In Indiana, and in many other parts of the NBA-watching world, it’s the giant white elephant in the middle of the room.
Is Pacers president Larry Bird specifically trying to build a team dominated by white players?
It’s an uncomfortable question to ask in these politically correct days, but how do you ignore a roster that includes Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, Josh McRoberts, Travis Diener, Jeff Foster and now, first-round pick Tyler Hansbrough?
In a league where little more than 10 percent of the players are white Americans, the Pacers roster is racially split down the middle, making them one of the whitest teams in the league.
“I don’t see race at all,” Bird said recently. “I know a lot of it comes out of the brawl (in 2004 at Detroit), people think Indiana has to get all white guys, but I don’t buy any of that. I played in Boston, where it didn’t matter who came in or who left, it was who helped us win. (Late Celtics coach and architect) Red (Auerbach) never saw color. And I don’t, either. I just pick them. If we hadn’t taken Tyler Hansbrough, it would have been Ty Lawson. And if I could have gotten another pick (later in the first round), I would have taken Sam Young or Wayne Ellington.”
There is the perception, fueled in part by local and national sports talk shows, that because the Pacers imploded after the brawl and had several other off-court embarrassments that involved a select few black players, they’re overcompensating by stocking the roster with white players they perceive (and their fans perceive) to be choirboys. This overlooks the fact that since Bird got involved in the draft process, eight of the 10 Pacers draftees have been black.
In some ways, the Pacers president is still held hostage by some of the comments he made to Jim Gray in a 2004 ESPN roundtable discussion. Asked if the NBA would benefit from having more white stars (specifically white American stars), Bird answered:
“Well, I think so. I think so. You know when I played you had me and Kevin (McHale) and some others throughout the league. I think it’s good for a fan base because, as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America. And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited . . .”
How is that different than saying that Major League Baseball needs more black stars? Or that the NBA needed a Chinese-born star to open that huge market?