Thirty-five years ago, in a race-based tempest, the Pistons’ ‘Bad Boys’ trash-talked the Boston Celtics’ star

When the Bird got the Worm

click to enlarge Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics faces off against Dennis Rodman of the Detroit Pistons in 1987. - Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images
Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images
Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics faces off against Dennis Rodman of the Detroit Pistons in 1987.

When I entered the crowded Boston Celtics’ locker room in the dingy old Boston Garden, I saw the big scrum of television cameras and reporters crowding around Larry Bird, the great star of the Celtics.

So I joined the back row of the growing semi-circle by his locker and stood on my toes to see and hear.

I saw Bird’s stern expression and heard his serious tone of voice. He wasn’t in his usual persona of the “Hick from French Lick.” Bird then said something I’d never heard before after a sports event, much less the seventh and deciding contest of a bitter Eastern Conference finals triumph over the Detroit Pistons.

“Well, I don’t apologize for being white,” Bird said.

His voice had a wary edge. I whispered to the reporter next to me “Why is he talking about this?”

“Because ‘Worm’ said Bird is overrated because he’s white,” the guy told me, using the nickname “Worm” for Dennis Rodman, a rookie Detroit forward.

This was May 30, 1987, 35 years ago this month. It began one of the most searing stories I ever reported as a sports journalist, one of those episodes that spills over into sensitive cultural areas to transcend mere fun and games.

In some ways, it illustrates both how far we’ve come in sports and racial relations and how far we have to go. At the very least, it recalls an era when the Pistons were on their way to glory but not quite there yet, building a combative reputation that some fans outside Detroit still resent.

Rodman at the time was young and naïve. If he’d really talked this trash about Bird being white, I needed to get his side. So I hurried down the corridor to the even-smaller Pistons’ room in this decrepit, old barn on this sweltering afternoon.

As I walked through the door, I saw Rodman — fully showered and dressed now — carrying a small travel bag and striding briskly past me.

“Dennis?” I said.

He just nodded, looked the other way and kept walking, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as a 6-foot-6 man can be. Later, I learned Rodman’s actual words about Bird following Boston’s 117-114 victory.

“He ain’t God,” Rodman had said of Bird. “He ain’t the best player in the NBA. Not to me.”

When questioned, Rodman added that Bird had won the Most Valuable Player award three times because, Rodman said, “he’s white.”

“I don’t care,” Rodman added. “Go ahead and tell him . . . He can’t run. He’s slow. He’s white.”

The Celtics then were defending champions of the National Basketball Association and a legacy dynasty. This generation of Celts was aging but holding on. The Pistons were a rising power — young and tough and cocky — but two years away from their first NBA crown.

And, true, the Celtics always seemed to have the most white players, some of them quite good. This got under the skin, so to speak, of some Black players and fans.

In that afternoon’s game, Bird led all scorers with 37 points. Rodman, considered a defensive and rebounding specialist, had zero rebounds and three points. On that day, at least, Bird got the Worm.

The Celtics always seemed to have the most white players, some of them quite good. This got under the skin, so to speak, of some Black players and fans.

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As Rodman exited the Garden locker room, I noticed the media herd drifting toward Isiah Thomas, the captain of the Pistons and generally considered the team spokesman. By then, Thomas and everyone else knew Rodman had jumped into the deep end of the pool without swimming lessons.

So Thomas played lifeguard, diving into lots of hot water that quickly came to a boil.

“Larry Bird is a very, very good basketball player, an exceptional talent,” Thomas said. “But if he were Black, he’d be just another good guy.” And the Pistons were not what anyone called “good guys.” In those years, they proudly called themselves the “Bad Boys.”

I took good notes and added this incident to my pitch list. The story I wrote about this was one of 10 we published about the game in the Free Press the next morning, a Sunday. It was the shortest Pistons’ story, with minimal display, deep inside the sports section.

That night, hours after the game, I predicted to one of my co-workers that the editors in the sports department would bury the story this way the next day because it would be too hot to handle and they would be timid about the topic.

“But watch it grow,” I said.

A week later, I was still covering the affair, writing lengthy “takeouts” and columns that spread across several pages. Thomas eventually seemed to sense the mess. Four days later, he called Bird on the telephone to apologize.

He also held two news conferences, the first at the Pontiac Silverdome, the Pistons’ home building in that era, the second with Bird in Los Angeles where the Celtics were meeting the Lakers in the championship series.

Thomas tried to explain that his comments about Bird were meant only as sarcasm.

“C’mon, give me a break,” Thomas said at the Silverdome. “I was laughing. We have it on tape. You can hear the sarcasm in my voice. The media misunderstood me. I’m shocked and really hurt that people would believe this. I have a great relationship with Larry. Hell, no, I don’t agree with Dennis.”

Those of us who covered Thomas in those days remember how he often said strong words with a smile on his face and a chuckle in his voice. Those of us who heard him speak of Bird in Boston Garden that Saturday afternoon didn’t sense he was kidding in the least.

Before Thomas could arrive in Los Angeles, Bird absolved him with “I was satisfied. I could tell he was being sincere and talking from the heart. I’ve always respected him, and I respect him much more after the phone call.”

Later that day, when Thomas and Bird appeared together in the Celtics’ hotel, Bird was asked directly if he accepted Thomas’s words.

