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If you’re a longtime sports fan, you’ll know that putting an athlete in front of a microphone isn’t always the best idea. While plenty of NBA players will produce bland, cliched quotes, there’s always the possibility that some will put their foot in their mouth and require some assistance from the public relations perspective. Just ask Isiah Thomas about that reality.

In 1987, the Detroit Pistons point guard made headlines by appearing to agree with Dennis Rodman’s claim that Larry Bird received extra praise because of his race. Although Zeke quickly claimed he was joking, his clarification did contain a rather prescient point about how different athletes are discussed.

Isiah Thomas claimed he was joking about Larry Bird but refused to back down from a larger point about race

Isiah Thomas announces his retirement from the NBA in a Detroit Pistons press conference.
Isiah Thomas made an astute comment in 1987, even if it was overshadowed by a quote about Larry Bird. | Michael E. Samojeden /AFP via Getty Images

After a painful defeat, it’s not uncommon for an athlete to make a comment they regret. That’s exactly what happened after the Boston Celtics bounced the Detroit Pistons from the 1987 NBA postseason.

“He’s not God,” a young Dennis Rodman said of Bird. “He ain’t the best player in the NBA, not to me. He’s white. That’s the reason he gets it [the MVP award]. Nobody gives Magic Johnson credit. He deserved it last year, too. I don’t care. Go ahead and tell him. You’ll put it in the paper anyway.”

Before long, the assembled media made their way to Isiah Thomas. According to the New York Times, the guard said that he “had to agree with” Rodman’s sentiment.

“Larry Bird is a very, very good basketball player,” the former Indiana Hoosier said. ”But if he was Black, he’d be just another guy.”

While that statement sounds rather definitive, Thomas later claimed he was joking. He played the tape to show he laughed at the end of his comments and told reporters, “My mistake was in joking in a manner and with someone who did not fully understand that I was joking.”

Zeke did stand firm in one regard, though: sports stereotypes.

“I think they are two separate issues,” the Piston said, according to the same Times write-up. “The big controversry [sic] isn’t about my saying professional athletes are stereotyped. The controversy is that I said Larry Bird, if he was Black, would be just another good guy. But I think you would all agree that the stereotypes do exist.

”Larry definitely had to work hard to get where he is at, but so many times it’s been said about Black athletes that their talent is ‘God-given’ or that it’s ‘natural ability,'” he continued. “I had to work just as hard to get where I am. It’s not God-given or instinctive. Basketball is a game where you do things over and over again. When someone makes a great play, it’s not a matter of instinct, but how quickly you can recall.”

As foolish as his first statement was, Thomas did make a valid point about how we discuss sports

Without being inside Isiah Thomas’ head, it’s impossible to know if he was joking. However, suggesting that Larry Bird was anything less than an incredible talent was a mistake. Even if the comment was said in jest, any subtlety will be lost in translation and come across as disrespect.

That reality shouldn’t devalue the rest of the guard’s comments. They may have been made after the fact, but they’re still valid.

While it may be tempting to view sports as a meritocracy where everything boils down to your performance, things aren’t that idealistic.

Players across the world are viewed through a prism of race, which affects how everyone, from fans to front offices, perceives them. In the world of soccer, for example, Black players or African teams are frequently said to have “pace and power,” regardless of how they actually play. In American football, there’s still a lingering stereotype that Black players aren’t ideal quarterbacks. Even someone like Lamar Jackson, who possesses MVP-level talent, is still viewed as more of an athlete than a legitimate signal-caller.

And, to be clear, there are plenty more stereotypes out there. Elsewhere in soccer — the sport’s global popularity makes it easier to encounter multiple nationalities in a single match — German players are considered stoic and efficient. Latin players are (theoretically) fiery and emotional. Asian players, as the cliches explain, are reliable and technically gifted.

Not only are those stereotypes wrong, but they create a knock-on effect. As Thomas suggested, they generate a landscape in which athletes are seen as the victims or beneficiaries of circumstance rather than gifted performers.

To further illustrate Isiah’s example, let’s compare Larry Bird and someone like LeBron James.

Bird, who was literally known as the Great White Hope in some circles, is viewed as a hard worker who pushed beyond his physical limitations to reach the NBA summit. James, on the other hand, is simply good. He’s bigger, stronger, and faster than many of his peers. He doesn’t break down. He’s often called a beast — which suggests a raw, animalistic nature — making use of his natural gifts.

That view, of course, is incredibly shortsighted.

While LeBron had no control over his height or athletic aptitude, we know that he’s gone through great efforts to maintain his body and outrun Father Time. Why are those efforts not spoken about in the same glowing tones as Tom Brady’s regimen? Is it because the quarterback is white and thereby coded as more scrappy and less naturally gifted?

In other posts, I’ve discussed how sports are awesome and should be appreciated and enjoyed, and the same can be said here. Even if it’s a larger, more challenging process to unlearn racial stereotypes, marveling at athletic prowess could be a first step on that journey.

Seeing an NBA player flying through the air, regardless of their skin color, is an awesome experience. Don’t deprive yourself of that wonder by thinking it’s less impressive for a “naturally gifted” athlete.

Over the years, Isiah Thomas hasn’t always covered himself in glory. When it comes to the way we discuss different athletes, though, the guard hit nothing but net.


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