. As Trail Blazers guard Evan Turner received the ball from the referee, Connaughton took off toward the basket. With Bledsoe reacting a half-second too late, Turner lobbed the ball to Connaughton, who corralled it for a two-handed alley-oop over Bledsoe. The skeptic was now a believer.

“From then on I kind of knew,” Bledsoe told The Undefeated, “this white boy got bounce.”

Now Bledsoe’s teammate after signing with the Bucks in 2018, Connaughton has been displaying his acrobatics over the past five seasons. There was the half-court reverse alley-oop he caught from CJ McCollum, the cocked-back, one-handed slam over Atlanta Hawks center Damian Jones and the monstrous putback dunk over three Chicago Bulls defenders, to name a few.

Following a Dec. 6 Bucks game against the LA Clippers in which Connaughton elevated from the bottom of the free throw circle for an emphatic two-hand slam, the Bucks’ social media team started an unofficial campaign to get Connaughton into the 2020 Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star Weekend: #LetPatDunk2020.

All of this might be news to many basketball fans, not because Connaughton plays in one of the league’s smallest media markets, but because the 27-year-old guard is white. Growing up in Arlington, Massachusetts, Connaughton figured he’d have to separate himself from the pack when it came to basketball by doing things that would make people remember his name.

“To be able to [dunk] and to be able to catch people off guard and to be able to make people shocked at how high I could jump was something I always took pride in,” he said.

To Connaughton, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2014 MLB draft by the Baltimore Orioles, dunking would prove two things: one, hard work (and natural athleticism) pays off; and two, there would be fewer questions about his place in the sport.

“Being your stereotypical baseball player, if you will, compared to a basketball player — the athleticism was always something that people questioned,” said Connaughton, who in 2018 began captioning Twitter videos of his dunks with some variation of “stereotypes smh.”

“So to be able to continually try to put those questions to rest and answering them in emphatic ways with dunks and blocked shots and things that people don’t expect from me, it’s satisfying.”

Even though he tried to put those questions to rest five years ago.

During the NBA draft combine in Chicago in 2015, members of the ESPN broadcast team began to wax poetic about what Connaughton had just accomplished in the max vertical jump drill.

“I can’t wait to say this. Can I say this?” ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla said as host Mark Jones announced that Connaughton’s 44-inch jump was the top mark that year, beating out runner-ups Justin Anderson, Keifer Sykes and Marcus Thornton by an entire inch. “I’ve always loved his athleticism. He’s not just cerebral either, he’s a tremendous athlete.”

When Jones mentioned that 44 inches was the second-highest measurement in the combine’s 16-year history, Fraschilla couldn’t contain himself.

“Who says Irish guys can’t jump?” he quipped, no doubt winning the pun test at the combine.

“He’s got — how do you say this?” Fraschilla started to say before another analyst jumped in to remind Fraschilla to be careful with his next words. “He’s a tough Boston kid.”

What Fraschilla was trying to get at, of course, was that Connaughton was white.

Since Connaughton was a kid, he’d wanted to make it to the NBA, and he knew what would help get him there was the ability to rise above 10 feet off the ground. In sixth grade, Connaughton had a goal to be able to dunk by the eighth grade after reading in Sports Illustrated Kids that Vince Carter, his favorite dunker of all time, had first dunked in the sixth grade (“I was trying to be a little bit realistic,” Connaughton added). So Connaughton’s father bought his son a weighted vest that he used to run up hills and jump up and down off ledges. Before he left eighth grade, Connaughton — 5 feet, 10 inches tall at the time — was throwing it down.

But to this day, Connaughton, who is now 6 feet, 5 inches, still catches fans, media members and other players off guard with his leaping ability. Connaughton claims he once pulled off a 360 East Bay during a practice in Atlanta last season. (“I got [the East Bay] at least on video. So if people tell me I can’t do it, I can show them I did.”)

“When someone gets so surprised that I dunked, it’s like, ‘You haven’t seen a few of the dunks I’ve had in the past? You still don’t believe I can dunk?’ ” he said. “I try to use it a little bit as more fuel to try to have even better ones going forward.

“But at the end of the day, the dunks were momentum plays, they’re plays that get my team excited, they’re plays that can help us win games. And that’s the most important thing to me.”

When it comes to sports, white players tend to become pop culture icons simply by displaying the athleticism that is normally attributed to African Americans. The growing popularity of New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill or Los Angeles Lakers guard Alex Caruso isn’t due to either being superstars, it’s because they exhibit athletic traits that have been expected of black athletes for decades. To win the 1996 dunk contest, Brent Barry jumped from the free throw line. To win in 1988, Michael Jordan jumped from the free throw line … while double clutching the ball.

Connaughton doesn’t shy away from discussing race or racial stereotypes as it pertains to basketball. He relishes shattering the “Billy Hoyle” (the character who made his living hustling streetball players who assumed he couldn’t play because he was white in White Men Can’t Jump) expectations of him.

“I actually like the stereotypes, because I can disprove them. In today’s day and age, political correctness and stereotypes are kind of unspoken truths, if you will. From time to time, people don’t want to talk about them and they’re not always true, but they’re just kind of the way it is. So to be able to be a part of, you know, a small group that can disprove a stereotype like ‘White men can’t jump,’ I think is pretty cool.

“If you do work hard, it doesn’t really matter who you are, where you’re from, what box people try to place you in. You can kind of get out of that box. You can accomplish what you want to with some hard work, with some dedication.”

Milwaukee Bucks’ Pat Connaughton dunks during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Milwaukee.

Morry Gash/AP Photo

For a league that is nearly three-quarters black, Connaughton said, it’s important for white players like himself to be supportive and dependable allies for their black teammates. Former Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki has spoken openly about interracial marriage and the challenges of raising biracial children in America. Connaughton’s teammate, Kyle Korver, wrote a commentary last season about privilege and white Americans’ responsibility in combating racism. Connaughton accompanied the Bucks last month to a Wisconsin prison to discuss racial inequality as it pertains to the criminal justice system.

“There are so many problems that we have, and I think there’s a lot of people that try to not look at there still being a race problem in the world. A lot of people think it’s gone, but it’s not. For guys like us who are technically the minority in this sport, we’re put in the position where we want to make sure the minorities outside of the sport feel as comfortable as we feel in the sport.”

If Connaughton were to be invited to the dunk contest (of the four players that have been rumored so far, he is not one), he would become just the eighth white player to compete, joining Barry, Rex Chapman, Bobby Sura, Chase Budinger, Tom Chambers, Mason Plumlee and Chris “Birdman” Andersen.

While Connaughton said it would be awesome to get an invitation to the dunk contest, he also added: “I ain’t gonna hold my breath.”

But if he were to secure an invite, Connaughton could take cues from someone who has experience in that arena: Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“If he keeps dunking like that, he’s got to be there,” said Antetokounmpo, who competed in the 2015 dunk contest but infamously missed his first attempt and came in last place. (Bledsoe competed in the dunk contest in 2013.) The reigning MVP, who leads the league with 126 in-game dunks this season (through Jan. 14), has just one piece of advice were Connaughton to compete during All-Star Weekend next month.

“Make sure you make your dunks.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"