What percentage of 7-footers are in the NBA?

by on May 3, 2012 at 1:47 pm in Sports | Permalink

Via Dan Diamond:

An actual accounting of 7-footers, domestic or global, does not exist in any reliable form. National surveys by the Center for Disease Control list no head count or percentile at that height. (Only 5% of adult American males are 6’3″ or taller.)…

The curve shaped by the CDC’s available statistics, however, does allow one to estimate the number of American men between the ages of 20 and 40 who are 7 feet or taller: fewer than 70 in all. Which indicates, by further extrapolation, that while the probability of, say, an American between 6’6″ and 6’8″ being an NBA player today stands at a mere 0.07%, it’s a staggering 17% for someone 7 feet or taller.

There is much further discussion at the link, and many more ins and outs to ponder.

1 Adrian Ratnapala May 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Extrapolating a into the tales of a statistical distribution seems incredibly dodgy. Especially if the whoever did it was assuming the distribution is Gaussian. Even if it looks Gaussian near the middle, it is likely to have fatter-than-Gaussian tails. This estimate could be out by orders of magnitude.

2 will May 3, 2012 at 6:02 pm

I think for physical attributes it’s pretty good. But it’s possible in the tails that some guy like Wilt chamberlin went around and started spawning tons of 7 footers.

3 Matt Kardon May 5, 2012 at 12:15 pm

I agree. Medical conditions such as Gigantism and Acromegaly lead to far more tall people than a Gaussian would predict, just as Dwarfism leads to more people shorter than 3 feet than a Gaussian would predict.

4 Josh Gross May 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm

I think the NBA measures players for their listed heights with their shoes on.

5 Marie May 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm

I know at the high school level everyone adds 2+ inches.

6 dearieme May 3, 2012 at 4:53 pm

We’re more modest in Britain: I reckon it’s only about an inch and a half.

7 Jim May 4, 2012 at 12:58 pm

There are apparently some 7 footers who shave inches from their listed height:

“Not everyone welcomes the high altitude. NBA superstars Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, as well as Florida collegian Joakim Noah, are said to be legitimate and reluctant 7-footers who have shaved an inch off their listed dimensions because they consider that listing too freakish or cumbersome for image purposes.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

I’ve also heard this about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

8 Miraj Patel May 3, 2012 at 9:50 pm

Exactly. The listed heights are usually bigger by a couple inches or so.

9 Bender Bending Rodriguez May 3, 2012 at 9:59 pm

What if the shoes have live goldfish in them?

10 Will May 3, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Stephen Colbert had a guest on a few years who argued this is one reason soccer/futbol is superior from a player quality perspective. We draw talent from all around the world (OK, mostly South America and Europe… but that’s a lot) and nearly any height or socioeconomic background can play.

This applies to the muscularity/physicality of American football as well.

11 Yog Sottoth May 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Football is the most athletic team sport. In fact, I was shocked to learn that the highest jumpers are football players rather than basketball players. Basketball players are selected for height and skill to a greater degree so there is somewhat less athleticism on average. At the other limit, baseball is similar to the way you describe soccer in that the skills are so fine and subtle that athleticism plays a secondary role and your players range from tall to short, skinny to fat, top athlete to tough dumpy guy with some muscle, etc.

12 Bernardo May 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm

“[In soccer] athleticism plays a secondary role”
They run >7 miles sprinting/stopping per game. Just like baseball…

13 Lou May 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm

That is not really an argument for elite athleticism. I can run 7 miles in bursts over 90 minutes with a long break in the middle too.

It’s true that elite speed isn’t a requirement for some positions in baseball, but people underestimate the athleticism needed, probably because major league players make it look very easy.

14 FYI May 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm

“I can run 7 miles in bursts over 90 minutes with a long break in the middle too. ”

Let me just guess Lou: you never played competitive soccer.

