LOS ANGELES — It was less than an hour after Boston beat Detroit for the Eastern Conference title that the ugly whispers started in the press room.
“Did you hear? . . . ” they began.
“Isiah Thomas said what? . . . “
“Dennis Rodman said what? . . .”
You could feel it swell like an ocean wave. Rodman had commented in the losers’ locker room about Larry Bird’s being “overrated” because he was white. And Thomas, when asked, had said he agreed. And that was enough.
Out it came, as if someone dropped a brick on an open tube of toothpaste. Stories. Headlines. Racism. Reverse racism. And Monday, the Pistons’ switchboard was jammed with calls from around the country, and people were canceling their season tickets, and newspaper columnists were licking their chops and digging in, most of them never bothering to call Thomas or Rodman or Bird.
Enough. Everybody calm down. Otherwise, we’ll have 1,000 dumb reactions instead of just two.
Stupid. Plain stupid is all you can call both players’ comments. Obviously, Bird is a phenomenal talent, whether white or purple. But to be fair, you can’t label this “racism” and stop there. You have to look at the circumstances, the questions and the players involved. That’s not apologizing. That’s called understanding.
From Rodman, the words are hardly a shock. If you’ve ever interviewed this 26-year-old rookie you know he is immature, excitable and pliable, a guy who can be led to say almost anything if you ask the right way. He had just been mopped up by Bird in the most important game of the year, the game that ended the Pistons’ season, Bird had scored 37 points, and some reporter asked him for an impression and Rodman went off: “He ain’t God, he ain’t the best player in the NBA. Not to me. . . .
“Why has he won MVP three times?” someone asked.
“He’s white,” Rodman answered. “That’s the only reason he gets it. . . . I don’t care. Go right ahead and tell him.”
Stupid? Yes. Racist? Sure — if you interpret the words literally. Coming from Rodman, however, a guy who lived for years with a white family, it seems more like a desperate attempt to chop down an opponent who had just outplayed him. It was a childish insult, but one, at that moment, no one could point to on a stat sheet and say, “Uh-uh, Dennis. Look here. You’re wrong.”
He used it; which doesn’t excuse it. Rodman owes Bird and basketball an apology. He has yet to learn what Isiah Thomas should already know: Just because someone asks you a question, doesn’t mean you let your mouth go wild.
Which brings us to Thomas, a more puzzling culprit. Reached Tuesday by phone, he seemed almost relieved to explain himself.
“Bad timing,” he said. “I’m sorry that what I said came out right after we lost. It was perceived as sour grapes, and then it was intertwined with what Rodman said and that’s unfortunate, because what I’m talking about is something completely different.”
The comment Thomas made — in response to a question about Rodman’s comment — was this: “I think Larry is a very, very good basketball player. An exceptional talent, but I have to agree with Rodman. If he were black, he’d be just another good guy.”
Thomas, however, claims he was referring less to Bird himself than to the stereotyping of black and white ball players. “It was my fault,” he admitted.
“I should have clarified that. I guess when you’re talking in your mind and talking out your mouth, well, it was two different subjects.
“What I meant was the stereotypes of black and white ball players 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. . . .
“It’s like, with us, if we don’t practice we’ll be good anyway, you know?”
Thomas said he had been upset with the TV announcing of the Celtics-Pistons series, claiming the CBS crew (particularly Tom Heinsohn) too often referred to the Pistons as “the athletes, run, run, jump, jump,” and the Celtics (with more white players) as “the thinking team.” It is a pattern, he said, that he sees during college TV broadcasts as well.
“I know it may be just one announcer, but that one guy speaks to three or four million people, and he creates a perception, and that continues a stereotype.
“That’s what I was trying to say. I really wasn’t talking about Larry. I really wasn’t talking about a black-white thing. I was talking about stereotypes.”
