Larry Bird was Overrated
Les Payne, Newsday
IN THE THROES of a smashing defeat he helped design, basketballer Isiah Thomas lashed out at an opponent chiefly responsible for the Boston Celtics' triumph over the Detroit Pistons in a seven-game series.
"Larry Bird is a very, very good basketball player," said Thomas, an all-star guard for the Pistons. "An exceptional player. But I have to agree with (teammate Dennis) Rodman. If he were black , he'd be just another good guy."
Rodman, a rookie, was the first to say last week why Bird has been selected as the Most Valuable Player in the National Basketball Association for three separate years: "He's white."
The timing of Thomas' assessment of Bird, in the ashes of defeat, showed a lack of class. But the substance of the critique is true: Larry Bird is overrated.
Anyone as familiar with America's racial pathology as even Thomas and Rodman knows precisely why. Such truths, though, are not to be spoken.
In a game dominated 75 percent by black players, sportswriters have constructed an ivory altar and hoisted onto it the graven image of Larry Bird. It is considered heresy to liken him, in stories and broadcast, unto any other. Simply stated, Bird has been marketed, for reasons more psychological than commercial, as the Irreproachable White Hope.
A few years ago, I drew the wrath of my sporting readership by pointing out the chasm between Bird's performance and journalists' Olympian adulation of him. I wrote that Bird, who is a very fine forward, is not as great as sportswriters would have us believe.
No player is that great or ever has been - not Bob Cousy or Oscar Robertson or Elgin Baylor or Bill Russell or Jerry West or Wilt Chamberlain or Hal Greer or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Dr. J or the entire lot combined and placed in one pair of Nike sneakers.
Bird's artificial pre-eminence has not been measured by normal athletic yardsticks or sustained performance over a career. He's a good scorer but statistically not the best; so with his assists, his rebounding, his passing, his all-around ball control.
Larry Bird has never led the league in a single significant offensive or defensive category.
An athlete's greatness must be sketched with statistics. Not so with Bird; he doesn't need them. To corner his worshipers for proof of his supremacy is to reduce them, no matter how knowledgeable, to sweating fanatics blubbering idiotically about intangibles. He raises the level of his teammates' play. He moves well without the ball. He's everywhere. One otherwise intelligent fan, far gone in his idolatry, once told me that Bird was - of all things - intelligent.
This mockery gets at the very core of the Bird Mythology.Black players are instinctive; Bird is intelligent. They are labeled natural athletes; Bird, self-willed to greatness. Most leap, but Bird ascends. Others excite, but he can astound. Broadcasters continue to utter such nonsense during the current NBA finals this week.
This dual racial system exists throughout all professional sports, especially baseball, as pointed out sharply by Brent Staples in The New York Times Magazine.
Black baseball players have to be at least twice as good as white players, proving a peculiarity African-Americans long have known. Staples demonstrated this reality statistically by relying on figures compiled by Richard Lapchick, director of the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University.
Analyzing the records of all veteran players, Lapchick found, Staples wrote, that "32 percent of black major leaguers had lifetime batting averages of .280 or better, compared to 15 percent of white players. Forty percent of black pitchers, but only 11 percent of whites, had earned-run averages of under 3.00 per nine innings."
Staples weaves a compelling case against the dual racial system permeating every level of professional sports in American. This insane system is perpetuated by media that are themselves bloated top to bottom with journalists profiteering from an industry that - much more than sports - discriminates against blacks.
Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman may have had poor timing but certainly not poor analysis. The system that demands so much of blacks requires very little of whites. A statistical performance that would ensure Bird a seat in the Hall of Fame might barely keep a black player in the game.
Bird may likely be one of the best players in basketball today, but he does not, by any reasonable standard, deserve three MVP awards. As for being the best all-around basketball player ever to play the game, there is no pattern of facts or statistics pointing to him.
There are several well ahead of Bird. But the best all-around basketball player ever to play the game is Oscar Robertson.
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