Let's get this out of the way first: Larry Bird is not a racist.
Emotions often obscure reason when the subject of race is broached, so it would be easy to paint Bird with a black and white brush.
That would be a mistake.
During a one-hour ESPN special that aired Thursday night, Bird was asked by host Jim Gray if the NBA lacked white superstars.
‘‘Well, I think so,’’ Bird said. ‘‘You know, when I played you had me and Kevin (McHale) and some others throughout the league. I think it’s good for a fan base because, as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America. And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited.
‘‘But it is a black man’s game, and it will be forever. I mean, the greatest athletes in the world are African-Americans.’’
Skin deep, Bird's analysis is a bunch of white noise. Black players have been embraced by fans for years, no greater example being the state of Utah wrapping its white arms around Karl Malone.
“In my opinion, fans are much more (concerned) about personal conduct of athletes,” said Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo. “I don't think it has anything to do with color.”
On an individual basis, probably not. But Bird touched upon a deeper, more disturbing question:
Has the NBA become too black for Middle America? Of the 408 players in the NBA last season, 312 were black.
“It's a no-brainer,” said Charles Barkley. “The only folks who think we're past racism are white folks. Racism is the greatest cancer in our lifetime. It always has been in play and it always will be.
“The majority of fans are white and the sponsors are white,” Barkley added. “You don't think they want to see more whites?”
Maybe. But this is not an issue of color as much as it is an issue of culture and generation.
For some whites, young, black athletes in the NBA are emblematic of a hip-hop culture they don't understand or appreciate.
Tattoos. Rap music. Jewelry. The “thuggery” of the game.
Tiger Woods was widely accepted because he's “safe.” Allen Iverson isn't.
The current issue of Dime Magazine — which promotes itself as “the basketball lifestyle magazine” and is popular among NBA players — symbolizes the gulf between middle class, white America and what it perceives the NBA to be about.
A two-page advertisement inside the magazine shows three black men sitting around a table that's littered with stacks of $50 bills. They're all wearing expensive, oversized jewelry, and two of the three are heavily tattooed.
It's a clothing ad for the G Unit Clothing Company. But what does the suburban white father see?
“Just because they're hip-hop doesn't mean you have to have a negative perception,” Barkley said. “That's racist thinking of its own.”
Dr. Harry Edwards, formerly a professor of sociology at California, disagrees with Barkley's assessment.
It is not racism that divides some white fans from black athletes, Edwards said, but a divide in their lifestyles.
“In the minds of Joe Fan or Joe Lunch Bucket in the suburbs or Appalachians, they don't make distinctions between color and culture,” he said. “How they make the decision is, ‘Where am I in that? If I'm not like that, why am I watching that stuff?’
“It's like hockey. How many blacks would follow hockey even if there are great black hockey players?” Edwards, a black man, believes Bird does not deserve criticism but praise for daring to broach such a sensitive subject.
“At the end of the day, in a highly diverse society, it's critically important for an institution of society to represent to some defensive degree that diversity,” Edwards said. “We need more players with greater diversity in the NBA.”
As an example, Edwards recalled a game this past season between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets at the Arena in Oakland.
Edwards said he had never seen so many Asians in floor-level seats. The attraction: 7-foot-6 Rockets center Yao Ming, of China.
“I think Larry was right on the money,” Edwards said. “He wasn't doing social commentary. What Larry was addressing was a business issue.”
Bird's observations, which were seconded by Magic Johnson, skipped one notable fact: The average ticket price for an NBA game this past season was $50. That likely causes more empty seats in arenas than the color of a point guard's skin.
That said, it would be foolish to ignore Bird's commentary. We may wince at what he says. We may not like what it says about us.
But that doesn't make it any less true.