NBA Talking Points: What If Bird Was Black?

Okay, so the headline's a little jarring, especially paired with that mullet-mustache look that Bird's sporting there. But hear me out. Imagine someone reading about Larry Bird for the first time.

He was so self-confident that he was known to waltz up to the opponents' bench before tipoff and predict a 40-point performance for himself. ... Such a deadly shooter that he sometimes practiced three-pointers with his eyes closed. ... Idolized by fans and basketball purists of all allegiances. His last-second heroics, ranging from seemingly impossible reverse layups to miraculous 35-foot bombs over multiple defenders, never ceased to amaze those who followed his career.

"He has helped define the way a generation of basketball fans has come to view and appreciate the NBA," said Commissioner David J. Stern.

After only two seasons, fans, coaches and players knew exactly what he was all about: big numbers and clutch performances. Bird's concentration and composure were unmatched. He was unflappable and virtually unstoppable.

That's from Larry Bird's official NBA.com bio. Think about it. Reading those descriptions, someone unfamiliar with Bird would imagine a black player. He was a 6'9 forward with a deadly jumper, endless swagger, and a reputation for embarrassing anyone that had the gall to guard him one-on-one. Maybe it's the way he's described. Or maybe it's just that anyone that's uninitiated would make the reasonable assumption that one of the greatest basketball players in basketball history was black. But either way, that's what they'd assume, right? It's funny to think about.

Because for any basketball fan, sports fan, or even just a regular person that was alive during the 1980s, it's simply inconceivable that Larry Bird could have been a black man. Not for any negative reasons, just ... He's Larry Bird! Magic's black, Larry's white.

Down to every last detail—race, hometown, college team, pro team, playing style, personality—the dichotomy between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird was perfect. This was the only way it could have happened. Bird played in blue collar Boston, Magic amid the glitz in Hollywood. Bird was a ruthless scorer, Magic a brilliant creator.  In nearly every category, they were polar opposites. And given the cultural context, Bird's race made it all the more important. If Bird was black ... This would've just been basketball.

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Instead, It took on a cultural meaning that was bigger than the game, and in sports, established a prism for Rivalry through which all future rivalries have been understood. And even thirty years later, nobody's quite measured up to the standard set by Magic and Bird. That story was so good, you'd think it was scripted.

So of course it made for a phenomenal documentary.

One day, some movie studio will screw up and try to turn this story into a biopic, and it'll be a disgrace. Because there's no need to embellish the characters—just get Magic and Bird in a room, get them talking, and splice in some game footage. That's your movie. It can't fail. HBO's latest documentary, Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, was riveting, but that's not even a little surprising.

You could make ten Bird/Magic movies, and they'd all be just as successful. The stark contrast is no less compelling now than it was then. There's a moment in Magic and Bird where they cut to interviews with both players from 1984, just as the first Celtics-Lakers series was going to its seventh game.

In the Lakers locker room you've got Magic, smiling into the camera saying, "If everybody had to look at it, they probably would have said this is gonna be a seven game series." Then in the Celtics locker room, you've got Bird, head down and pissed off, before he deadpans, "I thought we'd sweep 'em in four. But this went a little longer, so now we gotta do it seven."

Moments like that are what this movie gives us. More insight into characters we feel like we already know. Magic Johnson the innocent, fun-loving prodigy, and Larry Bird, the insolent introvert, who seemed like a gruff veteran even as a rookie. Looking back at the seventh game in 1984, which the Celtics won, Magic laments, "I pride myself on being the guy who's going to win it for us, and deliver under pressure. And ... It didn't happen."

On the other side, Larry Bird was brutally honest, "I hope he was hurting, I hope it killed him. He made some bad plays down the stretch, and nobody in there was happier than me. Not only winning the game makes you feel good, but just knowing the other guy's suffering. And you know he was."

Cut to Michael Cooper, Magic's teammate: "I remember after the game, [Magic] and I were in the showers crying, and stayed in there crying for about 35-40 minutes."At this point, Bird and Magic legitimately didn't like each other. Magic's disappointment was compounded because it came at the hands of Bird, while Larry, as he freely admits, was elated to know that somewhere in the bowels of the Boston Garden, Magic was suffering. That's a rivalry.

