LOS ANGELES — In the afternoon the whole thing seemed almost laughable. That’s what Isiah Thomas and Larry Bird were doing a lot of, anyhow — sitting at a table in front of countless microphones and cameras. Laughing.
“Hey,” said Bird, of the single sentence that had led to this enormous press conference, “if Isiah said he was joking I think we should leave it at that. Besides, I don’t think Isiah is stupid. He knows I’m a baaaad player.”
“I know it after you stole that pass in Game 5, for sure!” said Thomas.
“I like Isiah,” Bird said.
“I like Larry,” Isiah said.
How much better was this than the anger that had preceded it? How much better than the headlines and headaches that followed Thomas’ infamous comment after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final: “If Larry Bird were black he’d be just another good guy” ?
How much better was this than all the speculation: Was it a racist remark? Why did he say it? Could he really have been joking? Why? What? How much better was this? Two guys, one black, one white, laughing about the whole thing and saying, aw, forget it.
How much better? So much better.
“You should have known not to agree with Dennis Rodman anyhow,” Bird said, grinning at Thomas, whose comment was prompted by one by Rodman. “You never agree with a rookie!” The media got a message Good for them. Good for both of them. When they entered the room together, Thomas and Bird were caught off guard. “Whoa, what’s this?” they seemed to say. They expected some media at this thing — which Thomas had arranged and flown out for Thursday morning. But here were 75 to 100 reporters from around the nation, cameras and tape recorders buzzing, all just waiting to hear Thomas explain, to answer charges of racism, all just waiting to see whether Bird would sit there, stiff-lipped, condemning Thomas by his silence.
No way. These two players had been friends before this whole unfortunate incident turned from a sentence to sentencing, and they were friends now. They sat at the table and did the best thing possible. They behaved as themselves.
“All my life,” Thomas had explained, “I’ve tried to bring black, white, purple, green, Mexican, Puerto Rican people together, through basketball. The comment the other night. . . . I was joking. But it went from that” — he rolled his eyes at the crowd — “to this.”
“I wasn’t hurt by the comment at all,” Bird said. “I feel sorry for Isiah walking into this room and facing this. The thing has gone far enough.
“Besides,” he added, a grin forming, “I’m very proud that I’m a professional basketball player — considering I can’t run or jump. . . . “
They had gone full circle, back to the stuff that really goes on between black and white ball players in most locker rooms. Looking at each other. Teasing. Cracking up.
Laughter. Late show wasn’t as good The shame was that the scene could not be repeated on network TV Thursday night. Instead, at halftime of Game 2 of the NBA final between the Celtics and Lakers, Thomas was grilled by Brent Musburger — Why didn’t he say he was joking earlier? How did he feel about comparisons between him and Al Campanis? Without Bird alongside him, it seemed that Thomas was on the defensive. A tape of the original statement was played, you heard Thomas laugh, and Musburger asked him what kind of laugh it was. It was eerie, like a federal investigation, only there was no time for Isiah to elaborate. This, after all, was network TV. Short answers only.
So it is hard to say what people will think after that. Which is a pity. Because here is what they would have thought watching Bird and Thomas earlier: Good for them. Here were two of the NBA’s superstars, showing that fame doesn’t always mean you forget what’s important. Thomas had gotten himself into trouble, joking or not, and he’d spent several sleepless nights while the country took him to task until it threatened all the positive things he had done in his career.
So he called Bird, and he apologized, and then he asked for his help. And Bird said sure. And you got the feeling watching them, that had the situation been reversed, Thomas would have done the same. Neither player is a racist. How did this thing get so out of hand?
“Listen,” Bird had said, after enough had been said, “if it didn’t bother me, then I don’t see why it should bother all of you. And I don’t think we should be here all day on this, so. . . . I’m leaving.”
And he left, to the sound of laughter, Isiah’s included. Here finally was something good, something positive. A black guy sitting next to a white guy, talking about how their colors don’t matter. How much better was this? So much better.
You should have seen it.