"A Black Man's Game" 

One Larry Bird finally says what no one else would

One Larry Bird finally says what no one else would

Quick, name more than one white NBA star—or even a starter.

Two restrictions. One, they have to be American players. That excludes Peja Stojakovich and Dirk Nowitzki and Yao Ming. And, two, they have to be under 7 feet to correct for the "Will Perdue factor": white guys like Shaun Bradley who play owing less to their skills than to size.

Thought of any yet? Me neither.

Wally Szczerbiak and Fred Hoiberg of the T-Wolves? Though it's a little disorienting to see two white guys on the floor at the same time for one team, neither is exactly a superstar. Steve Nash? Nope. Canadian. Jason Williams? Maybe I'll give you J-Dub. You could say Jason Kidd, and I'd believe you, but that opens a whole nuther can of worms.

I throw down this white-boy gauntlet in response to a slightly eyebrow-raising comment last week from one Larry Joe Bird, who articulated one of those truths that everyone recognizes but no one wants to publicly acknowledge: "[Basketball] is a black man's game, and it will be forever."

Bird, who now serves as president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers, was replying to a question by ESPN interviewer Jim Gray. "Does the NBA need white superstars?" Gray queried. In a word, Bird said, yes.

"I think it's good for a fan base because, as we all know, the majority of fans are white America."

Bird—the whiter-than-old-dog-doodies bibliophobe once dubbed the "hick from French Lick"—even held white players in such low regard that he felt "disrespect to my game" when an opposing coach assigned a Caucasian to guard him. "Come on," he said, in his typically unabashed way, "you got a white guy coming out to guard me, you got no chance." (If you laughed to yourself at that last comment, you've just affirmed Bird's view.)

Since he acknowledged the elephant in the room, perhaps that gives the rest of us cover to talk about how race affects perceptions of the NBA and its relatively moribund TV ratings.

Everybody agrees on two points. First, kind of like Tennesseans and Arkansans used to console themselves by pointing that their states at least ranked higher than Mississippi, the NBA can straight-facedly note that it pulls stronger Nielsens than hockey.

Second, NBA lineups are more monochromatic than ever before. Were it not for European imports, there would be almost no white starters at all.

What you make of these facts depends on your point of view. The most widely accepted interpretation for the league's ratings decline is that white viewers simply will not tune in to a league dominated by black men.

The weight of evidence does not support this conclusion. In terms of ratings, the NBA enjoyed its halcyon days when Magic led the Lakers, Michael led the Bulls and Isaiah led the Pistons. White viewers didn't seem to mind.

As long as we've crossed the threshold of political incorrectness, here's an alternative theory for the ratings problem: Perhaps the issue is less that white men can't jump (not exactly news) than that black men can no longer shoot.

Today's big scorers—Kobe, Iverson, McGrady—frequently shoot between 30 and 40 percent from the field. Lines like 8-for-19 from the field are common for these guys. As Bird noted recently, not many players (Detroit's Richard Hamilton is a notable exception) can consistently knock down mid-range jump shots anymore. One reason for the influx of European players like Stojakovich, Nowitzki and Hedo Turkoglu is that they, unlike so many Americans of all colors, can drain it.

Of course, there's evidence to bury this theory, too. As much as diminishing marksmanship, poor shooting arguably is produced by improved defense and a tendency to pass up open 2's for more difficult 3's.

But there's yet another possibility that may go a long way toward explaining the dropoff among the NBA's white audience. It's more about culture than color.

Hip-hop culture dominates this league more than any other pro sport. The most endangered minority in the NBA isn't white guys; it's untattooed ones. The league's Marketing Geniuses—in a move almost calculated to alienate white viewers over 40—have even attempted to embrace a certain hip-hop sump'n-sump'ness in their TV promos. Somehow I don't quite see my now disaffected dad, who originally stoked my interest in the NBA, shaking his head in rhythm and mouthing, "Let's get this pawty stawted!"

Contrast that image with the control-freaky NFL, where players can be fined for so much as letting their socks droop. Think Paul Tagliabue, or Pete Rozelle before him, would allow players to define the image of their league? Think it's mere coincidence that the appearance-conscious NFL thrives while pro basketball creaks? I don't.

There's one other notable difference. The NBA is marred by a widespread perception that it's populated by pampered punks and even criminals. Not that baseball and the NFL don't have their share. But the NBA, with its small rosters, high salaries and higher-rolling lifestyles, seems to epitomize gratification on demand, without much accountability.

Reports suggest that up to three-fourths of NBA players use marijuana regularly. Women are used just as often and just as casually, sometimes violently.

According to a new book by Jeff Benedict, 40 percent of the 177 players he researched were linked to serious crimes. Ruben Patterson, one example Benedict cited, is a registered sex offender. Just three weeks after he completed a two-week jail sentence for a sex offense, Portland offered him a $33 million contract.

There are plenty of upstanding guys in the league: Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Shaq, Kevin Garnett. Perhaps they should take a stand to protect the NBA's image—and, by association, their own interests. And perhaps the league itself should adopt more of the NFL's draconian approach as self-defense against spoiled sybarites and thugs in their ranks.

Personally, I'd be delighted to see the NBA market itself, as Nike did last year, with George Clinton, Bootsy, Sir Noze D'Voidoffunk and the whole corps of P-Funk All Stars. I know that approach won't exactly hook Main Street America. But that doesn't make Bird right.

The NBA doesn't need more white stars. It just needs fewer selfish, indulged, above-the-law and out-of-touch ones, regardless of their hue.

Pistons 3, Lakers 1, Kobe 0

As of Tuesday afternoon, the L.A. Lakers were poised to follow all 27 other teams that faced 3-1 deficits in NBA championship series—and lose. If they do, Kobe Bryant is my nominee for series MVP. The grateful Pistons should chip in and buy him a ring.

Think about it. Bryant has done almost as good a job as Detroit's tough defense of denying Shaq the ball down low. Meanwhile, he has contributed an unfathomable array of poorly chosen, selfish shots that have played right into (and usually wound up in) the Pistons' hands.

Take nothing away from the Pistons, an uglyball agglomeration that together is much more attractive than the sum of its parts. But if the Lakers crash, it's not quite true they have only themselves to blame. Eleven of them can blame Kobe. (More thorough autopsy on the series next week.)

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