 

And then the documentary takes us to this commercial shoot in French Lick, Indiana, and everything softens. Magic and Larry were the stars, and after some initial uneasiness, they were eating lunch with Georgia Bird and talking like friends, forging a bond that'd come to last a lifetime. Magic says with a smile, "We just became two relaxed guys, just talkin." Larry then stares into the camera, deadly serious as usual, "That day was great. It was a great day. Beautiful day." That's friendship.

That's what makes their relationship so great. As a rivals on the court, they produced some of the best basketball the NBA has ever seen. But off the court, too, they were such an odd pair. The type of friends where you always wonder what they could possibly talk about, but you get the feeling it's interesting. And with this documentary, we get to be a fly on the wall for some of those conversations. We hear each guy recount his thoughts as history was unfolding on the court and a friendship endured triumph and tribulations off it. It's fascinating, powerful stuff.

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But back to my first point. ... To some degree, people take the Bird and Magic rivalry for granted. We never ask "What if Larry Bird had been black?" or "What if Magic Johnson had gone 5th instead of 1st in the 1979 Draft?" He'd have been a Milwaukee Buck. It's not our fault, either. The rivalry has become so ingrained in sports—and even culture, at large—that it's just a forgone conclusion to most of us.

"Of course it happened that way," we say. "It was destiny. Without Bird and Magic, the NBA would have failed." But that's not really true. Without Bird or Magic, the NBA could have treaded water during the 1980s, waiting for America to become more racially tolerant, and then Michael Jordan would have arrived along with David Stern, and the league would have eventually thrived.

What is true though, is that Larry Bird and Magic represent a cosmic intersection so rare and so perfect, it almost defies explanation. There may be another Larry Bird or Magic Johnson, but something tells me there will never be another Bird and Magic. For two guys to be that good, and that distinct from their only competitive equal, and then become the best of the friends ... it's just amazing. And no, they didn't keep pro basketball from dying out, but their rivalry was certainly the first thing to give the NBA life in the mainstream.

You might expect a documentary to poke holes in the mythology of a rivalry like this, but watching Magic and Bird, it only enhances your appreciation for just how special these two were. Everything happened just right, at exactly the right time, and these two men became part of something that was bigger than basketball and bigger than themselves. It was about both of them: white and black, Boston and L.A., flash and fundamentals, and a hundred other opposing motifs that Magic and Bird embodied.

Larry Bird could just as easily have been a black superstar, but this one worked out just right.

Now then: go watch that documentary. It'll be running on HBO for the next few weeks, and available On Demand, as well. With that, onto the rest of this week's talking points...

2. KEVIN DURANT, STOP BEING QUITE SO AWESOME, OR I'LL MOVE TO OKLAHOMA CITY.

Speaking of Magic and Bird, Kevin Durant saw the film, too. From the Oklahoman:

"I was watching the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson documentary the other day. I’m similar to Bird. I like being at home. I like staying at my mom’s house and her cooking. That’s the kind of person I am. I’m not into the big city lights and the paparazzi, that type of stuff. I just love playing basketball and chillin’ out."

First of all, any player that can realistically compare his basketball obsession to Larry Bird ... well, that's a player that you want on your team. So that's number one. But also, Kevin Durant just seems like an awesome person. Rather than play up his role as "NBA superstar," he's far more comfortable chillin out at home and talking with his neighbors. They give him snacks, you know?

LeBron has Jay-Z, but Durant has some good ass Skittles, son!

And that's the other thing. While other superstars actively promote their free agency and fuel the media speculation about whether they may or may not leave, almost every quote you hear from Durant, he's showering praise on his franchise, and pledging his longterm allegiance. I still want him to come to D.C. when he's a free agent—a long shot, but there's still a chance that Scotty Brooks kills Durant's dog or something—but you have to respect his loyalty, and more than that, his humility. He's not trying to be an icon, he's just playin' basketball and chillin out.

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It's so refreshing as a fan, I'd almost want to move to Oklahoma City. Except ... Oklahoma City? If this were happening in Seattle, there would be a 50-50 chance I move out there for Durant's prime. Instead, Oklahoma City. Ugh.

