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Note: This column was originally published Jan. 11, 2006.
Adam Morrison is kind of like Larry Bird. He's not exactly like Larry Bird, but he's closer to Bird than any college player of the past 20 years. This similarity, it would seem, is obvious. However, I find myself uncomfortable writing the sentence, "Adam Morrison is kind of like Larry Bird." I am well aware some people will consider this sentiment to be potentially racist, and my unconscious, internal reaction is to mildly agree with them.
Aging American white people have been waiting for another Larry Bird in the same way aging hippies have been waiting for another Bob Dylan, but nobody ever gets what he or she wants: Tom Gugliotta ended up being Beck; Keith Van Horn turned out to be Conor Oberst; Mike Dunleavy is probably Ryan Adams. But Adam Morrison -- at least on the collegiate level -- is closer to Larry than Robert Zimmerman was to the Wallflowers: He moves like Bird, shoots with the same kind of range and release, and displays an identical offensive mentality. He is confident and performs well under pressure. He doesn't pass as deftly (or as often) as Bird, and he doesn't rebound as aggressively (or as often) as Bird, but he has the same body frame and an analogous mustache. Gonzaga is a small school from a second-tier conference, just like Indiana State. These men are not clones, but they share important, undeniable qualities.
Yet I remain vaguely unnerved by this comparison, and I am not alone. For the past three months, I have heard numerous pundits insist that Adam Morrison is not like Larry Bird, and that anyone who draws such a connection is a languid, biased thinker. It's the most counterintuitive of paradoxes: Politically, it feels as though Bird and Morrison should not be compared, and this is because both of them are white. Which raises a question that creeps into many sports arguments without ever being addressed directly: What do we do when two white (or two black) athletes are similar for clichéd, unprogressive reasons?
I was reminded of this quandary while watching Vince Young destroy USC in the BCS Championship. Young is a hypermobile quarterback who throws the deep ball with velocity and the short ball with accuracy. Obviously, there are many white QBs who have possessed these traits: Steve Young, John Elway, Roger Staubach. But it seems intellectually insane to compare Vince Young to Steve Young instead of to Randall Cunningham. When I recall Cunningham at his absolute best (i.e., that Monday night game against the Giants in '88, when Carl Banks couldn't knock him down with a ball peen hammer), it immediately makes me think about Vince Young in the Rose Bowl. Steve Young was a more effective quarterback than Cunningham, but Cunningham was more dangerous and harder to contain; this is what makes Randall and Vince alike. And this comparison is specific: Young does not seem like Michael Vick or Steve McNair. He only resembles Cunningham, who is coincidentally black. But I still hate making this argument, because it sounds like coded language and racial misdirection, even when it's true.
This is an especially complicated issue for hoop magazines like Slam, where so much of the coverage is devoted toward the introduction of obscure young talent. In fact, Slam makes cognizant -- and at times wildly creative -- efforts not to compare upcoming white players to previously established Caucasians.
"We've sort of half-jokingly mentioned for years that we should address this in print, with a small monthly feature or something," Slam editor-in-chief Ryan Jones says. "The inspiration, as it is for a lot of things we do, is other media -- lazy broadcasters and sports columnists who compare Dirk [Nowitzki] to Bird or Keith Van Horn to Bird or pretty much any other tallish white guy to Bird. Mostly, I think people just don't try very hard, which is especially true among members of the media. The most recent example of Slam consciously comparing a white dude to a black dude was my assertion that 'David Lee has a lot of Marcus Camby in him.' They're both superlong and sort of surprisingly athletic for how tall they are, they're both good energy guys, and both of them make a living on putbacks. Admittedly, the laziness here is that Camby used to be a Knick and Lee is now a Knick rookie, but at least I'm trying."
What makes Jones' sentiment especially interesting is what he uses as criteria for comparison: Because he watches well over 100 NBA games a season, he has a very nuanced sense of what makes two guys similar ("superlong," "good energy guys," etc.). Casual fans tend to paint their ideas with broader strokes; normal people view the meaning of sports through the prism of mass culture. And since virtually no one in America understands the machinations of mass culture as well as Malcolm Gladwell, I decided to get his thoughts on this particular conundrum.
Gladwell writes for The New Yorker and is the author of "The Tipping Point" and "Blink" (he also really, really respects Kris Kristofferson). One of his most interesting (and previously unpublished) concepts is his "White Gunner Theory," which might partially illustrate why I feel nervous comparing Morrison to Bird.
"The black/white stereotyping in basketball," Gladwell said, "crudely breaks down somewhere along these lines: fast/slow; me-first/team-first; leaper/smarts and footwork; shooter/passer; ability/effort. The key psychological term here is attribution -- that is, 'What reasons do we use to account for someone's achievement?' So if we take a white player and a black player with exactly the same statistics, we might nonetheless explain their success very differently."
What Gladwell is basically saying is that there are certain "athletic" qualities traditionally applied to black players and certain "old school" qualities traditionally applied to white players. However, if you didn't pick up that notion on your own, you might want to quit reading right now because it's about to become considerably more complex.
"More significantly," Gladwell said, "this means we ignore aspects of someone's achievement that contradict the stereotype. Hence the 'White Gunner' -- a type of player we struggle with because he is white yet simultaneously embodies all the stereotypes we've reserved for blacks. Tom Chambers is the White Gunner poster child. Rex Chapman was another example. I would argue that Pete Maravich was not, if only because he embodies some completely sui generis Cajun thing that defies the normal black/white breakdown.
"This fits into another psychological theory, which is called cross-race recognition theory," Gladwell says. "It suggests that when we mentally process the appearance of faces different from our own -- in other words, faces that we're not familiar with -- we categorize by race and color and ethnicity. But when we process faces from our own race that we're far more familiar with, we categorize by feature -- by eyes and mouth and hair and eyebrows. That's why the old adage about how all black people look the same to whites (and vice versa) is true: When we look at someone of another race, we're not remembering them by using the kinds of features that make it easy to distinguish an individual. We're just coding them as 'black' or as 'white.' My point? In basketball, the 'face' we're familiar with is black. We code black players by feature, so we can make endlessly subtle distinctions between players: There is a David Thompson 'type,' which is quite unlike a Grant Hill 'type,' which, in turn, is quite unlike a Gary Payton 'type.' But I think we code white players by category. They are simply 'white,' and we don't make the same kind of sophisticated distinctions among them. So we miss the 'White Gunner.' Does that make any sense?"
It absolutely does; it's the same reason every rock critic in 1988 wanted to compare Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid to Jimi Hendrix. The reason we feel strange drawing reasonable comparisons between two white small forwards or two black quarterbacks is because both idioms are relatively rare, and -- perhaps unconsciously -- we're aware that we might be might be missing all the details we've been conditioned to ignore. This has become less of a problem in pro football because there are now lots of black, dissimilar quarterbacks. But it has become even more confusing in pro basketball, despite the fact that the league suddenly looks "whiter." European players like Nowitzki and Andrei Kirilenko (and South American players like Manu Ginobili) mix and match the aforementioned Gladwellian dichotomies; these athletes exist outside the stereotype of American white players and American black players. We don't know where to place them. Europe appears to be an entire continent of White Gunners.
I'm not sure what any of this means (or proves), beyond the fact that I will no longer deny that Adam Morrison is a lot like Larry Bird, which -- all things considered -- is not exactly a life-altering watershed. However, perhaps these ideas will convince Mel Kiper Jr. to go on "The Charlie Rose Show" in April and say something like, "Reggie Bush is not the next Gale Sayers -- he's actually more similar to Red Grange!" Because that would be stellar.