Nov 24, 2009

The Buddy Flick

Americans have had a long lasting love affair with stories involving the black and white "buddy" scenario. From Huck Finn and Nigger Jim to Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones or Sidney Poitier and Rod Stieger from In the Heat of the Night, take your pick. From Jack Benny and Rochester to Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, this buddy narrative cuts across decades. Why Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney even went so far as to pen the black-white buddy national anthem. Yes indeed, ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony, just like the keys on a piano, or so we're told.

The buddy story, as it were, has served to simplify incredibly complex race relations by reducing everything to a series of cultural misunderstandings. Of course once the two seeming opposites spend enough time with each other, they both realize that they have more in common than was previously known. By the end, the two are usually so close that they're practically finishing each others sentences.

Well the most recent version of this tired old story revolves around Erving "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird, two former rivals on the basketball court, who never seem to go away. Between repeated broadcasts of their legendary battles from times past on cable networks like ESPN Classic and NBA TV, and their new book, When The Game Was Ours, its almost like the 80s never ended. We have reached a point where you cannot call Magic's name without Bird's name lurking somewhere in the vicinity. It's more like Magic and Bird, or, Bird and Magic, if you prefer, than it is either Magic or Bird. Like old vaudeville, they have become an act, a performance team. You can't have one without the other anymore.

But just like all those other faulty pairings already listed, the Magic/Bird connection doesn't past the smell test, at least not for me. Sure, some people love such a pairing as it speaks to a fictional racial harmony that has never really existed. Such a fairy tale is certainly much easier to digest than the historical reality of racial conflict that not even our current President is free to discuss.

Let's look at the facts. Magic and Bird faced each other four times with a championship on the line; once in the famed 1979 NCAA Championship Game and three times in the NBA Finals, 1984, '85, and '87. Magic was victorious three of those times in convincing fashion. The NCAA Championship was a blow out win for Magic and his Michigan State Spartans, while the Lakers beat the Celtics in six games in both '85 and '87. With the exception of the Celtics seven game series victory in '84, Bird came up short every time he went against Magic in championship competition.

So, where is the rivalry, I ask? Generally true rivals are much closer than a 4 to 1 margin of victory would suggest. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought each other 3 times, with Ali winning 2 of the 3. Joe Frazier is clearly seen as the lesser of the two men, necessary only to the extent that the Ali narrative needs a consistent opponent in order to make the story work properly. In other words, Ali/Frazier is really more about Ali, with Frazier serving as his literary foil.

Magic and the Lakers faced Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers 3 times in the Finals as well. The Lakers won 2 championships to the 76ers 1, but no on talks about the Magic/Dr. J rivalry. The Lakers/Celtics produced the same results as the Lakers/76ers, but this LA/Philly rivalry gets next to no attention by contrast.

I understand that the '79 NCAA championship game is one of the most celebrated basketball games in history. I also realize how a college rivalry that developed into a professional rivalry makes the story that much more intriguing. And I do know that the history of the Celtics/Lakers rivalry even before Magic/Bird factored into this as well. However, my point is that when one looks closer at all the facts, as opposed to simply rolling with all the hype, things start to look a bit different than perception might lead us to believe.

The truth of the matter is that based on the outcome of their competition, Magic/Bird should really be more a movie about Magic, with Bird playing the sidekick role, as opposed to the equal billing Bird has always received. The way in which this story has been revised is similar to the Sugar Ray Robinson/Jake LaMotta rivalry. Sugar Ray Robinson beat Jake LaMotta 5 out of 6 times, yet LaMotta is the one who gets immortalized in Raging Bull, leaving the impression that the two fighters were far more equal, if indeed LaMotta is not made superior in the public mind by this cinematic gesture.

Bird may have won 2 other titles in the '80s, both times playing against Houston, but no one talks about the fact that Joe Frazier beat Jimmy Ellis when discussing Frazier's rivalry with Ali. By the way, the Houston team that Boston beat in 1981 finished the regular season with a losing 40-42 record. I recognize that its Boston's job to beat whoever they play against, in spite of their record, but it is important to point out that when compared to Magic, Bird comes up short repeatedly.

During the so-called rivalry, Bird was named MVP three straight years, 1984-86. Magic would himself have three MVP awards when all was said and done, winning those awards later on in 1987, '89, and '90. As the legendary Kareem Abdul Jabber--a player whose career accomplishments clearly trump Bird's--was slowing easing out of the league, Magic could now step fully into his role as "The Man," without stepping on any toes, so that his leadership and excellence could now be fully recognized.

