Larry Bird caused a mini-storm this week when ESPN interviewer Jim Gray asked him, "Does the NBA lack enough white superstars in your opinion?" and he said, "I think so."
The question came during a roundtable discussion that also included Bird's longtime rival and friend Magic Johnson and the Bird and Johnson of today, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. The interview was to air Thursday night. ESPN released a partial transcript and showed highlights on Wednesday.
The reaction to Bird's comments -- during which he said basketball is "a black man's game" and called African-Americans the best athletes in the world -- has fallen roughly into four categories:
I am absolutely, positively sure of very few things in this constantly surprising world, so it gives me pleasure to be able to mention one of them, and here it is: When you're talking about America, the statement "race isn't an issue" is always wrong. Always.
Here's what Bird said: "You know when I played, you had me and Kevin [McHale] and some others throughout the league. I think it's good for a fan base because as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America. And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited. But it is a black man's game, and it will be forever. I mean, the greatest athletes in the world are African-American."
Johnson agreed."We need some more L.B.s -- Larry Birds," he said. "Larry Bird, you see, can go into any neighborhood. When you say Larry Bird, black people know who he is, Hispanics, whites, and they give him the respect."
James and Anthony begged to differ. "When you're a kid and you used to go outside, it didn't matter who was the best player in the league," James said. "If Bird was my favorite player, I'm out shooting threes, and I'm saying 'Larry Bird.' If Magic was my best player, I'm out there throwing my best passes. It's not the race issue, if you can play the game of basketball, you know fans are going to love you."
"Race is not an issue," Anthony said. "Where I'm from, people love the Yao Mings, the Dirks [Nowitzki], the Pejas [Stojakovic]. They love these guys."
It's significant that all three players Anthony named are foreign-born. Bird mentioned foreigners, said it's great they're all coming into the league and everything, but what he was talking about was American-born white players. He's right. International players are a different story, similarly "other" to the white American fan base Bird talked about.
It's true, as Pistons coach Larry Brown and others have pointed out, that any basketball fan of any race would happily pay to watch black superstars like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, not to mention international stars like Nowitzki and Yao. It's also true that Magic Johnson, like Larry Bird, can walk into any neighborhood and be welcome.
But it's naive to think that a white American superstar wouldn't give a boost to the bottom line.
Magazine publishers have known for decades that issues with white faces on the cover tend to sell more copies than issues with darker faces. When boxing's search for a "Great White Hope" began in the early 1900s it was born out of pure, unapologetic racism, but it continues today because white fighters sell more tickets than non-white fighters do. Why do you think there have been so many club fighters with the nickname "Irish"? Even without a photo, it lets a boxing poster send an unmistakable message to would-be ticket-buyers.
And while I'm sure James is right that kids mostly pick their favorite players based on the players' games and not their skin color, he naively ignores the point that one reason Bird and Johnson were the most imitated, most popular players of their era was the racial subtext to their rivalry that helped make it so compelling.
Bird was occasionally called overrated by black contemporaries, most notably Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman of the arch-rival Pistons, who said he'd be thought of as just another player if he weren't white. That was just dumb. Bird was one of the greatest players ever, black or white. But what took him to that next level of popularity? It certainly wasn't his warm, bubbly, winning personality, as it was for Magic.
Bird was a dullard, an uninteresting, unsparkling fellow off the court who seemed to be little more than a basketball-playing machine. In other words, he had the same kind of persona that supposedly keeps the immensely talented Tim Duncan from becoming a stratospheric superstar. But Bird was white, so you sure saw him awkwardly mumbling his way through a lot more commercials than Duncan does.
But it's not just naiveté that made James and Anthony, who are 19 and 20, disagree with Bird and Johnson, who are 44 and 47. They grew up in a different world than their elders, a world in which the black and white youth cultures are far less separate than they used to be.
In their world, the current one, a black art form, hip-hop, is the music, fashion and slang of choice among suburban white kids. Black coaches, executives and even quarterbacks aren't unusual. It's not notable at all when a black person is the star of a TV show. I'm younger than Bird or Johnson, and none of those things were true when I was a teenager. Shoot, you never even saw black artists on MTV. This is all nothing but progress.
In 20 years, LeBron James' generation will be running the world, and it's likely that race will mean less then than it does today, as it means less now than it did 20 years ago. But it will still mean something.
In the meantime, I don't know what to do about Bird being right that a white American superstar would be good for the league. Like Magic said, the league needs more Larry Birds. It could also use more Magic Johnsons and, while we're at it, more LeBron Jameses, of whatever color. But superstars are born more than made, so you pretty much have to take what you get, which right now is James, Anthony, Bryant, Duncan, Nowitzki, Yao and so on. Pretty good.
What the NBA can do, though, is work harder to chip away at another part of Bird's comment: "The majority of the fans are white America." That will always be true too. Seventy-five percent of Americans are white, according to the 2000 census, though in the big cities where the NBA has teams that figure is lower.
Crowds in NBA arenas won't and shouldn't ever look like NBA rosters, overwhelmingly black. But right now they're overwhelmingly white. If they looked a little more like the population outside the arena, then the lack of white American superstars would mean even less than it does now.
And here's one more little bit of progress: Ten years ago, Bird would have been fighting to save his job after saying something slightly controversial about race. If it's OK to open your mouth about race, even OK to say something that makes people squirm a little, we must be getting somewhere.
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