WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - I find myself in the unpleasant position of defending Larry Bird.
Guy shreds my heart in the '84 Finals, his evil Boston Celtics defeating my valiant Los Angeles Lakers, and now, just 20 years later, here I stand between him and the torches and pitchforks of the mob. Still, Larry Legend is getting a bum rap, and I can't stand by and watch that, even if he is a former Celtic.
It seems that during a televised roundtable on ESPN on June 10, Mr. Bird was asked whether the NBA could use more white stars. He said yes.
"I think it's good for a fan base because as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America," he said. "And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited."
You'd think Mr. Bird had burned a cross on Magic Johnson's lawn, so great has the uproar been. He's been called a "lunkhead," a "nitwit" and a "bigot," among other choice epithets.
But for my money, Mr. Bird's right, maybe righter than he knew. It's his reasoning that's wrong.
I'll grant that it's human nature to want to see someone who looks like you succeed in fields where your people are not traditionally seen. Consider how many blacks Tiger Woods has drawn to golf and how many Chinese have become hoops fans because of Yao Ming.
Still, the NBA's success in selling the likes of Shaq O'Neal, LeBron James and Michael Jordan to a mass audience seems to prove white fans have little difficulty admiring black stars. So the NBA doesn't need more white players for marketing reasons.
But that's not the same as saying it doesn't need more white players.
Meaning what, you ask? Well, let me preface by saying that the fascinating thing about this debate is what hasn't been said. So far as I can tell, no one has bothered to ask why there are so few white - particularly white American - NBA players in the first place. In any given year, 75 percent to 80 percent of the league's roster is black. Blacks also excel out of all proportion in track and field, baseball and football.
Indeed, blacks have become so dominant in the major sports that, according to a 1997 Sports Illustrated survey, many white kids have given up competing in them. They say they feel intimidated by black players who seem not just faster and stronger, but - key point - "hungrier." The white kids turn to rock climbing, snowboarding and other non-mainstream sports where black participation is nil.
Which is why I think - and I say this with tongue disengaged from cheek - that it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for those kids to have a role model or two, white men who not only could jump but also block shots, rebound and drive the lane. Maybe they'd start to think that they could do such things, too.
As it is, many white kids think they can't and that their whiteness is the reason.
You see, people confuse race and culture. They regard skin color as a magic bullet that, in and of itself, makes one better or worse not just in sports, but in academics as well. The truth is trickier and less simplistic.
You do not show up one day on the basketball court and dominate it because you're black. You dominate it because you maximize physical gifts of size or speed, because you're the first to arrive and the last to leave, because you work harder and want it more.
Just as you don't show up in school one day and excel because you're white. You excel because you study, because you ask questions, because you go beyond what the text and the teacher demand, because you work harder and want it more.
In even suggesting there could be more white stars in roundball, Mr. Bird inadvertently poses a question: How do you define what's possible for people like you? It's a question with far-reaching implications and liberating power.
So when people say he went too far, I have to disagree. My only problem with Mr. Bird is that he didn't go far enough.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.