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Larry Bird: The Making of an American Sports Legend.

Larry Bird: The Making of an American Sports Legend. Daniel Levine. McGraw-Hill, $1795. Red Auerbach had this way of turning racial prejudice to his advantage.

In the fifties, when another team balked at drafting a black player, the wily Boston Celtics chief got himself Bill Russell and a dynasty. Twentytwo years later, after racial stereotypes had come full circle, Auerbach drafted a slow white guy named Larry Bird. Three more championship banners now hang from the Boston Garden's already crowded rafters.

For all of Bird's prowess, there has hovered over his career a cloud of racial suspicion. When he entered the NBA in the late seventies, fan interest was declining, and many team owners thought the reason was a lack of white stars-or players, for that matter. Through no fault of his own, Bird became the Great White Hope.

Though he has more than proved his mettle, some blacks think Bird has gotten more than his share of glory In Spike Lee's movie, She's Gotta Have it, a Larry Bird put-down line is a black in-joke. Isiah Thomas, the Detroit Pistons star, exclaimed in a moment of pique that were Bird black, he'd be considered just another good player. (Bird had just stolen a Thomas pass for a last-second playoff win.)

Churlish as it was, Thomas did give voice to something many had mused upon but had kept to themselves. TV commentators made matters worse, constantly noting Bird's "knowledge of the game" and his spartan practice regime. It all fed the notion that black players get by on raw physical ability, while whites prevail through brains and work. It was no accident that Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, in his muchpublicized comments on the physical superiority of black athletes, singled out basketball players.

There is a great irony here. In breaking basketball's reverse color line-a number of bona fide white stars have entered the league since-Bird was refuting these racial stereotypes rather than confirming them. Yes, Bird is slow. And, as he freely acknowledges, he's afflicted with what is called in basketball circles "White Man's Disease" (i.e. , he can't jump either).

But an unauthorized biography of Bird by Daniel Levine, a freelance writer, reveals that Bird shares something more basic with many of his black counterparts in the NBA: a background of poverty and family disruption. In so doing, he reminds us that blacks dominate the NBA today for pretty much the same reason that tough white kids with names like Heinsohn and Cousy dominated it 30 years ago. They grew up in circumstances in which sports can easily seem the only route of escape.

Bird grew up in a pan of southern Indiana known simply as "The Valley," in the adjoining towns of West Baden and French Lick. Once French Lick was a thriving resort. Joe Louis trained there, and millionaires kept their private railroad cars on a siding by the hotel. Today, the Valley has been described as a "horizontal housing project." There's a piano factory, a gypsum plant, the hotel. And of course, basketball. Indiana's basketball culture is every bit as rabid as that of inner-city playgrounds. Bird's home life made the court seem especially inviting. His father was an alcoholic who once squandered a house down-payment at a local bar. He eventually shot himself, while talking to Bird's mother on the telephone. The family was so poor that relatives would come by with food for the refrigerator. Bird's mother worked two jobs, and Bird lived with his grandmother for long stretches. Lacking supervision, he'd be out on the basketball court until the wee hours of the morning, like the black kids at 11th and Rhode Island in Washington's Shaw neighborhood.

"With little at home, and no car or diversions," Levine w"basketball became the sum of his existence." (Significantly for Bird's later endeavors, race relations in the Valley were relatively benign. The resort attracted black employees, and many became respected members of the community. Bird himself has a cousin who is half black.)

Also like many inner-city kids, Bird's early course was erratic. He got a much-coveted scholarship to play for Bobby Knight, the coach at Indiana University, but dropped out after less than a month. He drove a garbage truck for a while, enrolled at Indiana State, and sired a child to a woman he had already divorced. Bird's stardom easily might not have been. Today, Bird plays with uncommon confidence and a steely, defiant swagger. It is not hard to see why.

Levine tells the story straight, without hagiography or violins. It is no small feat, considering Bird's refusal to cooperate. Like many sports stars today, Bird decided to cash in on his own life story, rather than let some sportswriter do it. So he's producing his own book, with Bob Ryan, the respected basketball writer for The Boston Globe. (Coincidentally or not, the Globe has ignored Levine's book, a fact the rival Herald has noted.)

Levine's one lapse is his psychologizing. "Yet for all of basketball's therapeutic value," he writes, hitting stride, "it was less of a cathartic exercise than an imperfect act of sublimation." Such statements reduce an inspiring story of a tough country kid to the cloying prose of a guidance report from an exclusive Manhattan preschool. I doubt that I'd cooperate with someone who'd write about me that way. Yet in the end, these lapses are not fatal. And in telling the story Bird has never told about himself-he's an intensely private man-Levine has made him larger.

As Levine shows, there is much more to Bird's fan appeal than his whiteness. He's got an Uncle Eephus mug, and a body with which weekend players, black as well as white, can identify. He's a total team player, yet his swagger is extraordinary. Before an All-Star shooting contest, he sauntered into the locker room wondering aloud who would come in second. Like Ted Williams, another Boston sports legend, he has a contrary streak. He once showed up for an awards ceremony in a bowling shirt. After the Celtics won the NBA championship in 1984, he stiffed President Reagan at the White House.

One might wonder how such deeds would play if a black man did them. Still, Larry, Bird has a more important implication. If the housing projects in Brooklyn were full of white kids instead of black, there would be more of them in the NBA. There's a good chance Isiah Thomas's kids will grow up to be lawyers or engineers. Even Larry Bird's might.

-Jonathan Rowe
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Rowe, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:May 1, 1989
Words:1086
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