The Bird Flap

Isiah’s defense of Rodman drew him into a national controversy
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The visitor’s locker room at Boston Garden was legendary – for its quarters (cramped), for its amenities (non-existent) and for the water temperature of its showers (often frigid, though I rely on second-hand information on the latter count). It was especially crowded on May 30, 1987, given the media crush covering Game 7 of an epic playoff series, and it was unbearably hot and unforgivingly humid.

The bitterness meter ran hot in the Pistons’ locker room after they lost that deciding game of the Eastern Conference finals. Who could blame them? They felt they’d outplayed the Celtics in five games of that series. They believed they were the better team, capable of winning it all. They felt robbed.

No one had much room to move as reporters moved in to talk to the principles of what had not only been an unbelievably taut series, but one that had grown dangerously contentious. As I leaned in as part of the interview session with Dennis Rodman at his locker, my arms were pinned to my side, with barely enough mobility to be able to scratch his words onto my notepad. Rodman, unknown just a year earlier as an NAIA product of Southeastern Oklahoma State, was asked about Larry Bird, a giant of the game who had been pushed and tested by the Pistons’ rookie.

“Larry Bird is overrated in a lot of areas,” Rodman responded. “Why does he get so much publicity? Because he’s white. You never hear about a black player being the greatest.”

OK, that’s already a story. What happened next made it a national drama that played out over the course of the NBA Finals between the Celtics and Lakers.

In those days, it was common that Isiah Thomas was the last of the Pistons to talk. He’d take his time in the shower. The media, after finishing up talking to everybody else of consequence for that particular game, would then jockey for position in front of his locker – at home, it was the one at the end of the row in the old Silverdome, nearest the shower doors.

So Rodman had already dropped the Bird bomb when it was Isiah’s turn to field questions. Take a step back and remember what had happened four days earlier. It was Isiah’s inbounds pass with five seconds left in a game the Pistons appeared to have won that led to a soul-crushing defeat. No one on the planet could have been more frustrated than Isiah, who at that moment had to believe the Pistons still would have won the series if Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson hadn’t conked heads in the final seconds of Game 7’s third quarter. And at that moment, Isiah might have wondered if he’d ever get so close again, or if the Pistons could ever beat the Celtics.

The media horde crammed around Isiah’s locker to gauge his response – “I think Larry is a very, very good basketball player,” Isiah began, “but I have to agree with Rodman: If he were black, he’d be just another good guy” – and I knew my day had just grown longer and infinitely more complicated.

First of all, you have to make sure you’re getting the words exactly right. A few reporters might have been carrying tape recorders with them at the time, but tape recorders were still bulky objects back then. Most print reporters still relied on their shorthand scratched notes back then. That was especially true of reporters who’d been around a while, and that accounted for most of the reporters in the locker room that day. It was Game 7 of the conference finals – the game was covered by a lot of heavy hitters in sports journalism.

But the task of making sure you scratched Isiah’s words accurately onto paper was complicated that day by two things: one, the sheer size of the crowd around him made it difficult to hear and difficult to write; two – and this image is still vivid in my mind – it was so insufferably hot and humid in that locker room, perspiration was rolling off of my forearms and onto my notepad, smearing the ink as I wrote. I was hardly alone in that odd dilemma.

I and a few others had to beg of some gracious Boston radio reporter to replay his tape for us in what passed as the media work room – spartan folding chairs and long card tables set up in a storage area where overhead pipes dripped with condensation.

Today, that story would have gone viral in a matter of minutes. By Saturday night, it would have been analyzed and debated and had the talking heads taking sides. Back then, it took a day or two to build momentum.

Bird, to his everlasting credit, agreed to be interviewed with Isiah on network TV during the Finals and basically shrugged it off for what it was – a fierce competitor, in the heat of the moment, standing by a teammate. It didn’t make the fallout completely dissipate. Isiah was something of a lightning rod, and those who disliked him weren’t going to let it go that easily, but Bird’s opening did more than anything else could have to put the incident in its proper perspective.

And the Celtics knew the Pistons weren’t going anywhere. They’d be back again the following year. When the 1986 playoffs ended, it appeared certain that Atlanta was the East’s rising young team. Twelve months later, the Celtics knew it was the Pistons they would have to hold off to keep their stranglehold on the East intact.