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Those Unfortunate Remarks About Larry Bird Just Don’t Fly

A national sports magazine ran an action photo of Isiah Thomas on a recent cover, with the block-letter headline: “MR. CLUTCH.”

This headline, along with causing Jerry West to spit out a mouthful of morning coffee, must be causing some embarrassment in the magazine’s offices, because Mr. Clutch slipped a little. Mr. Clutch clutched his own throat Saturday.

Isiah embarrassed himself, on the court and off, and he can’t blame it on Ted Koppel. It’s probably just as well for all concerned that Mr. Clutch and the Pistons won’t be coming to Los Angeles to contest the Lakers in the NBA finals. The league is sending the big boys, the Boston Celtics. For that we can thank God and Larry Bird, not necessarily in that order.

Instead of Mr. Clutch, we get Dr. Driveshaft.

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The world should be grateful. The Pistons weren’t ready for the big show. You don’t send kids to do a man’s job. The Lakers deserve a worthy opponent, and they almost wound up playing host to a busload of John McEnroes. I won’t say the Pistons are immature, but they probably would have defected to Disneyland.

In the aftermath of Game 7 of the Pistons-Celtics series, Detroit teammates Mr. Clutch and Mr. Blown Head Gasket (Dennis Rodman) stated that Bird is overrated, that he won the MVP trophy three times in a row because he is white. They also insinuated that the Celtics are kept afloat by friendly home-court officiating.

Bird’s retort was that this is a free country, people can say what they want.

OK, but in lieu of a fine, the league should at least order Rodman to attend a summer cheerleader camp, and send Isiah to Magic Johnson’s Basketball Camp, where Mr. Clutch could major in sportsmanship and human relations.

Magic could straighten Isiah out. He’s done it before. Last season, when the Pistons were slumping and Thomas was threatening to retire, or hold his breath until he turned blue, Magic actually sent Isiah a bouquet of balloons to cheer him up. Maybe this summer they can get together and Magic can explain life over a double-dip cone at 31 Flavors.

You can dismiss Rodman’s comments as the blatherings of an exciteable rookie, even though he’s 26. But Isiah is a mature man, a veteran, a hero and a spokesman. When he accuses the refs of homerism, the media (writers and broadcasters vote for the MVP) of racism, and Bird of whiteism, he embarrasses us all.

Or does Isiah know more than the rest of us? Maybe that’s it. Hey, he sees through this Bird mystique baloney. Sure! Everyone’s got a publicity gimmick these days. Magic has that enthusiasm, Isiah has the smile, Jordan sticks out his tongue, Kareem wears goggles, Dominique flies. Bird’s gimmick is he’s white.

Years ago, when he was struggling and anonymous, Bird must have asked himself, “What the heck can I do to stand out in this sport, something really wacky and crazy? I know! I’ll be white!”

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And it worked. Hey, look at Saturday. All Bird does is score 37 points, dominate the boards, run the offense, play all 48 minutes in a sweltering hotbox (no Piston played 40), fire in a running, 18-foot bank shot with his left hand and psyche Rodman into a straight jacket. Then that pasty sucker Bird gets all the credit, just because he’s white! What a gimmick!

And in Game 5, Bird made one lousy steal at the end of the game, one crummy pass to Dennis Johnson, and the press treats Larry like he cured cancer or something. Thomas and Rodman didn’t get nearly the credit they deserved. Without them, that play wouldn’t have been possible.

There will be a movement now to cut Rodman and Thomas some slack for their postgame comments. Rodman has already denied using the word “white” in reference to Bird, but his statements were witnessed and documented by too many reporters. And Thomas seconded Rodman’s opinions long after the heat of the battle had cooled, and after careful deliberation.

Isiah needs a history lesson. He was barely four years old when another overrated Celtic was named NBA MVP. Like Bird, this guy wasn’t fast, wasn’t a great leaper. And he couldn’t shoot his way out of a wet paper bag. His name was Bill Russell, and he won five MVP trophies, even though in those days there were a lot more white players to choose from.

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Isiah needs to be reminded that in that same era, the original Mr. Clutch, Jerry West, also tried the white-guy gimmick and never won an MVP.

Thomas also needs a brush-up in current events. The predominately white media voted Bird those three MVP trophies, true, but the predominately black NBA players vote on a Player of the Year, and guess who they voted for last season? Bird. And it was the predominately white Sports Illustrated that dubbed Isiah “MR. CLUTCH” in the premature headline of the year.

A sad byproduct of Isiah’s comments is that a lot of people will take this opportunity to lower what he said to the level of the infamous Al Campanis statement. What Isiah said was stupid, but it pales in comparison to what Campanis said, because Thomas didn’t cast a shadow of racism over 40 years of a franchise’s history.

The comparison could prove useful to me, though. I still get phone calls and letters from idiots protesting my condemnation of Campanis. It’s hard to reason with these people, and I waste a lot of time trying.

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From now on I can refer them to someone with whom they can hold an intelligent discussion on black and white in America. I’ll give them the phone number of the new Mr. Clutch.


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