Commentary

Magic, Bird were more than rivals

Missed opportunity: Their story is incomplete without review of race in 1980s Boston

Updated: March 11, 2010, 4:45 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

I was born in Boston, raised in the Franklin Field projects and later a few blocks away on Ashton Street in Dorchester during the mid-1970s, when the violent realities of school desegregation shattered the illusions of Bostonians, both black and white, who until it was in ruins did not believe their city was capable of what it had so brutally become.

[+] EnlargeLarry Bird & Magic Johnson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird brings back memories, good and bad.

African-American families with the means to leave Boston often faced a difficult choice: move to the predominately white suburbs and give their children a better education -- but at the expense of isolation -- or remain in the city, emotionally fortified by the black community but exposed to an inferior school system, increasing crime, the tumult of busing, the danger and distractions of daily violence.

In large part, my father's side of the family remained in Boston. One of my aunts told me the reason they stayed was so that their children would always maintain a strong black identity and not feel like outcasts in every classroom or their own front yard.

Sensing the decline of our neighborhood, my mother's side of the family left, and before I was 10, we moved to Plymouth, 50 miles south of Boston.

"Anybody who could leave that neighborhood left. You were going to be the only black kids in class, but you were going to have to deal with that," my mother once told me. "I wasn't about to let my kids be taught an education that was worse than the one I got in the same city 25 years earlier. We didn't move for me. We moved for you."

For anyone who came of age with the basketball of the 1980s, the court, the culture, the coast-versus-coast, mano-a-mano warfare of the Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers rivalry is eternally fresh. The basketball was the greatest, most compelling and important ever played in the National Basketball Association. Just as important, the lens of Celtics-Lakers gives the clearest view or race in 1980s Boston (even more than the much-publicized troubles of the Red Sox).

Race is approached gingerly at best and clumsily on average; at worst, it is ignored completely. The new HBO documentary "Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals" revisits a seminal time in the NBA but fails to underscore the complexity of race, which is what so much of the Bird-Magic relationship represented in Boston. The film doesn't avoid the subject, but it lacks the diverse historical perspectives that would have provided a more complete context.

They say sports don't matter anymore, and because the institution as a whole is insulated by money, privilege and lack of accountability, they are right, particularly in Boston. But 30 years ago, when Magic and Bird dominated the sport, race provided a fiery, important subtext for the game and the country; for the two men at the center of the story; for the cities in which they played; and perhaps most important, for the fans who were watching.

[+] EnlargeKevin McHale
AP Photo/Dave TenenbaumSome fans in Boston cheered against Kevin McHale.

Race largely determined rooting interests, and the Celtics were the most divisive team in America. Black kids in Boston were taken by Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers. It was no different in Plymouth, where the handful of African Americans and Cape Verdeans rooted for the Sixers and the Lakers (and later the Detroit Pistons, but never the Celtics). The Celtics were the white fan's team. Me, I was the black kid who rooted for the Celtics but fell along the same racial divisions as my friends. My favorite Celtics were all black: Robert Parish, Gerald Henderson and Dennis Johnson.

There was a game being played beyond Bird and Magic that should have been compelling enough on its own, but feelings in Boston were still raw. The violent busing confrontations had cooled in the 1980s, but the hard sentiments were still fresh. The two men were playing for championships, but they had become vehicles for a disturbing racial narrative. Black Celtics believed the team catered to white attitudes by purposely stocking the roster with white players. In an overwhelmingly black game, 10 of the 14 Celtics on the roster in 1986 were white. Bob Ryan, the dean of Boston's basketball writers, once told me that the loudest cheers at the old Garden often came when Kevin McHale would block the shot of a prominent black player.

In the film, Bird and Johnson rightfully focused on each other, but so much of the undercurrent of the times went beyond both of them.

And it was here, at the most important juncture of the story, where the show's narrative loses its momentum, because the black voices of the time were missing. With the exception of Cedric Maxwell, Bird's black teammates were not on camera. The voice of the black Bostonian, central to the story, is nonexistent, save for an anecdote recalled by Johnson where a lone black fan sidles up to him to tell him what we Bostonians already knew: Black Boston in large part cheered for the Lakers over the home team. And that voice is vital to any piece of important history, if it is to succeed. As Glenn Stout, author of the seminal "Red Sox Century," told me, "If you're going to do history, you have to run through four important checks: race-ethnicity, nationalism, sexism and class, because one if not all four of them will be central to the overall historical importance of the story."

Stout is right, and if you want to be taken seriously, you cannot miss this. Who gets to speak is often as important as what is being said.

An important moment of the program is its treatment of Isiah Thomas' infamous comment during the 1987 playoffs that Bird received special dispensation from the fans, the press and the game because he was white.