“If they don’t bother me,” Bird said, “they shouldn’t bother anybody.”

Rodman, through the Pistons, issued a statement that said in part: “I would like to apologize to Larry Bird for the emotional comments I made . . . I was wrong and, honestly, that is not the way I feel. It was a mistake on my behalf.”

Thomas spoke in person and at length, elaborating on how sports journalists — especially on television — tended to praise Black athletes as naturally, physically talented while citing white athletes as cerebral thinkers.

“The word ‘athletes,’ I think, that’s an unconscious statement concerning race,” Thomas said. “I don’t like it.”

Sports journalists tended to praise Black athletes as naturally, physically talented while citing white athletes as cerebral thinkers.

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Thomas specifically mentioned Tom Heinsohn, a white announcer with a Boston background who covered the series for the CBS television network. Thomas said Heinsohn constantly complimented Bird’s good plays as intelligent in ways he didn’t for Black players.

“Maybe I was more sensitive to it because Boston has more white players than any other pro team,” Thomas said.

At the time, the Pistons were underdogs, struggling for respect. Just 30 years out of Fort Wayne, they played on the football field of the now-demolished Silverdome, with a big, blue curtain dividing the building in half. This was after they left Cobo Arena and before they built the now-demolished Palace of Auburn Hills.

Conversely, the Celtics were NBA royalty and Bird’s image in particular had cultural resonance in that era. In the 1989 film Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee wrote, directed, and starred in a movie about a Black neighborhood in the New York borough of Brooklyn. In a single scene, Lee captured Bird’s effect.

In it, a group of young, Black guys talk on the sidewalk and watch as a young, white guy rides by on a bicycle in a green basketball shirt. He represents gentrification in the neighborhood. He accidentally rolls over the white “Air Jordan” shoes of a Black character named “Buggin’ Out.”

The culprit, drinking from a carton of orange juice, is quickly surrounded by Buggin’ Out and his angry friends, who reject the white guy’s apology.

“What you want to live in a Black neighborhood for anyway?” Buggin’ Out shouts.

The white guy counters that he owns the brownstone and it is a free country. He carries his bicycle up the steps. By now, the viewer can read the back of his jersey: “BIRD, 33.”

As the days went on in that week after the incident, the editors requested more stories. I tried to put historical perspective into racial and tribal undercurrents surrounding Bird, Thomas, Rodman, and basketball. I found some in a book published exactly 50 years before this racial volcano erupted in Boston.

The 1937 book was called Farewell to Sport and I quoted from it at length.

The author, Paul Gallico, was leaving his job as a sports columnist in New York. He was considered enlightened for his era. He wrote then about which group of people were best suited to the relatively new game called basketball: The Jews.

“Curiously, it is a game that above all others seems to appeal to the temperament of Jews,” Gallico wrote. “And, for the past years, Jewish players on the college teams around New York have had the game all to themselves . . . Jews flock to basketball by the thousands . . . It appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background . . . The game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smart-aleckness.”

Curiously, with Black people banned at the time from Major League Baseball and many college football teams, Gallico — in a chapter called “Eight Ball” — wrote of racial discrimination against them.

He took then what seemed like a sympathetic point of view and offered a kind of praise, especially for the Black prizefighter.

“He is generally a magnificent physical specimen, powerful, wiry, hard, and not nearly so sensible to pain as his white brother,” Gallico wrote. “He has a thick, hard skull and good hands. He is crafty and tricky and, contrary to public opinion, as game as a white man when the cards are not stacked against him.”

How could Gallico have known how tone-deaf those words would sound many years later? After reflecting on how one era’s “insight” can become another era’s embarrassing stereotype, I noted that jokes like “white men can’t jump” were common at the time among both white and Black fans.

And then I pontificated.

“If an observer, even in a joking way, has the right to bestow even self-deprecating stereotypes,” I wrote, “doesn’t he also assume the right to make serious stereotypical comments about himself and others — perhaps comments that may not be positive or flattering or comments that may constitute hollow praise with negative implications?”

Reading that 35 years later makes me think to myself: You might have tried to say this in a more simple way, the way I did that same week, when I rode a bus through my old Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood on the East Side and two young Black guys sat down behind me.

Immediately, they started to discuss the Larry Bird Race Issue.

“I wonder if the reporters got it all wrong,” one of them said. “I wonder if they misquoted Isiah or didn’t understand that he was joking.”

“Right,” his buddy said. “You never know about the press. Sometimes they confuse things.”

I couldn’t resist.

“Hey, guys,” I said, turning around. “I’m the guy who wrote the story in the Free Press after the game.”

And for the next half hour — passing by Belle Isle and on down to the Joe Louis Fist— the three of us enjoyed a spirited, forthright, and respectful conversation about journalism, sports, and race.

This is another chapter in Joe Lapointe’s sports reporting memoir to be titled either “The Fire-Balling Flame-Thrower Threw Bullets to Slam the Door” or “Local Team Hopes To Win Next Game.”

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About The Author

Joe Lapointe

Joe Lapointe is a Detroit-area freelance writer who is a former reporter for the New York Times and Detroit Free Press. He is working on a sports reporting memoir to be titled either The Fire-Balling Flame-Thrower Threw Bullets to Slam the Door or Local Team Hopes to Win Next Game...
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