For the record, Thomas’ more complete opinion of Bird is this: “He’s the best in the league at his position, without a doubt. I think Magic (Johnson) is the best player in the game today. And Bird is second. If there was no press, no media, I’d still take Bird on my team. I’d take Kevin McHale, too.”
All of which is well and good. All of which does not excuse his comment on Saturday. He is too experienced not to know that the post-game locker room is not the place to make sweeping statements about race. And that people are not going to sit with a sentence that begins, “If Bird were black . . . ” and not make something of it.
“Why did you feel you had to say anything?” he was asked.
“As a black person, if I chose not to say anything, then all the things my mother went through in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, all the things people got their heads busted for, sprayed with hose guns, dogs biting them, all the things Martin Luther King died for, all those things would be for nothing.”
Now, you can make an argument for Isiah’s protesting too much. You can say none of this was implied by the question. You can say he should have defused Rodman’s words, and saved the speeches for a better time and place.
But the star guard, still just 26, has been more and more hard-edged in recent months. He has not hesitated to make bold statements: telling people his team is the best, that other teams “can’t win in my house,” that the referees in Boston are partial, and that people don’t give the Pistons — or him — proper credit (he twice told an LA reporter he thought he should be the league MVP this season). The halo he has worn since arriving in Detroit six years ago has more and more been replaced by a podium from which he now chooses to preach.
This is not unusual. Many star athletes, after a certain number of years, begin to speak out on sensitive issues they might have avoided before. Thomas’ recent involvement with Detroit’s No Crime Day and political company such as Mayor Young and Jesse Jackson have apparently strummed a chord he will now play in public.
“I probably wouldn’t have said these things four years ago,” Thomas admitted. “I don’t think four years ago people really understood me as a human being. They understood me as a basketball player, but not as a person.
“I feel now that I can . . . make a remark about stereotypes without it being taken as ‘Isiah is a racist’ or ‘Isiah doesn’t like white people. . .
That will be put to the test. Likable or not, Isiah will not be forgiven everything. Those callers jamming the Pistons’ switchboard are probably not itching to throw him support. Many, no doubt, compare this incident with the Al Campanis blunder on network TV a few months ago. (Campanis was fired, but remember, he was a top executive, whose thoughts supposedly determined Dodgers policy. Rodman and Thomas simply play for the organization. They don’t run it.)
Besides, before you lambaste Isiah, remember this: His biggest crime was simply leaving a dangerous statement floating. Much of what he says hits the mark. Stereotypes still do exist. The word “athlete” is too often used by broadcasters to imply black, and the image of a kid shooting hoops in his driveway all day is too often thought of as white.
On Bird, he and Rodman were out of line. Great is great — regardless of color. But remember that the comments came in Boston Garden, just minutes after Detroit’s dream season had come to a crashing end thanks to the unrelenting Celtics. If ever there was a bad time to ask about Bird. . . .
“If you were asked the same question, same circumstances today, what would you do?”
“I would expand,” Thomas said. “Definitely. I would expand.”
So OK. He has now done so, albeit a few days late. And inevitably, people will now say, “It doesn’t matter. If a white guy made those statements, he’d be crucified.”
And that would be wrong, also. This whole racial question has become such a tinderbox, that even to have a discussion about it implies some sort of explosion. And if you can’t discuss, you can’t change anything.
So everybody take a deep breath and exhale. This is not a call to war. Sure, you can be hard-line and say, “The words are there. In print. They can’t take them back.” But if you do so, ask yourself this: What is it you truly desire? An explanation or an indictment?
Those seeking the former will hear Thomas’ and Rodman’s statements, and perhaps remember times they themselves said things they didn’t mean, or didn’t fully explain, or just plain shouldn’t have said.
And hopefully, they will come to wiser conclusions. Two mistakes of judgment are bad enough.
Two thousand more won’t help a damn thing. CUTLINE: Isiah Thomas (left): “Bad timing. . . . I should have clarified”; Dennis Rodman: immature, excitable.