After the Indiana Pacers drafted Tyler Hansbrough last Thursday, one of the many thoughts I had was that the pick should ilicit a good round of Pacers' whitewash jokes. You know, because Hansbrough is white and there are currently five other white guys on the roster. Hee hee. Fair enough, just show some creativity.
But then I started hearing some, not a lot, but some comments on the radio and reading a few things on the web that insinuated that Larry Bird was a racist and his priority in running the team was to amass as many white players as possible, regardless of talent. And these people were serious, which ended up being funnier than any of the actual jokes I've heard.
Most of these types of comments seem to arise from people who begin with a bias of their own, normally from one of two camps. Either they hate Tyler Hansbrough and don't think he was worthy of any first round pick, let alone the 13th pick so Bird must be hung up on race to take Hansbrough so high OR they've been longing for Larry Bird to be replaced in the Pacers'front office so they are quick to criticize any move and the easiest (laziest?) dagger to throw with this pick is to hit the racial angle.
It's easy to be led astray when you don't follow a situation real close and instead take a snapshot in time or simply monitor in a general sense. So please indulge me a moment while I offer up a little history along with a glimpse to the future to make sure we're all working with facts. Now my apologies if this is a repeat for regular readers, but I feel the need to lay it out one more time, then I promise I'll stick to basketball.
Front Office History
Larry Bird has been in the Pacers'front office since 2003, working under Donnie Walsh until last summer. The initial plan was to have Bird groomed under Walsh for a few years before eventually taking over all basketball decisions. But in the aftermath of the brawl one year later, Walsh took back a more active role in the basketball operations and after a few francise-marring situations in the community handled the complicated trades that had the Pacers dealing Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson.
Peja Stojackovic was swapped for Artest and played for half a season, not to placate all of the racist fans in Indy, but because Sacramento said, "OK, we'll take Artest." Among the players that arrived in the Stephen Jackson deal were Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy. Murphand Dun were in a bad situation in Golden State and were admittedly overpriced, hence the reason they were moved. It turned out to be a pretty good deal, since both have played better than expected when the deal was completed. For some reason, though, Donnie Walsh is never pegged as a racist. Probably because he's from New York instead of French Lick.
During this time, Bird worked hard to bring in free agent Sarunas Jasikevicius, outbidding the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Lithuanian player who had lit up some of the NBA's best in the Olympics and had a few huge year in the Euro leagues. At the time, the Pacers had Jamaal Tinsley, Anthony Johnson and Eddie Gill so the reasoning was that Runi would provide a change of pace and be able to knock down threes. This was a huge miss by Bird when it became apparent that the two steps back pushed Runi out of his shooting range. Despite his skin tone, Runi's presence certainly didn't placate all of the racist hoop fans in Indy. After two years, Jasikevicius was included in the trade that brought in Murph and Dun.
Bird Draft History
While Walsh maintained the final say in trade negotiations, Bird handled the draft from the time he arrived back in town. Since his arrival, his overt plan to whitewash the Pacers has netted draft picks James Jones (2003), David Harrison and Rashad Wright (2004), Danny Granger and Erazem Lorbek (2005), Shawne Williams (2006) Stanko Barac (via trade 2007), Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert (via trades 2008) and Tyler Hansbrough and A.J. Price (2009). Yeah, I know, Lorbek and Barac are white, but in fairness they were drafted as assetts to be developed on someone else's dime in Europe as opposed to placating all of the racist hoop fans in Indy.
Bird Trade History
Last summer was Larry Bird's first with full control of the basketball operations. He overturned the roster by bringing in seven new players. In the J.O. trade with Toronto, Bird brought back T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic and Maceo Baston along with the draft rights to Roy Hibbert. Birds sinister and methodical plan to whitewash the Pacers did produce Rasho, but he was actually more valuable as an expiring contract than as a white player to placate all of the racist hoop fans in Indy.
