By Patrick Hruby
Special to Page 2

Larry Bird couldn't be more wrong. Well, not unless he swaps Jermaine O'Neal for Raef LaFrentz and the rights to Blake Stepp, then hands Austin Croshere a max deal. But frankly, there's no way the hoops-savvy Indiana Pacers general manager would even consider such dunderheaded moves.

What's all the fuss about? Tune into ESPN tonight at 7 p.m. EST for "Two on Two" hosted by Jim Gray to find out.

The old guard of the NBA meets the new as Jim's guests include Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and young stars LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

Or would he?

In case you missed it -- and if you did, I suggest unfreezing your primitive caveman brain, then picking up one of those newfangled "cable boxes" -- Larry Legend added to the long, distinguished tradition of sports-based racial hooey yesterday, telling ESPN's Jim Gray that the NBA needs more white stars, and that nothing in basketball bugged him more than being guarded by another white player.

"When I played, you had me and Kevin [McHale] and some others throughout the league," Bird said during a televised, cross-generational chat that included Magic Johnson, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. "I think it's good for a fan base because, as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America. And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited.

"The one thing that always bothered me when I played in the NBA was I really got irritated when they put a white guy on me," Bird added. "Because it's disrespect to my game."

In the immortal words of teenage instant messengers everywhere: OMG! WTF?

Larry Bird
Larry Bird said he was insulted when he was guarded by a white guy.

In Bird's defense, I'll let the defense comment slide. After all, it's not like Larry Legend squared off against a legion of white stoppers back in the day. Not to disrespect to Kelly Tripucka or anything.

Likewise, Magic Johnson gets a pass for not calling his old rival out -- mostly because he wasn't much of a defender himself, in part because he was probably coming up with a rebuttal along the lines of "Whooo! Man!"

(And no disrespect to Magic, either: The guy whipped HIV and is a fantastic businessman.)

Still, as for the rest of Larry Legend's ignorant spiel?

Please. Please. Puh-leeze.

A few months back, former Notre Dame football star Paul Hornung suggested that his alma mater could improve its competitive lot by lowering academic standards to attract "the black athlete." Translation: White guys can't play. And black guys can't read.

Likewise, Bird is suggesting that white spectators can't be fans -- at least not honest fans -- of black athletes. That whites need someone to call their own, based on the most superficial criteria imaginable. That whites can't fully appreciate performance ... unless it comes wrapped in a fair-skinned package, tied up with a Jason Williams Sacramento Kings jersey.

This, of course, is complete and total balderdash -- a balky proposition to rival the late-era Bird's bad back.

One of the great joys of sport -- sport in its purest form, anyway -- is that it strips away race, politics, and socioeconomic baggage. Not off the field, of course. And certainly not in the front office. But between the lines, games exist in a blissful vacuum. Competition isn't everything; it's the only thing. Can white men jump? Can a black quarterback read an NFL-level defense? Wrong questions. You can play. Or you can't. Period. It isn't any deeper than that -- otherwise, we'd all be hanging on the latest conniving reality show instead of staying up late for the NBA Finals and shelling out $100-plus for LeBron James replica jerseys.

Speaking of James: the prep-to-pros phenom is living, dunking proof incarnate that Bird's gobbledygook thesis doesn't hold water. Who loves the boy King? Only everyone -- whites, blacks, Asians, even grouchy Maurice Clarett. Now, do they really love LeBron because they can relate to his pigmentation? Not bloody likely.

Fact is, anyone who can relate to a 6-foot-8 wunderkid with vision to shame Vin Diesel's "Riddick" and a body borrowed from Michaelangelo's "David" is probably playing in the League already.

So what gives? How about this: Fans of all races enjoy skill, not skin. They watch James for high-flying jams, no-look dimes, an otherworldly knack for the spectacular. They watch because LeBron is nothing like them. They don't want to identify; they want to be awed. Same goes for MJ, Magic and even Bird, back when he was trash-talkingest clutch performer to ever don a pair of short pants.

When you're watching Game 3 of the Finals Thursday night -- played, coincidentally, between two teams sporting all-black starting fives -- take a good look at the crowd. You'll see plenty of whites. They're not there to cheer Darko.

LeBron James
We all watch LeBron because he can do things we only dream of.

Funny enough, James and Anthony seem to grasp this intuitively.

"I think the fans look at the game, [they're] not looking at the race," James said. "[They're] looking who can play basketball. Or who's athletic ... When you [were] a kid and you used to go outside, it didn't matter who was the best player in the league.

"If Bird was my favorite player, I'm out shooting threes ... If Magic was my [favorite] player, I'm out there throwing my best passes. It's not the race issue. If you can play the game of basketball, you know fans are gonna love you."

Added Anthony: "Race is not an issue. Where I'm from, people love the Yao Mings, the Dirks, the Pejas. They love them guys. I don't think race is an issue right now."

To be somewhat fair, it's not as though Bird wasn't speaking from experience. When he entered the NBA, the league suffered from tape-delayed Finals and a crippling image problem -- too lackadaisical, too drugged-out, too black. A good number of white fans probably did want a fair-skinned hero. Sad but true.

Similarly, no one would deny the racism that still exists in this country. Some of that undoubtedly bleeds into fan allegiances.

That said, times have changed. Attitudes, too. Allen Iverson, tats n' all, is arguably the league's most popular player. (Ironically, Bird and Magic helped make all of this happen). In the here and now, it's neither accurate nor constructive to paint white fans with a single brush, any more than it's right to assume that black Baltimore Ravens fans would rather see Kordell Stewart at quarterback than Kyle Boller (and if they would, may the spirit of Johnny Unitas have mercy on their souls).

My Page 2 colleague Bill Simmons argues that if Bird's comments had come from Charles Barkley, they wouldn't be a big deal. Maybe not. But that doesn't make them any less dumb.

Patrick Hruby is a sportswriter for the Washington Times.