Thanks, Clay Bennet!

3. DERRICK ROSE, VICTIM OF TERRIBLE KARMA.

Thursday night vs. Orlando, Derrick Rose went down with what's either a simple sprained wrist, or possibly, a fracture that will end his season. Just terrible. For the first two months of the year, he was slowed by ankle injury that made him look disturbingly human. Then, when he was finally healthy again, I called him a point guard created by aliens, and one his dunks prompted Jon Bois to write this:

I was looking away from the screen when I heard [the announcers'] reactions. I turned around expecting to see a zombie Richard Nixon juggling torches while riding a unicycle at half-court. This was even better.

When Derrick Rose is healthy, he's better than Zombie Richard Nixon! Do you know how good that is??? But unfortunately for everyone, he plays for the Bulls, a team with the laziest, most half-assed management in the league. We don't even need to get into it here (for more, click here or here). All you need to know is this: the Bulls have used Derrick Rose's brilliance to obscure their otherwise all-encompassing incompetence and apathy. While the owners make money hand over fist and point to a future that may never come (and hasn't for a decade), Derrick Rose is the one bright spot that makes everything better.

The problem, of course, is that people like the Bulls ownership can't succeed. The basketball Gods won't allow it, even if it means injuring one of the best young talents in the NBA. Does this mean I think that Derrick Rose will have his career ruined by karma? No, but look at this reporting from Alex Kennedy at HoopsWorld:

Steve Kyler from Bulls locker room says Derrick Rose will have an MRI in the morning, teammates don't believe he'll be playing anytime soon.

Rose had X-Ray after injury which didn't show a fracture but doctors say that the break is likely on the inside of wrist.

These types of fractures usually don't show up in X-rays which is why Rose is having the MRI in the morning.

Despite what the team is saying, nobody believes this is a sprain based on the amount of pain and anger Rose was showing.

Karma may not kill his career, but if Rose fractured his wrist Thursday night, he's done for the year. That means he'll have spent about three-and-a-half months of the year battling injuries or on the DL. In the long run, Rose's career will be fine, but this season's definitely seen a lot of bad luck. Coincidence? I say no. BLAME THE BULLS.

(HT: Ben Q. Rock, a.k.a. the best pseudonym ever)

4. SOME COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY SHOTS AT CLEVELAND AND LEBRON JAMES.

Okay, so last week we declared a moratorium on all Lebron Free Agency talk, so don't misinterpret this. But reading through the following passage, I couldn't help but chuckle. From Brian Windhorst in Cleveland:

LeBron James' ankle is fine. You should have seen him dash across the room to see the finish of the Knicks-Hawks game in the locker room after the game.

In this game of analyzing and then spinning everything LeBron within the free agency prism -- "What? He ordered a vodka tonic? Does that mean the Nets are still in the game?" -- I'm sure that will get all whipped into something. I probably shouldn't even be writing it because I'll be getting calls from New York radio stations for "my take" tomorrow.

But I did write about it because, well, LeBron is moving just fine on that ankle. And to pass along how it is always interesting to watch games with LeBron. Like when he's on the court, he usually sees things before they happen even on TV. He'll predict when players will go for backdoor lobs or scold players for not forcing the opponent into help or to his weak hand. You can really tell he watches a lot of film ... on everybody. For that matter, he also reads a lot about the game. He's very up on the happenings in the league.

Does that passage strike anyone else as kind of bizarre?

First of all, nobody really thought LeBron's ankle was a problem, but if it was, what does his ability to scurry across the locker room prove? It's amazing to me how defensive the Cleveland media is about even a tweaked ankle from King Bron Bron. And then there's the requisite, "I'm sure this will get blown out of proportion by those crrrrazy New Yorkers." You know, he "probably shouldn't even be writing it"; but he did, because he wanted to take the opportunity to say that anyone who thinks Lebron's leaving Cleveland is completely overanalyzing things.

But my favorite part is the end. ... "It is always interesting to watch games with LeBron. He usually sees things before they happen even on TV. You can really tell he watches a lot of film ... on everybody. For that matter, he also reads a lot about the game. He's very up on the happenings in the league." Jeez. Does the Cleveland media room come equipped with kneepads for all the beat writers?

