Like many others Tuesday night, sports marketing analyst Dean Bonham watched Kobe Bryant knock down a late three-pointer that might have saved the Los Angeles Lakers' season.
The lack of a white American superstar in Game 2 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Detroit Pistons failed to register with Bonham, even as the issue was about to come front-and-center yesterday. Hall of Fame player and Indiana Pacers general manager Larry Bird prescribed more white stars in an interview scheduled to air tonight on an ESPN special.
Fellow Hall of Famer Magic Johnson also was quoted in published reports on the special, agreeing with Bird on race and the NBA. Excerpts were later posted on ESPN.com.
"I think it's good for a fan base because as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America," Bird said in a program. "And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited."
Former Laker Magic Johnson, a black superstar who was the former Celtic's rival for more than a decade, agreed with his contemporary's assessment.
"Larry Bird, you see, can go into any neighborhood," Johnson said. "When you say, `Larry Bird,' black people know who he is, Hispanics, whites, and they give him the respect."
But an athlete is an athlete in Bonham's world, he said. At Staples Center, an athlete dribbled three times, then found just enough space to launch a shot from 25 feet, an attempt that took place with 2.1 seconds left, the most important basketball play you've seen in 2004. Nothing more, nothing less, he said. The series was tied.
"At the time, it wouldn't have mattered to most of the fans whether he was black, white or purple," said Bonham, a Denver-based executive who is white. "He's a great athlete and he made that game one of the most enjoyable I've ever watched."
Looking back, he continued: "I'm not sure that there were more white people wearing Bird jerseys. But if there were, there were millions of people who are Johnson or Michael Jordan fans who were white and didn't see them [Johnson and Jordan] as one color or another."
Also on the program are rookies Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, who shared the viewpoint Bonham expressed. "I think the fans look at the game, they're not looking at race -they're looking at who can play basketball," said James.
In the 1980s, Bird and Johnson reintroduced crossover appeal to the NBA, a league that had a 1980 Finals game between the Lakers and 76ers air on tape-delay. As multi-skilled big men - Johnson a slick-passing guard, Bird a dead-eye shooting forward - the pair led the league's two most noteworthy franchises to eight of the decade's titles.
When Johnson and Bird entered the league, average attendance was about 11,000 during 1979-80, their rookie year, increasing to 15,700 a decade later and continuing to go up to about 17,000 last season. But in recent years, television ratings have slumped, a trend that sports business experts such as David M. Carter attribute to the perceived "urbanization of the NBA."
"Stemming the tide of an increasingly in-your-face sport dominated by a group portrayed by sports agents and unions as largely misunderstood and vilified by much of middle America, remains important to the NBA if it hopes to sell its product to mainstream audiences for years to come," wrote Carter and Darren Rovell in their recent book, On the Ball.
Oddly enough, Bird spoke of his resentment about opposing coaches who had their white players cover one of the best offensive players in the league.
"I really got irritated when they put a white guy on me," he said. "I still don't understand why. ... I'd say, `Come on, you got a white guy coming out here to guard me; you got no chance.'"
One of the first players to make note of Bird's race was Dennis Rodman, then of the Pistons, who suggested that the star was overrated, a comment co-signed by Detroit All-Star Isiah Thomas.
"Why does he get so much publicity?" Rodman said in 1987, before apologizing. "Because he's white. You never hear about a black player being the greatest."
At the same time, a racial subtext served as a partial catalyst for interest in the rivalry, according to Todd Boyd, author of Young, Black, Rich and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion, and the Transformation of American Culture.
In an earlier interview, he called the 1980s tussles between the Celtics and Lakers "one of the last real black-white conflicts in the 20th century," drawing more attention to the game.
In addition to Bird, the Celtics featured future Hall of Famer Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge, giving them three prominent white players.
"Their nemesis were the Lakers, who were overwhelmingly black," Boyd said yesterday. "I'm not so sure there would have been the interest if the Celtics were playing the Utah Jazz."