Basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman was speaking on a panel last month and brought up comments he made about fellow Hall of Famer Larry Bird back in 1987. It happened so long ago that the details have been twisted and exaggerated.
In short, Rodman believed that Bird’s race played a significant factor in how he was perceived. Rodman’s teammate Isiah Thomas agreed at the time. Since then both men have been apologizing at every turn for this “crime against humanity.”
“Game 6 at Boston I made the most wrong decision that a person can make. At the time I didn’t know any better because I was so used to being in the projects, g*ddamn. … I was young and stupid, so after the game, I said If Larry Bird was black, he would be just an average basketball player. That is what I actually said back then, and I was in Boston. What was so cool about our team is that Isiah Thomas came to my defense. He took all that heat from me and said, ‘Dennis, just go to your car and drive back home to Oklahoma and stay there.’ I made a mistake but those times were different, its a different era these days, but my career escalated from that point on.”
Let’s take a look back at what actually happened for some context, because that matters.
Rodman’s Detroit Pistons and Bird’s Boston Celtics were bitter conference rivals from 1985-1991. They faced off five times in the playoffs. The Celtics would advance in ’85 and ’87, while the Pistons won three straight series beginning in 1988.
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All these series were hotly contested and more than one fight broke out. This was also the height of Bird’s legendary career.
In the locker room following the loss in ’87 a rookie Dennis Rodman was asked about Bird’s greatness and responded with his feelings at the time, via The New York Times.
“He’s not God. He ain’t the best player in the NBA, not to me… He’s white. That’s the reason he gets it the MVP award. Nobody gives Magic Johnson credit. He deserved it last year, too. I don’t care. Go ahead and tell him. You’ll put it in the paper anyway.”
Rodman said nothing about Bird being an average player. He said not the best. Thomas backed up his teammate.
“I think Larry is a very, very good basketball player. He’s an exceptional talent. But I have to agree with Rodman. If he were black, he’d be just another good guy.”
Again, where is the overrated or he’d be average statement? These guys just lost a hard fought series and you’re asking them about the greatness of the other opponent whom they almost beat. Of course they are going to feel some kind of way.
But we need more context.
The NBA prior to the 1980s was not a very popular league, the Finals were aired on tape delay, and the perception was the league was too Black and full of drug addicts.
Along comes Bird and the league has just what it needs to sell the game to America (read: a White fan base). The Great White Hope.
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What made the sell easy was Bird’s play. He was very good. Elite in fact. He won three consecutive MVP awards from 1984-86. Though the case can easily be made Utah Jazz swingman, Adrian Dantley, who led the league in scoring, win shares, and WS/48 was the better player in 1984.
Regardless, Bird was that dude on an iconic franchise that won three titles and played in some of the most epic playoff series in history.
However during his playing days in the 1980s, aside from Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson, who else was getting talked about as a very good or great player in the media? The Bird talk could seem excessive to other players.
In the 80’s the NBA media was overwhelmingly white. The league was desperate for a white star to sell to a larger fan base. Did media go overboard with its Bird narratives? Probably.
After those comments, Thomas had to travel to Los Angeles during the ’87 Finals to have a joint press conference with Bird and apologize. What?! How insane is that?!
The media created the need for the apology because they, as white people, took it as a crime against all white people. How dare another player, a Black one at that, not worship at the altar of the great Larry Bird?!
In the aftermath of that Celtics vs. Pistons series the only response was effusive praise and reverence. Rodman and Thomas didn’t play along and have been apologizing for the last 35 years.
That’s the thing about America, the backdrop of our race dynamic is almost always lurking.
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