Dennis Rodman had been first with the comments, and Thomas amplified them in a postgame interview. Instead of expanding on the roots of the Thomas-Rodman position -- the deep-seated resentment black stars had long held toward white stars who seemed to enjoy greater celebrity and financial rewards, as well as the very real animus black players held toward Boston -- the documentary chose to focus on Bird's reaction to the controversy, concluding that Bird was, in effect, colorblind.

Bird certainly was not colorblind, and neither was the world around him. Race and class -- common motivators for most all of us -- stood at the center of his drive. Bird would say constantly during his playing career that "I just wanted to prove that a white boy who couldn't run and couldn't jump could play this game."

Larry Bird/Isiah Thomas
Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty ImagesIsiah Thomas' comments about race cut into Larry Bird's hard-earned self-image.

This was his right. Bird had worked hard to reach his position at the top of the game. He had earned the respect of his peers and exorcised the demons of race and class that have long been an obvious yet delicate characteristic of Indiana prep basketball -- and with one comment, Rodman and Thomas cut his hard-won respect in half. It was a reducing moment, for Bird, for Rodman and Thomas, for the black fans who simply couldn't allow Bird his greatness because it would give the appearance of relinquishing an ownership of basketball as the black game, and for the whites who saw Bird's outstanding basketball gifts as some distorted proof of white superiority of a black game.

The documentary rolls footage of an interview with a white Celtics fan who says the NBA is "too black." Another white Celtics fan says Bird's greatness was, essentially, a vindication of white achievement.

I knew of this mind-set personally. In high school, I recall having a similar conversation with a white teammate on the varsity basketball squad. How, I asked, was it possible to be a basketball fan and to watch a game that was dominated by black players while having such little regard for them as people?

"The NBA may be 75 percent black," I was told, "but the best player in the game is white. What does that tell you?"

Bird never tried to cash in from a moment that was unfair to him. For his years in Boston, many white fans wanted him to represent their views, to be their final stronghold to a game that in less than 20 years had turned almost completely black demographically. They wanted Bird to restore an honor they felt had been taken from them.

But he never exploited it, and from that moment forward, Bird became one of my favorite players. It wasn't right to diminish his talents, his toughness, and his ability because of what was happening in the city in which he played. My mind was clear: Give the man his due.

In a sense, Bird mirrored the experiences of another player whose time overlapped with his in Boston: Red Sox Hall of Famer Jim Rice. Like Bird, Rice was thrust into a situation of racial unease not of his making. Rice arrived in Boston during the worst racial crisis in the city's history, playing for a team that enjoyed no historical connection to its black community and was expected by the press and some portion of the public to be the bridge to problems that were larger than Rice, problems that predated him, problems that he was qualified to address simply because he was black.

In both cases, Rice and Bird were outsiders expected to make sense of a city's history, made to symbolize or be made responsible for a racial dynamic that belonged to those who were Boston-born, Boston-raised. We wanted them to explain our unfinished business. Neither deserved this burden. Both suffered for it, and so did we.

In the end, the period when the game belonged to Magic and Bird was an overwhelming, if not troubling, triumph. The winning hand was basketball played at a level it has not matched since and should not be expected to match. Jordan's day was a thrilling one-man show; the Shaq-Kobe Lakers were the kings of their moment; Tim Duncan's Spurs are an example of workmanlike excellence.

With perspective, the end of Bird at his height also represented the end of the old Celtics as we knew them, and to a lesser extent, the old Boston. In Bird's day, the Celtics were as influential off the court as they were on. When Bird won his final championship, in 1986, the Celtics had won 16 of 41 championships overall. Red Auerbach was the league's power broker.

The Celtics are no longer the racially divisive team of the past because the people who play the game are no longer the same. The old Celtics' practice of racial balance -- difficult and obvious in a sport whose talent pool is now 80 percent black -- is gone, and Bird currently carries another unforeseen legacy as perhaps (along with John Stockton) the last white, American-born Hall of Fame basketball player for a while.

The team, meanwhile, is a team led by high-priced, attractive black stars, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, future Hall of Famers all, and this being 2010, nobody seems to care.

Today, in the world of money and free agency and geographical economic shifts, the Celtics are like the Green Bay Packers: legendary in title, respected by history, but bypassed by sexier franchises in Dallas; Phoenix; Miami; and, of course, Los Angeles.

Boston is a money town today, available, for the most part, to anyone who can afford it -- sort of like buying a ticket to a game. Bird's Boston is also gone, some would say thankfully, now that the sharp clannish edges of Roxbury, Southie, Dorchester (white and black) have been softened by gentrification, the lines transferred from race to class. Others miss the unique and rugged characteristics that often came at a very high price. Both are right.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. He can be followed on Twitter @hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

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