15 Ghengis Khak May 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm

I can run 7 miles in bursts over 90 minutes with a long break in the middle too.

Says the guy who has plainly never played soccer as an adult. I played soccer at an elite level in high school and, as a 30 year old now, completed a 50-mile ultramarathon (my first) within the last month. In my present physical condition I would get absolutely destroyed by a soccer game.

Soccer requires high levels of not only stamina, but speed and the ability to recover from extremely intense activity within seconds (eg, sprinting on an attack which goes bad and you need to play defense or vise-versa). It requires dizzying levels of athleticism, not to mention the skill involved in ball handling/tactics.

16 Alex' May 3, 2012 at 6:13 pm

That’s more a question of conditioning than athleticism. While very few people have the stamina for a soccer game, a lot of people could train enough to do so. You see that in the range of athleticism that you’ll find in professional soccer. On one hand you’ve got Xabi Alonso or Per Mertesacker and on the other you have Theo Walcott and Cristiano Ronaldo.

On the other hand, the number of people who could jump 30+ inches in the air from standing while weighing more than 250 pounds is incredibly low.

17 Miley Cyrax May 3, 2012 at 8:18 pm


“It requires dizzying levels of athleticism, not to mention the skill involved in ball handling/tactics.”

I also played soccer at an elite level in high school and I disagree. Skill is much more paramount in soccer than athleticism for each player compared to other sports such as basketball, especially passing skills as you get older/better. We remember evocative plays that involve running at defenders and dribbling, but soccer is a game of passing.

A much larger percentage of the population could be an elite soccer player given the proper training and conditioning when compared to basketball or American football (at least for the WR and RB positions). One might say the nature component is much higher for basketball/WR&RB than for soccer.

18 Lou May 3, 2012 at 11:32 pm

ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhh ELITE high school soccer

19 byomtov May 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm

One of the things I find somewhat interesting about baseball is the difference between how easy some of it looks on TV and how hard you realize it is when you watch in person.

A grounder to shortstop might look trivial on TV, but in person you realize it’s a small, hard, ball smashed at considerable speed, and the player needs to field it cleanly, keep his balance, and throw it accurately to the first baseman, 100 feet or more away, all in about 4 seconds. Not easy. And even harder at non-major-league levels, where the field may add randomness to the bounces.

20 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm

A minor league team if offering free tickets to anybody at one of its game who can match 49-year-old major league junkballer Jamie Moyer’s 78 mph fastball. In the first two weeks, nobody could.

21 Peter May 3, 2012 at 6:06 pm

At the other limit, baseball is similar to the way you describe soccer in that the skills are so fine and subtle that athleticism plays a secondary role and your players range from tall to short

There aren’t too many players under six feet in MLB.

22 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 7:36 pm

It used to be that there were a lot of short (Joe Morgan) to average (Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle) height baseball players because a small strike zone is, all else being equal, an advantage.

23 msgkings May 3, 2012 at 8:07 pm

And then of course, the immortal


24 Nylund May 4, 2012 at 12:25 am

David Eckstein is 5’6″ and has two World Series rings.

25 byomtov May 5, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Of course none of those guys would have chance to make the majors today. Neither would Yogi Berra, a shrimp at 5’7″ 🙂

26 albert magnus May 3, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Jose Altuve is 21 years old, 5’5″ and hitting .350 for the Astros. He’s a lot of fun to watch.

27 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 7:32 pm

Soccer is the world’s greatest test of eye-foot coordination.

28 mobile May 3, 2012 at 2:53 pm

A complete set of college data should be easy to get,
even up to NCAA Division III, no? With that you could get an upper bound on the number of 7 footers that don’t get to the NBA.

29 Roy May 3, 2012 at 3:10 pm

At the crudest level just having a slow huge guy standing in the way can be very useful, as a long time Rockets supporter, I think this is a recipe for mediocrity, but it can get you pretty far. Also I have the experience of my own juvenile basketball career.