This should all lay to rest the idea that Magic and Bird are equals among competitors. They are not and never have been. So, you ask, if they are not, nor have they ever been real equals, why does Bird keep getting billed as a co-star when the reality is that he is truly a supporting actor?

To answer this question, one needs to go back to the days when this questionable rivalry was developed in the first place. In 1979 when Magic and Bird first met up as competitors, basketball was undergoing a racial revolution. The game was becoming blacker by the day, though great white American players like Bird were still very much a reality in the game. By the time Magic and Bird started playing each other in the NBA Finals, it was clear that, with the exception of the Celtics, the league was pretty much a black league, at least in terms of the players.

Where things were not so black was in the broadcast booth and in the newsrooms of the nation's newspapers. The discourse surrounding the game was a conversation controlled almost exclusively by white men in a sport where the presence of white men was decreasing rapidly on the court. The media conversation about NBA basketball was not an inclusive conversation the way it is now. This was before Sir Charles and Kenny Smith had a spot on TNT, before NBA TV existed to hire so many former black players to comment on the game. This was before ESPN had a Page 2 or a host of black basketball analysts to give the game a broader perspective. The 80s was a time when black voices tended to be confined to the margins.

So much of what was said in the '80s has influenced the way we think about things now. Yet if the conversation at that time had been more inclusive then things might come across differently today. Instead, because many people are so intellectually lazy they accept whatever they've already been told, no one questions the way in which this narrative about Magic and Bird has been constructed to favor Bird, in spite of the historical circumstances that certainly suggest something different.

What makes this even more troubling is the fact that Magic has willing signed on to this revisionist history. Magic has willingly allowed Bird to take part of his own shine, so that he can remain in the good graces of mainstream America. This reminds me of actor Ving Rhames during the 1998 Golden Globe Awards, when he, with tears streaming down his face, called "Mr. Jack Lemon" up on stage so that he could give "Mr. Lemon" the award that Rhames himself had just received. The only thing missing was for Rhames to say "Yesssir, Boss."

Well, Magic, always a grinning fool, even back in the day, has been doing his own version of the Ving Rhames. Part of this involves recently throwing Isiah Thomas under the bus, as Magic does in the new book and has been doing in recent interviews. Isiah is an easy target though, who is being slighted by Magic so as to curry more favor with his adoring white public.

Every since Isiah openly agreed with Dennis Rodman's 1987 comment that Bird was receiving favorable commentary because he was white, Isiah has been on the black list, no pun intended. Isiah will never be able to live down that '87 incident. But what did he say that was so wrong? What he said was that a predominantly white media had elevated one of their own to a place beyond that of his basketball peers for purely racial reasons.

Isiah was simply adding to the conversation that started way back in 1908 when powerful white Americans sought a "great white hope" to bring down that black menace otherwise known as Jack Johnson. Bird, like Jim Jeffries, the fictional character Rocky, and most recently rapper Marshall Mathers, was simply another in a long line of "white hopes." As the NBA's population demographics changed, Bird was seen as the last remaining white player capable of truly competing on the same stage as the new black majority.

It's not surprising that there would be this need to overcompensate for the increasing lack of white American players by elevating the last great white basketball hope beyond his actual status. The desire for a great white hope lives on to this day in other areas as well, most recently though, in the age of Obama, this desire is circulating around Sarah Palin.

If the newspapers and airwaves in the 80s were as inclusive as they are now, then it wouldn't have been a surprise to so many people that what Isiah said was a major topic of conversation among many black people, it's just that those black people didn't have a way to have their concerns heard in public due to this lack of access at the time. Trust me, Isiah wasn't the only black person who thought Bird was overrated, Isiah was just one of the few famous enough to be able to have what he said played out in public.

This is not to diminish Bird, as he was undoubtedly a great player, but it is to say that he was constantly being celebrated in ways that had more to do with this larger racial and political agenda than simply with his basketball skills.

Magic has fallen under scrutiny lately for his business associations with casinos and the kind of rip-off rental furniture companies that exploit poor minorities like those that he insists he's helping. For a man who has confused the ability to sell his own name for profit with actually running successful businesses we shouldn't be surprised. Magic has always been an opportunist, trying to grin his way into the hearts of those who will always have more love for Larry Bird anyway.