by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

LOS ANGELES — I usually do not write about the same subject twice in two days, but if Isiah Thomas can fly halfway across the country to explain a 10-second remark, then the least I can do is devote a day’s space to the same purpose. Let’s get two things straight right now — which apparently some people missed in the column that appeared here Wednesday. 1) Isiah Thomas is not a racist. And 2) Isiah Thomas, like any one of us, has the right to say anything he wants. To deny either of these statements would be ignorant and incorrect. Thomas’ comment after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final that
“if Larry (Bird) were black he’d be just another good guy” was regrettable, not smart, but he deserves a chance to explain.

“What I meant,” Thomas said, “was the stereotypes of black and white ballplayers are still the same as they were 20 or 30 years ago. When Bird makes a great play, they say it’s his thinking and his work habits. When black players excel it’s referred to as god-given talent. . . . “

The above paragraph appeared in Wednesday’s column, as did many more in which Thomas expanded on what he says he meant, after which I wrote: “Before you lambaste Isiah, remember this: His biggest crime was simply leaving a dangerous statement floating.” Thomas admitted that.

Yet, Wednesday morning, the phones at this newspaper were ringing with people angry at the mere suggestion that Thomas had done anything wrong; just as the Pistons’ switchboards were jammed with callers Monday wanting his and Dennis Rodman’s heads for what they had said about Bird. Let the storm subside

What a hurricane words can create! On Monday, a Los Angeles Times columnist wrote, “Isiah embarrassed himself on and off the court.” On Tuesday, an LA Herald Examiner columnist called Thomas “Al Campanis revisited” and suggested that “the Pistons must be threatened with a boycott if Thomas isn’t fired.”

Wednesday, Thomas called a press conference for the local media to explain the whole mess. And tonight, Thomas will appear here at halftime of Game 2 of the NBA finals to explain himself to the whole country.

Enough. The problem, as always, is that people hear what they want to hear. Those looking to paint Thomas and Rodman as racists simply took the statements and ran. They never bothered to call either one.

And those looking to blindly defend Thomas and Rodman ignored the sting of their words behind misguided explanations like: “It’s a free country” and “the referees’ treatment justified what they said.”

Neither attitude is correct. If you want to be a good fan to Isiah, listen to what he says now: “I should have expanded. . . . that was my mistake.” Thomas is a good man, one of the best. But he is not a saint, he is not perfect, and you do him no favors by holding him to such standards.

And those of you ready to jump on Thomas as a racist for one sentence should first consider the man (and if you know him, you’ll stop right there) and then consider the circumstances:

I was present when that question was asked. It was less than a half-hour after the Pistons lost their biggest game of the year. Thomas was surrounded by at least 20 reporters. The remark took all of 10 seconds and then two dozen more questions were asked, none of which had anything to do with Bird or race. It was truly a puzzling, isolated remark. No one ever asked him to explain. Even Bird has forgiven

If anyone has a right to be upset over this thing, it is Bird — who, as stated here Wednesday, is a great player, whether white or purple. And here is what he said when asked about it Wednesday:

“Hey, it was in the heat of battle. I understand that. I’ve been in certain situations where I’ve blown off . . . there’s things I’ve said I wished I didn’t say. . . . Hey, I know Isiah. I don’t take that as a racist remark. .
. . It was just a frustrated comment. . . . I don’t hold nothing against Isiah.”

And so today, neither should anyone else. There was no need for Rodman’s obviously incorrect comments about Bird’s talents, but he made them. There was no need for Thomas to spend a sleepless night worrying if all he had done the first 26 years of his life was about to be tossed out the window. But he did. There was no need for all the overreaction, the angry phone calls, the insults. But it happened. It is the sad reality. Words are explosive.

And now, let us bury it. Thomas will make his statements tonight. Rodman,

we hope, will properly account for his words sometime soon, and — with the valid points raised by Thomas concerning stereotypes — the best thing that can happen is that a lesson is learned for future. Songwriters Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel wrote ” . . . A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

We’ve all just seen where that gets you.

Let’s not go there again.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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