tv Lectures in History CSPAN December 28, 2016 12:18am-1:31am EST
watch on demand at c-span.org or listen on our free c-span radio app. now, historian matthew andrews of the university of north carolina at chapel hill talks about how the racial tensions of the 1980s were reflected in the sports. particularly when white and black athletes faced off in boxing matches and basketball games and became symbols for racial disagreements. his class is about an hour and ten minutes.
>> okay. we're going to go ahead and get started. we've been exploring the question of gender and women's rights in sports. today we're going to return our focus to race relations and questions of race in american sports and american sports history. specifically, we're going to explore what i like to call the return of the great white hope in the 1980s. you know all about the original great white hope. you did research on the original great white hope. jim jeffreys in 1910 comes out of retirement and tries to redeem the white race and defeat jack johnson in the ring in reno. you know he was unsuccessful. he failed. well, in the 1980s, there emerged a few white athletes who were thought of somewhat in the same way. these were white athletes that white americans hoped would
score symbolic victories in sports and the attitudes towards these athlete s suggested that perhaps the nation had not come as far as many people like to think with regards to race. perhaps racial issues had not gone away. the united states may have entered what commentators were calling the post-civil rights era. the 1970s, 1980s. this is the post-civil rights era but, clearly, race was still meaningful. clearly racial anxiety still existed. and so to illustrate these anxieties, i'm going to explore these anxieties. we're going to explain where these anxieties come from. but to illustrate these anxieties i'm going to begin with a story, with a sports story. you all know how much i like boxing and prize fighting. i have one more prize fighting story to tell you. don't worry. it's the last one all semester. so savor the experience.
all right. here we go. i am going to tell you about the 1982 fight heavyweight fight between larry holmes and gerry c cooney. the heavyweight fight for the world. this ended up being history's last great black versus white fight of the 20th century and the fight thankfully lacked the murdero murderous, racial hysterics. americans actually died because of this fight. but like the johnson/jeffreys fight of 1910 this was a sporting event and a racial drama. a serious and compelling and intense racial drama. all right. larry holmes was the champion. holmes was a tremendous heavyweight champion, but holmes was the victim of bad timing. holmes is the first great champion right after muhammad ali. and you know all about muhammad ali. in fact, holmes defeated an
older and out of shape ali in 1980, but holmes never got the credit that i think he deserved, and that's because he just wasn't as charismatic as muhammad ali. who was as care charismatic as muhammad ali? holmes was a great fighter, a skilled boxer. he had very fast hands. and he was a big man with a hard, heavy punch, yet a serious knockout blow. and when he fought gerry cooney in 1982, he was undefeated. 39-0. cooney was the challenger. he was an irish american from new york. cooney rises through the boxing ranks and he becomes popular and famous for two main reasons. one, like holmes, he's a tremendous puncher. he hits very, very hard. he ended many of his fights with
early knockouts. but second, and there are no two ways about this, gerry cooney is popular because he is white. that has a ton to do with his immense popularity. after decades of heavyweight x boxing being dominated by black fighters and black champions. i'll give you some of the names. you know these names. floyd patterson, sonny liston, muhammad ali and now larry holmes, here was a white possibility. and as many americans saw it, here was a great white hope. a white american who might reclaim the heavyweight title. so this fight takes place in june of 1982. i'll get to the fight in just a second, but there's an interesting coincidence going on in the summer of 1982. there's a big blockbuster movie in the theaters "rocky iii."