I reached 5′ 10″ by the beginning of sixth grade, and 6′ 1″ at the end of it. I was also incredibly near sighted and one of the most physically clumsy people you will ever meet. I was actually recruited for junior high basketball, and after a coach talked to my doctor, who was terrible at extrapolation by the way, recruited for high school. I was a terrible basketball player in every way but every team I was on from 6th to 9th grade was undefeated, I was just instructed to stand there and obstruct without running into anyone. I actually just through humiliation at being such an oaf learned to shoot free throws by practicing for hours every night, so by high school the instruction changed to stand in the way and get them to foul you. I truly hated it, but it got me out of baseball, so it wasn’t all that bad.

30 Insight May 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Some of this is tall kids getting selected for more and better coaching and competitive play time, like the early month hockey players from Gladwell’s Outliers. That is to say, tall people in the NBA are more skilled than they would be if they were short as kids and then had their height surgically enhanced. How much is due to that effect and how much is due to some inherent advantage to height is hard to say.

31 mpowell May 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm

It’s not that hard to say: it’s mostly due to height. If you play basketball against taller opponents, you figure this out pretty quickly. It takes a lot of talent to make up 2 or 3 inches, let alone many more.

32 jmo May 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm

It takes a lot of talent to make up 2 or 3 inches, let alone many more.

That’s what she said.

33 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 4:05 pm

I used to argue that you still had to be highly athletic to make it in college basketball as a 7-footer. My friend who had been to three colleges scoffed: there had been one 7-footer on each campus he’d attended, and he was the center on the basketball team.

I then realized that when I was at Rice, there were two 6-11 guys, and they were the center and back-up center (by the way, the coaches hated the back-up center because they were always catching him in the library studying — they were suspicious that he was cynically exploiting them by using his scholarship to get an education.) Then at UCLA for my MBA in 1980-82, out of 35,000 students, there were two 7-footers: Stuart Gray, who went on to 7 journeyman seasons in the NBA and his backup Mark Eaton, 7-4, who went on to be NBA Defensive player of the year twice.

34 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm

However, the percentage of tall American white guys who make it to the NBA has fallen over the last generation.

35 Ranjit Suresh May 3, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Yet European 7 footers and near 7 footers have increased their representation in the NBA. It’s true, the classic American 7 foot stiff like Chris Dudley isn’t going to cut it, but a skilled white center with an outside touch is lottery pick material.

36 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Having watched Paul Mokeski (a classic white journeyman backup NBA center of the 1980s) mature from his high school junior to senior seasons, I can imagine it’s harder psychologically and physically for slow-maturing gawky white giants to compete with fast-maturing blacks in America. If they were born in Lithuania or wherever, they’d only be competing against other whites until they were ready for big time competition. That has to be less discouraging psychologically for adolescent egos.

37 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Another way to approach this question is to make up a list of all the extremely tall men who are famous but not famous as basketball players. It’s a pretty short list: Michael Crichton the novelist might have been 6-10, JK Galbraith 6-9 (Keynes 6-6), the pretender to the throne of Albania is sometimes said to be a seven footer, etc….

38 jmo May 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Paul Volker is 6’7″.

39 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm


And Robert Reich is under 5″ and Milton Friedman wasn’t much over.

Economics: the large-variance field!

40 Clark May 3, 2012 at 5:57 pm

Penn Jilette says he is 6′ 7″. He briefly played basketball in college but quit after his coach hit him in his arm.

41 Clark May 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm

Sorry – that should say briefly played basketball in high school not college.

42 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Right, the consensus at CelebrityHeight.com is that he’s 6’6″.5, or reasonably rounding up, 6′-7″.

Comedians and comic actors might tend to be taller on average. I don’t know, it just seems possible. Some tall comedians make use of their height (e.g., John Cleese goosestepping in Fawlty Towers) while others don’t seem to bother (e.g., Vince Vauhgn).

