Race and My Larry Bird Problem

Now that the basketball season is over, I thought I would share some thoughts I’ve been sitting on for a while now. I am a huge fan of Larry Bird. I used to race home from church every Sunday to catch the 12:05 tipoff of a Celtics game. There was nothing better than seeing the Boston Garden’s parquet floor and knowing Larry was going to be great. I am prepared to argue that from 1983 to 1988 Larry played basketball better than anyone has ever played it. If I were starting a team I would give you Michael, Magic, Lebron, or Kobe and I’d take Larry and feel really good about my chances. Larry dominated in an era defined by physicality but he would flourish in today’s NBA where the 3-point shot is the primary weapon. Think a taller, better rebounding and passing version of Steph Curry. I once watched Larry shoot warmups for thirty minutes in Atlanta. He only shot 15 to 18 footers (no 3s) and in thirty minutes he missed two shots. TWO SHOTS! Anyway, you see that I am passionate about Larry, but that is not my primary reason for writing this. My primary reason is that I am wrestling with the question, “Do I like Larry Bird because he is white (like me)?” I will do my best to answer this question honestly in the hopes that my answer reveals both the importance and the limitations of an introspective evaluation of one’s own racism. 

I have two responses to the question and I consider both of them to be honest. My first response is the defensive response which says something like “The fact that Larry Bird is white has nothing to do with me being a big fan!” To bolster this claim I could appeal to statistics, MVPs, the Celtics single season turn-around in Larry’s first year, the championships, the game winners, the guaranteed victories, the trash talk. I could also show that many of my other favorite athletes are people of color. While seeing Larry hitting jump shots is about my favorite all time experience (right up there with Popeye pulling the spinach can from his shirt), seeing Tiger Woods win a major championship is just slightly below it. In fact, two of my most frequent YouTube binges are Larry Bird games and Tiger Woods rounds. I could also point to the fact that I do admire other black basketball players. Despite my preference for Larry, I have enormous respect for Magic, Michael, Lebron, and Kobe. As I write this, I feel my enthusiasm and I want so desperately to make this first honest response my only response, but I know that doing that would be dishonest. 

My second response to the question is an apologetic one and goes something like this, “As much as I want to say that race has nothing to do with being a fan of Larry Bird, I cannot say that honestly.” Make no mistake, my being a fan has nothing to do with the crass kind of racist attitudes we see today but I have to admit that Larry being white and me being white plays a role. Although a stereotype, the thinking has been that Larry was not very athletic due to his “whiteness” meaning that he could not run fast or jump high. I believe Larry was more athletic than people realize but I concede the point. He was not known for either. He was known for being smart, which is also a coded word frequently reserved for good white players. Lebron James’ basketball intelligence is every bit as good as Larry’s, as was Magic’s and Michael’s, but they don’t get called “smart,”, they get called “athletic.” I played basketball as a young man and like Larry, I was known for being smart and a very good shooter. I was not fast and could not jump but oh, I could shoot the ball. College 3 pointers were easy. NBA 3 pointers were not a problem. I often felt that if my hands and vision were unobstructed every shot would go in. I was able to identify with Larry and model my game after his and I have no doubt that his whiteness and my whiteness played a major role in that. I cannot say with any certainty that seeing Larry dominate against black players stirred no feelings of racial pride. Just as I cannot say for certain that I did not get satisfaction from proving myself to black players on the court. In fact, I’ll admit that I definitely did. So I have to say to myself and others, “I am sorry, but I am sure race plays a significant role.”

So, I have given two answers. I consider both of them honest. This is difficult in today’s polarized world. Conservatives, which usually means Republicans, want to go only with responses like my first one. They want to say that race plays no significant role in our society. They are wrong. They are so wrong that it is hard to argue against them. It is so obvious that being asked to prove it is like being asked to prove that you are alive and had a mother and father. A white defensive attitude will not do and will not help us grow. On the other hand, progressives, which usually means Democrats, want to only go with my second response. This is a reduction of complex human beings into heroes and villains. I get why they do this. They do this because they are accustomed to only defensive responses from white people and their patience is running thin. Despite this, if I give only my second response I am being less than honest and am acting out of shame or guilt and am virtue signaling, as conservatives like to call it, rather than owning my truest self. 

So what am I to do as a progressive white male who wants to be an ally with people of color and who supports Black Lives Matter? Obviously, my defensive response to the question is not the right response if it is my ONLY response. Less obviously my apologetic response is not right either if I still feel honesty in my first response. I don’t think I need to give up having Larry Bird as my favorite player. Unless he does something racially offensive I don’t even think it is in my power to give him up. The heart wants what the heart wants. I could pretend but the last thing race relations needs are white pretenders. What I plan to do is be vulnerable and answer questions like the one I asked myself in this article in as honest a way as I can. I realize that race is complicated and that I cannot trust what my introspective musings tell me. I also know that I cannot discount them since I cannot tell the difference between those introspective musings and who I am as a person. In our soundbite world, people only want one of my responses. Conservatives like the defensive one and progressives like the apologetic one. Since I can only give both answers, I have to embrace vulnerability and know that I do not share to avoid criticism. I share because that is what human beings do. 

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