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Replay | leigh montville

In 1987, a Larry Bird-Isiah Thomas controversy became a laughing matter

Celtics great Larry Bird and Pistons star Isiah Thomas at their 1987 press conference.Tlumacki, John Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Editor’s note: While the games are on pause, the Globe is reaching into its archives to bring you “Replay,” stories and columns from the past that highlight something interesting, timely, or revealing. This Leigh Montville column on the controversy surrounding Isiah Thomas’s comments about Larry Bird appeared in the Globe on Friday, June 5, 1987, under the headline, “It’s a laughing matter for Thomas, Bird.”

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — I wonder why I don’t attend more of these hastily arranged events. I wonder why I don’t watch more people try to take back what they had said in earlier conversations. I wonder why I don’t attend one of these hastily arranged events every day.

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Isiah Thomas sits behind a table on a little stage. Larry Bird sits next to him. I wonder why somebody isn’t always taking back something in this big-time sports business.

"I always knew Larry was a great basketball player and I always respected him as a person," Isiah says. "I want to say that my respect really has grown for what he is doing today, sitting next to me and saying it's OK."

"The main thing is that Isiah's statements don't bother me," Larry says. ''If they don't bother me, they shouldn't bother anybody."

The subject here — in case you have misplaced your reading glasses for the past week — is Isiah’s quote from the aftermath of the Boston Celtics’ seventh game win on Saturday in Boston Garden. Isiah said Larry was a very good basketball player but if he was black, he’d be just another good guy, ha-ha. The ha-ha part never was in the paper, and the fallout had been unbelievable.

Isiah was a racist. Isiah was stupid. Isiah was . . . stories about Isiah were everywhere. The words spoken in the middle of a circle of reporters in the emotion of the saddest moment of Isiah Thomas’s pro basketball life seemed to be broadcast from a tower and go wider and wider. The story grew and grew. The opinions grew harder and harder.

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“I honestly did not think it would be this big a thing,” Isiah says. “It was a joke. Sarcasm. If people who knew Isiah heard this remark, it would have come out differently. Unfortunately, these were people who didn’t know Isiah.”

"I know how it happens sometimes," Larry says. "I'll make a joke, and maybe in the paper the next day, it'll be right, but somewhere down the road, the thing will be repeated and it won't be said as a joke. It will have changed."

"Is there anyone here from Boston?" Isiah asks. "I saw a thing on television in Boston when Magic Johnson was named Most Valuable Player. The guy asked Larry if he thought Magic should be the MVP. Larry said, 'No,' but it was a joke. The guy stayed with Larry, and Larry explained that he really did think Magic deserved the award. The guy knew Larry. He was from Boston. That's why he stayed."

Isiah said what he said the first time in Dressing Room No. 7 at the Garden. He said it with the room filled, wall-to-wall with people, people who shoved and pushed and stuck microphones and suggestions about 5 inches from his face. The dressing room was hot. The emotions were obvious, only 15 or 20 minutes after the game was played. He said what he said with half of his clothes missing.

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Is there any politician in the country who is subjected to the interview conditions that the athletes see? Even Ronald Reagan isn't grilled in his underwear 10 minutes after making his latest decision on the latest arms proposal. How do these guys stay as free from controversy as much as they do? How do they keep from making the same mistake as Isiah every day of the week, turning a phrase the wrong way and watching the explosion hit the public prints?

I wonder why mistakes don't happen again and again. Human beings are in inhuman conditions. Talking and talking.

"My mistake was in joking in a manner that could be misinterpreted," Isiah Thomas says. "I've been disappointed, hurt by this. All of America thinks Isiah Thomas is a racist, a bad guy. And anybody who knows me knows that I'm not."

“I don’t think Isiah’s stupid,” Larry Bird says. “He knows I’m a baaaad player.”

I watch Isiah explain in this ballroom filled with strangers. I watch Larry take all the grim qualities away from the situation. Isiah plays the tape of his original remarks and flashes his television smile. Larry somehow resembles a Midwestern senator, the master of the proper remark. All that is missing is the three-piece suit and the watch chain across the front.

“Larry’s a baaad guy,” Isiah says. “If he were black or blue or green or Puerto Rican, he’d be a baaad guy.”

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"I'm proud of being a professional basketball player," Larry Bird says. ''For a guy who's too slow and can't jump, I think I've done pretty well."

I like the way this story ends. I did not think it was a great story in the beginning, the context of the remarks missing, everything somehow becoming too harsh. I like the way Isiah came into the public eye to explain himself. I like the way Larry Bird stuck with the Detroit Pistons guard and downplayed the story from the beginning.

"What do you think about the way Larry stuck with you?" Isiah Thomas is asked in his room at the Airport Marriott Hotel yesterday after the news conference is finished.

"If he says nothing, I'm crucified," Isiah says. "I die. The people who voted me the Walter Kennedy Trophy this year (for charitable contributions) would have wanted to lynch me. I think Larry Bird might have saved my career today."

Nice.