Larry Bird, white basketball archetype.

The stadium scene.
Dec. 12 2005 5:17 PM

Follow That Bird

Why does every white basketball player get compared to Larry Legend?

The latest Great White Hope. Click on image to expand.
The latest Great White Hope

With seconds left and his team down one, Adam Morrison dribbled right, rose up from beyond the three-point line, and banked the ball high off the backboard. Impossibly, the shot fell through without touching rim, giving Gonzaga a dramatic win.

"Larry Bird, baby!" croaked CBS color man Bill Raftery rapturously. "It felt like guarding Larry Bird," agreed Oklahoma State's Marcus Dove.

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Morrison leads college basketball in scoring. He's a 6-foot-8 white guy with floppy hair and a crustache. He's got Type 1 diabetes, which is the rough medical equivalent of growing up in French Lick, Ind. And if that weren't enough, the kid hung a Bird poster in his freshman dorm room. Ladies and gentleman, introducing Adam Morrison—your next "next Larry Bird."

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

With no disrespect to Morrison, the habit of anointing every young white player the second coming of Larry Bird has to stop. It's bad for the Bird wannabes and it's bad for Bird himself.

Want proof that getting compared to Bird is a one-way ticket to the Caucasian basketball graveyard? A list of players who've been identified as Bird-like reads like the roster of a CBA team sponsored by the KKK. There are the Dukies: Danny Ferry, Mike Dunleavy Jr., and Christian Laettner (according to Charles Barkley, "the only thing Christian Laettner has in common with Larry Bird is they both pee standing up"). There are the guys whose main qualification was playing college ball in the Midwest: Troy Murphy and Wally Szczerbiak ("a Larry Bird game, a Tom Cruise smile," one scribe said). There's the inexplicable: Australian Andrew Gaze. And the monstrously, hilariously inexplicable: center Eric Montross, whom Celtics exec M.L. Carr said was cut from the same cloth as the Birdman.

Just another really great player?
Click image to expand.
Just another really great player?

Since he entered the NBA in 1979, Bird has always been seen as the Great White Hope. That's because he's the Only White Hope. After the Celtics knocked the Detroit Pistons out of the 1987 playoffs, Dennis Rodman groused that Bird was "very overrated" and racked up MVPs because all the awards went to the best available paleface. Jack Sikma and Kurt Rambis didn't offer much competition.

"I think Larry is a very, very good basketball player. He's an exceptional talent," added Detroit's Isiah Thomas. "But I have to agree with Rodman. If he were black, he'd be just another good guy."

It's true that if Larry Bird were black, he would be just another player—albeit another really, really great one. According to the Web site Basketball Reference, the list of players whose statistics mirror Bird's most closely includes one German (Dirk Nowitzki) and six African Americans: Kevin Garnett, Antoine Walker, Clyde Drexler, Magic Johnson, Dominique Wilkins, and Julius Erving. Instead of being classified with his true peer group—the Magics and Dr. J's—Bird has become the patron saint of slow-footed white guys like Troy Murphy and Adam Morrison. Such is the burden of the white archetype.

The Bird myth goes that he got no favors from his DNA but scraped by on his wits and work ethic. While he couldn't jump high, it's ludicrous to suggest that a man who continually outclassed the best athletes in the world wasn't blessed with natural athletic ability. I'm sure there are tens of thousands of Indiana farm boys who shot hoops as much as Bird did growing up, and none of them developed his remarkable shooting touch, not to mention his knack for rebounding. Does that come from hard work or innate skill?

The allure of the Bird comparison is that many of the qualities that made him great—his court vision, his anticipation, his leadership—are stereotypes associated with white basketball virtue. Take a look at these tidbits from Morrison's nbadraft.net scouting report: "Old school right down to the stripes on the socks ... Like a coach on the floor ... Great intangibles, competes and inspires others to play hard ... Fundamentally solid, does all the little things to help his team win ... Sees the floor well, and is creative finding teammates for baskets ... Runs decent, but needs a head of steam." Let's run that through the racial translator: "[White] right down to the [white] on the [white] … Like a [white] on the [white] … [White, white] and [white] … [White], and is [white] … [White], but [he's really slow and also he's white]."

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.

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