I mean, I just don't believe that watching a game with LeBron is very much fun. Check the article.

Lebron's quotes during the end of the game are as follows.

Knicks up one with the the ball in the final seconds. Toney Douglas attempts to drive to the hole but gets the ball stolen by Jamal Crawford.

LeBron: "Oh, h--- no, you can't turn it over there. But you know J. Crawford loves last-second shots."

Hold up, you can't turn it over the final seconds? OHMYGOD how brilliant. And for the record, J. Crawford doesn't love last-second shots, he just loves shots, period.

Crawford drives length of floor and then dishes to Josh Smith on the baseline with a great pass for what appears to be an open dunk to win the game.

LeBron: "Ohhhhh, great look."

An assist that leads to a dunk is definitely a great look. Nice insight.

Wilson Chandler comes out of nowhere to reject Smith. The ball bounces into Al Horford's hands and he makes at short putback right at the buzzer.

LeBron: "Wowwwww, looks like the Hawks won."

Yeah? Atlanta has more points at the end of the game? LOOKS LIKE THE HAWKS WON.

Wait, officials go to replay. First look shows Horford's shot came after red light. No good, Knicks win (for third time in 11 games).

LeBron: "Oh, no, that's no good, that's no good. Ha, ha!"

See, LeBron can watch replays. You know what that tells me? He's a student of the game. Just everything you could ever want in a superstar. Really LeBron, WE LOVE YOU. YOU ARE PERFECT. And you know, even better than watching games with him, LeBron's got an awesome sense of humor. You'd really have to live in Cleveland to understand. Like how he's selfishly strung this city along for 18 months? Isn't that hilarious? Soooo funny. Ha, ha!

(In news that's possibly related, this past week, Forbes Magazine named Cleveland, Ohio the most miserable city in the United States. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, Jay-Z broke ground on a new stadium for the Nets. Hmm.)

(And finally, what can I say? I'm a Wizards fan and one of my best friends is from Cleveland. If I don't take shots at C-Town, I'm admitting defeat in a war of words that has lasted the past five years. No way.)

5. TORONTO, THE NEW NBA HOTSPOT

A decade ago, "American pro athletes used to think of Toronto as a backwater." Today, the city of Toronto has become a playground for international ballers of the highest order, prompting the Wall-Street Journal to explain Why Pro Athletes Love Toronto. And really, why do pro athletes love anything?

Athletes get a warm welcome at the city's relatively libertine gentlemen's clubs which ... tend to "clear out the champagne room" for visiting athletes.

That gets the award for best sentence of the article. Here's my favorite paragraph:

Knicks rookie Toney Douglas, who was descending the hotel elevator in a sparkling diamond necklace and a puffy vest, said he never goes out before games and isn't a fan of cold weather, but had heard from friends that Toronto, "party-wise," was one city worth making an exception for. "It's something different – it's another country," he said.

Can someone make sure that quote makes it into next year's NBA media guide?

Essentially he said this: I usually don't go out before games, but party-wise, I had to make an exception. Toronto's different. A whole other country, man. You heard about the gentleman's clubs out here?

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6. SONG OF THE WEEK.

For this week's Song of the Week, we go to Baltimore. Have you ever seen The Wire?

"OhMyGodIt'sTheGreatestShowInHistory."

If you've never seen it, you're probably tired of people spewing hyperbole at you about the virtues of the show. And that's alright. I missed the first three seasons as they happened, solely out of spite for the people that treated the show like some life-altering experience. It's not TV, it's HBO ... And a bunch of hopelessly pretentious hipsters ranting about urban decay.

Then I watched the show, and totally became one of those people. Point blank, it's the best show that's ever been on television and even now, two years after the season finale, I think about it every day. All of which is an introduction to this song, which I re-discovered this week, thanks to the magic of iTunes shuffle. Below, Baltimore rapper Blaqstarr teams up with M.I.A. to re-make The Wire theme song, "Way Down In The Hole."

Even if you don't watch The Wire, you have to admit ... This song's pretty awesome:

 

 

Until next week...

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