Follow That Bird
Why does every white basketball player get compared to Larry Legend?
As far as we've come in pro sports, we've yet to reach the point where white basketball players can be comfortably compared to their black peers (and vice versa). One problem is that black basketball players don't have many white peers. The pool of modern-day African-American basketball stars is orders of magnitude larger than that of white ones. When it becomes clear that Grant Hill—or Harold "Baby Jordan" Miner, for that matter—isn't the next Michael Jordan, it's easy to ratchet things down a notch or 12. But if a white swingman falls short of Bird territory, revising him down to an appropriate level is almost too cruel. The next Tom Gugliotta? The next Brian Scalabrine?
To be fair to Adam Morrison, he is a better case study than his Caucasian brethren—he consciously modeled himself after Bird, even emulating his patented high-release shot. It's also true that the current player whose skills most align with Bird's is the Mavs' Nowitzki. Europeans like Nowitzki, Peja Stojakovic, and Pau Gasol come closer to matching Bird's size and skill than any of the stiff-legged white Americans now plying their trade in the NBA. Still, none of these guys are in the same league with Bird when it comes to passing or toughness—they just make the American guys look even more pitiful by comparison.
The folly of strict racial comparisons is clear when you try to conjure Bird's best historical analogue. The only other scoring big man who could match Larry Legend's rebounding ability, floor-bound approach, and pure mastery of the space around him is Magic Johnson. And he isn't white.
A 1997 Sports Illustrated piece argued that the lack of white stars in the NBA has caused a "white inferiority complex." As a consequence, half-decent players become whites in shining armor. In that SI piece, Keith Van Horn complains that ever since he was in high school he felt the burden of being compared to Bird. Who did he liken himself to? African-American swingman Derrick McKey.
Bird is one guy who never had a white inferiority complex. Actually, he did—he thought every white player was inferior to him. Last year, Bird said in an interview that back in his playing days he "really got irritated when they put a white guy on me." Why did he care if whitey guarded him? "[B]ecause it's disrespect to my game."
The fact that every fair-haired forward gets compared to the Celtics great means that Bird's leaden feet—rather than his scoring, rebounding, or passing—will be his legacy. Now that's disrespectful.