43 PFOJ May 3, 2012 at 10:05 pm

I’d be upset with myself if I didn’t mention that Joey Ramone and Thurston Moore are both 6’7″ or so.

44 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 10:24 pm

In 1982, I ran into Joey Ramone and his mom standing on a street corner in Greenwich Village eating ice cream cones. He looked about 6’5″ to me.

45 Rocinante May 4, 2012 at 12:47 pm

There are quite a lot of very tall specimen running around on rugby fields – the tallest ones typically wear the number 4 or 5 jersey. Andries Bekker, who currently plays for the Cape Town-based Stormers, is around 2.11m (6-11?).

46 kiwi dave May 4, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Charles de Gaulle was 6’5″, as was the grea Douglas Adams.

47 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm

The average height in the NBA did not increase from about 1986 to 2006, which was the last time I checked. With the big increase in international players available, that suggests that the premium for being tall has declined.

I suspect that teams are now less likely to invest in the classic slow-maturing gawky white American giant, like Mark Eaton (who was a s 24-year-old backup center and ex-auto mechanic at UCLA) or Paul Mokeski (whom I saw as an extremely bumbling high school junior), both of whom turned out to be effective players when they finally matured in their late 20s.

48 careless May 3, 2012 at 7:10 pm

See Omer Asik, Turkish player drafted in 2008, stayed in European leagues until last season when he was ready to come over and now plays at some semblance of starting center level at age 25. But being native to the euro leagues certainly makes that easier to stick with as a player

49 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 4:29 pm

It’s an interesting question that I’ve never seen studied: toward what sports are 21st century white American parents steering their extremely tall sons now that basketball seems less automatic: pitcher, quarterback, soccer goalie, swimmer, volleyball, water polo, or what?

I mean, if you are German parents and your son is Dirk Nowitzki, well, sure why not have him play basketball? He can likely make the German national team at least. But if you are American parents, and you’ve been taught that basketball is a black sport, then you start thinking about other options for your very tall son.

This kind of thinking may help explain the remarkable decline in star American-born white players in the NBA relative to whites from whiter countries like Canada (Steve Nash) and Germany (Nowitzki), who didn’t have to face much black competition until they were more mature.

50 Peter May 3, 2012 at 6:18 pm

I would imagine that quarterback ranks first, followed by pitcher and then soccer goalie. None of the other tall-advantage sports pay much if anything.

51 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 7:23 pm

Right, but a lot of minor sports pay off in college scholarships, which is an obsession among 2-parent couples these days. Say your 10-year-old son is tall and strong but not particularly nimble. Would you point him toward basketball, with its hip-hop culture, or, say, water polo in the hope of him getting a scholarship to Stanford or somewhere like that?

52 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 7:30 pm

One way to study which sports middle and upper middle class white parents are currently choosing is to look at the many lists posted on the web by Jewish organizations of Jewish athletes.

My vague impression is that this is a quite good era, for example, for Jewish baseball players. Baseball used to be an egalitarian sport that practically every kid in America played, and the talented ones could get a little coaching. But now it’s an increasingly expensive sport where the stars are groomed from an early age via parents shelling out for travel teams and private coaching.

53 sm89 May 3, 2012 at 9:04 pm

I’ve never made a comment this rude before, but it needs to be said by someone. Steve Sailer you are a racist.

54 msgkings May 3, 2012 at 11:35 pm

sm89, no need to apologize, your comment was pretty tame.

It was, however, blindingly obvious.

55 Ranjit Suresh May 3, 2012 at 11:53 pm

Well, I appreciate Steve Sailer as a hardened, albeit informed racist.

What intrigues me is to the extent to which he combines Aryan white nationalism with philosemitism.

The former I can understand, putting myself into Anglo or Nordic shoes. The latter, not so much, unless pigment cell content is the only criterion.