The other three new players Bird dealt for came from a draft deal with the Portland Trail Blazers. Ike Diogu and the rights to Jerryd Bayless for Jarrett Jack, Josh McRoberts and the rights to Brandon Rush. Now to say Josh McRoberts was the key piece to that deal in order to placate all of the racist hoop fans in Indiana requires the suspension of any basketball knowledge said detractor may profess.
It just so turns out, that in the minimal minutes Josh McRoberts was given last year he actually showed some promise. Now don't go running to a box score or look for old game reports to call me crazy. You actually had to watch the games to see why the team would be willing to bring him back for a minimal salary and he will get the opportunity to earn his way on the team with a good showing in summer league.
Where Is Bird Taking The Pacers?
This is where Bird's efforts to placate all of the racist hoop fans in Indy gets a little rocky. The Pacers are trying to rebuild with a core of players who treat their game as a profession, focused on developing into the best player they can possibly be. Bird prefers a mature player who has faced adversity and succeeded in hostile environments. Unless the talent overwhelms, he appears set to error on the side of experience.
The problem with this rebuilding project is that the team is desperate to win back fans, and while the shallow thinkers may believe the plan to win back fans is as simple as trotting out as many white guys as possible, the reality is that the fans want a team that plays hard and wins. So instead of gutting the roster for a horrible, lottery-improving season, Bird and team have gathered players to bridge the franchise from the depths of despair a couple of years ago (specifically after missing the 2006-07 playoffs with a nearly unwatchable team) to a future built on the foundation of players described in the preceding paragraph.
This plan is dicey since playing hard is not a problem but the wins part remains a struggle. The team needs to win more this year to build on the positive end to last season. Although in reality, any wins next year won't have a positive impact on the long term future from a basketball sense. But since the team needs to create some excitement to generate revenue, the short-term focus on winning as much as possible is understandable, not to mention far more entertaining to follow.
For lack of a better term, the "bridge players" include anyone currently on the roster whose contract expires after the 2010-11 season. The team prefers to think of it as their three-year plan. Either way, after 2010-11 the contracts for Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford, Jeff Foster and Jamaal Tinsley will all expire. Travis Diener's contract will expire after next season. The Pacers didn't pick up the team option for Marquis Daniels. Parting ways with Daniels was a financial move, since picking up his $7.5 million option would've left the Pacers with about $2 million to fill out the roster while avoiding the luxury tax.
So to look at the future core of the team, check out the 2011-12 roster. There you'll find Danny Granger, Brandon Rush, Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough. Consider Jarrett Jack, Josh McRoberts and A.J. Price to be wild cards at this point, but obviously not yet considered core players. There's plenty of work to be done for the future team and I expect the bridge players to be used as leverage to gather future assetts between now and the end of the 2010-11 season.
But one thing I don't expect is for Larry Bird to consider all of the racist hoop fans in Indy when trying to fill out the roster. Fortunately, he doesn't care what anyone thinks, he just wants to work with players that want to work to improve the team while also keeping the roster's financial situation in check and under the luxury tax.
So there you go. Make sure you understand me. I'm not saying there's racial harmony in Indiana nor any hoop fans who view the game through a personal racist lens. I'm also not saying the Pacers won't add white players in the future. In fact, I'd love it if they could swing a deal with a bridge player or two to land Ricky Rubio and Brian Cardinal's expiring contract from Minnesota. We can dream, right?
What I am saying is that Larry Bird has enough factors involved in trying to build a roster for the future without also trying to execute some sinister conspiracy to make the team white. And if you actually take an honest look at the basketball decisions which led to the current roster (not to mention who was making the decisions), that line of thinking based on a general, current snapshot unravels. In fact, looking at the core future, if Bird's desire is to "whiten" the Pacers, then he'd be failing miserably.
So to conclude, Larry Bird is wading through several complicated issues while trying to build the Indiana Pacers for a successful future. Race just isn't one of them nor is the opinion of any fan. Oh, and Tyler Hansbrough was a selected as a solid player in a draft that isn't expected to be league-altering. Deal with it.