56 Noumenon May 4, 2012 at 12:56 am

sm89, I had the exact same reaction when I first encountered Sailer five or six years ago, and I still feel the same today… BUT, I read his blog daily and even donate money, because he’s got such an interesting and fact-based perspective on things. If all racism were Sailer-style, dividing by race because it says something genuinely interesting about the world, I think racism might actually gain some acceptability. It’s not the ugly John Derbyshire or Ron-Paul-newsletter racism that’s just based on fear or hate.

That’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.

57 Steve Sailer May 4, 2012 at 2:27 am

Everybody in the world with an active mind is interested in human biodiversity, whether height, race, or whatever. Look at the recent Jeremy Lin excitement or the brouhaha over the “Girls” Whiteness Crisis. The only way not to be interested in it was described by Orwell:

“Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.”

58 Ryan May 4, 2012 at 3:25 am

“One way to study which sports middle and upper middle class white parents are currently choosing is to look at the many lists posted on the web by Jewish organizations of Jewish athletes.”

I’m not sure that’s a good way to study this. Jewish kids don’t seem to bank their futures on doing well in relatively obscure sports. Do Jewish kids aggressively pursue things like lacrosse to get college scholarships? That seems like a gentile thing. Most Jewish kids don’t even need an angle like this due to high intelligence and academic ability.

59 delingpole May 4, 2012 at 4:24 am

Aryan white nationalism is Nordicism. I don’t think Sailer is a Nordicist.

I believe Sailer was born Jewish but was adopted by Aryans.

60 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Here’s another study that could be done that has fascinating implications: What % of black seven-footers are in prison versus blacks of average height? This is a potentially terrific nature v. nurture study because black 7-footers are given all sorts of nurture that black 6-footers aren’t given: lots and lots of adult male coaching, free college, special tutoring in college, rich team supporters to make their legal mishaps disappear, incentives of great wealth if you stay on the straight and narrow, and so forth.

My guess is that nurture is pretty powerful in this case, that black 7-footers are much less likely to be in prison than black 6-footers. But somebody should study it to see if my hypothesis is correct.

61 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 5:40 pm

For example, if Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest) were a foot shorter, where would he be today?

62 Peter May 3, 2012 at 6:19 pm

It’s probably very difficult to be an exceptionally tall criminal because you’re too easy to identify.

63 mike pesca May 3, 2012 at 5:19 pm
64 Daryl May 3, 2012 at 6:28 pm

You’re comparing the 70 7-footers in the US at present (one point in time) with the sum total of the 7-foot NBA players in the US who made their debut in the last 20 years. If you want to have the correct denominator in your case, you would have to find some way to estimate the total number of different 7-foot tall men who would have been between 20-40 at some point in the last 20 years. Would likely be more than 70.

Otherwise, the current number of 7-foot NBA players born in the US for the 2010-11 season was 20. So of the 70 current 7-footers, assuming the CDC’s data are correct, 20 are in the NBA, and among the 50 remaining all we can say is that they are not currently in the NBA, though some of them may be retired/washed out former NBA players. Still seems like an awfully high percentage.

65 Mike Pesca May 17, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Well sure, that would be the perfect comparison, but since I don’t have those numbers, and they may not even exist, the stats that I do have are fairly useful. 7 foot tall Americans who made their NBA debut in the last 20 years are almost all living, and almost all between 20-40. There are 63 in all. The post says there are 70 US 7 footers NBA and Non-NBA between those ages. I am saying that the 70 number is implausibly low.

66 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm

CelebrityHeight.com is an excellent reference for getting attested heights of celebrities from hobbyists who are obsessed with standing next to celebrities and carefully judging how tall they are. The number of celebrities who are non-athletes over, say, 6-7 is minimal.

67 Daryl May 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm

A search on Basketball Reference for players 7′ and taller who played this season shows 20 players, 17 who are exactly 7′ tall. I thought this might indicate some rounding up to 7′, which would skew the data, but there are also 30 players at 6′ 11″, 37 at 6′ 10″, and 49 at 6′ 9″.

68 Mark Thorson May 3, 2012 at 7:36 pm

And how many Jews are in the NBA?

69 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 7:42 pm

Not as many are players as are executives in the NBA!

Jordan Farmar, who is African-American on his father’s side and Jewish on his mother’s and step-father’s side, is the first player to come to mind.

You can look for more here:


70 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm

Seven-footers are extremely rare in daily life.

I once was walking north on Rush St. in Chicago and found myself about 20 feet behind Bill Walton, who insisted on listing himself at 6-11, but is widely believed to be taller. (He also has very broad shoulders, so even in middle age he’s quite a physical specimen). So, to see what impact that size has on people, I watched a few hundred Rush St. denizens (typically, 20-something Big Ten grads out barhopping) walk past him. The majority, especially women, looked back to gape. Judging by their conversations (“Who’s that?” “I don’t know!”), very few of the young women recognized Walton, but they definitely did not take his size in stride.

71 Spyder May 5, 2012 at 1:05 am

I saw Juwan Howard (not quite a 7-footer, but close) on Rush St. in Chicago a couple summers ago. He was standing in front of Gibson’s Steakhouse and chatting with Jesse Jackson Sr.

72 Ronald Brak May 3, 2012 at 8:01 pm

I would think that a large proportion of people seven or more feet tall (2.13 metres for people with ten fingers) would be in too poor physical shape to play basketball. Being that tall can result in serious hip and other problems. This would increase the portion of physically able 7+ footers in the NBA.

73 maguro May 3, 2012 at 8:32 pm

What percentage of NBA 7-footers are actually 6’9″ or 6’10”? Quite a few, I would guess.

74 albert magnus May 3, 2012 at 9:06 pm

Hakeem Olajuwon always complained about being listed as 7′ since he was about 6’10” and looking up at his competition.

75 Steve Sailer May 4, 2012 at 2:15 am

Kevin Love, who was always listed at 6’10” in high school and college, was measured at 6′ 7.75″ barefoot for the NBA draft.

76 RSS May 3, 2012 at 9:06 pm

I’m wondering whether the curve of a nationally-drawn data set allowed for the fact that a chunk of the 7+footers come from countries outside the data pool (i.e., not the U.S.), thereby reducing the odds that an *American* male over 7 feet will end up in the NBA. Some very tall Americans also play overseas. So a better question, had we data: How many of the 7+footers in the *world* play any kind of professional basketball?

77 Ray Lopez May 3, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Regarding the violation of textbook physics: I recall making possibly the same argument in college–and it was ignored. Don’t have access to the article however, just the abstract.

78 Steve Sailer May 3, 2012 at 10:27 pm

To estimate how many 7-footers there are in the country, you could look abroad to countries that have universal male conscription. They have datasets on the height of all young men at a certain age, such as 19.

79 Douglas Knight May 3, 2012 at 11:57 pm

What is this CDC data? For BRFSS, the CDC calls people and asks them how tall they are. 13 people claimed to be 7 foot men between the ages of 20 and 40, which they extrapolated to 40k in the US. They are exaggerating: more claim to be exactly 7′ than either 6’11 or 6’10. But so too are the pros. Another CDC study is NHANES, which actually measures people, but it’s probably too small to find any at 7′. It would be a good way to find out how much people lie about being 6’6″. Conscription data would be a good way to determine the shape of the height distribution.

80 Steve Sailer May 4, 2012 at 2:14 am

The last NHANES study, which the government runs every so often for the benefit of the clothing industry, had a total sample size of 19,500 (both sexes).


The 95th percentile for American men (all ages, all races) was 6′ 2.3″. So, there’s just under 500 men in the sample above that height. I imagine the raw data is publicly available for anybody who is interested in testing out how much it follows a normal probability distribution at the high end.

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