and we have not talked about "rocky" yet. we need to take a step back and intellectualize rocky balboa. let's talk a little rocky. any rocky fans out there? have people seen these movies? people still see "rocky" movies? >> the first two "rocky" movies, a white italian american boxer fights a cocky, flashy, brash black heavyweight champion, apollo creed. i'm going to ruin the endings for both of these films. rocky is a heavy underdog in the first film. he loses in the first film. he loses in a split decision to apollo creed. no one thinks he's going to do well. he does remarkably well but does not win. in "rocky ii" he knocks out apollo creed in the most implausible boxing scene ever filmed. it's absolutely impossible what happens. but rocky wins. these were both very popular
movies in 1976 and 1979, but these are much more than just sports movies. these are movies about race. these are movies about american history. though fictional characters, rocky balboa and apallo creed are meant to signify and represent real fighters. apollo creed is muhammad ali. there's no doubt about it. he is brash. he is cocky. he's the heavyweight champion. he is black. creed is ali. rocky balboa is a combination of a couple of fighters, i think. first rocky marciano. same name. rocky balboa, rocky marciano. marciano was the last white heavyweight champion. last white american heavyweight champion, i ought to say.
marciano was 49-0 over his career. the heavyweight champion from 1952 to 1956. never lost a bout. the only heavyweight who can claim this. when muhammad ali was dominating boxing in the '60s and '70s, there were always those who said, yeah, we can't be rocky marciano. we get rocky marciano verse aurksly in these "rocky" movies. the other fighter that balboa is is joe frazier. you know a lot about joe frazier. we watched a documentary about joe frazier. rocky balboa is from philadelphia. joe frazier is from philadelphia. rocky in the movie trains by punching slabs of beef in a slaughterhouse. joe frazier, as he was rising through the boxing ranks, worked in these slaught er derhouses. we watched the frazier/ali documentary.
we got a sense of how badly white americans wanted phrase yir to beat ali. we got a sense that frazier was their hope against muhammad ali. and so one way of reading the "rocky" movies, the first two in particular, the first three. this is the way i read them. is to say that rocky is white america's revenge fantasy against muhammad ali. couldn't beat him in the ring so a fictional character is going to do it for us. and here is rocky taking it to apollo. so these "rocky" movies exist. the holmes/cooney fight takes place at the same time as "rocky iii." when rocky fights an even more brash black fighter. he fights a super menacing heavyweight played brilliantly
by mr. t. and here's what's so interesting about this moment. fight promoters worked very, very hard to link jerry cooney with rocky balboa. as if jerry cooney were rocky balboa. here's the cover of "time" from june of 1982. who is on the cover? gerry cooney and rocky balboa. two great white hopes sharing the cover of the nation's most important news magazine. even though holmes was the champion, even though holmes was 39-0, this fight was all about cooney. this fight was all about the white challenger. just in case the public didn't understand the fight was about race, don king, a man baz sabou sutsle as his hair put it out
nice and clear. this is a black and white fight. this is about race. cooney was very clear. he said this has nothing to do with race. i'm not fighting holmes to redeem the white race. it's not what this fight is about. but promoters talked about race every chance they could. they knew this would sell tickets, sell interest. larry holmes got so tired of all the talk of race all the talk about cooney being this great white hope. he was being interviewed at a press conference. he snapped and said gerry cooney is the great white hoax. i'm better than he is. the only reason he's here is because he is white. you know it, i know it, everybody knows it. all right. the fight takes place in las vegas, nevada, june 11th, 1982. 32,000 paying spectators. millions more are watching at home on pay-per-view. i was one of those millions.
i'm going to tell you something about that in just a second. here are some interesting facts from this night and this fight. interesting fact number one. the las vegas police department employed their s.w.a.t. team. they surrounded the arena up on the roof. snipers were pointing their guns at the crowd as the crowd went in. and that's because there were death threats revolving around this fight. members of the ku klux klan said if holmes wins this fight, they were going to assassinate him in the ring. black militant organization said we're sending members, we're going to be armed if any harm is done to larry holmes. we're going to do something to cooney. we're going to fight back. this is much more than a sporting event. we have an intense racial drama playing out in las vegas. interesting fact number two, gerry cooney's dressing room was equipped with an outside phone line so if he won, the president
of the united states, ronald reagan, could call him and congratulate him on the victory. there was no such phone line in larry holmes' dressing room. the president was not interested in congratulating larry holmes if he won. interesting fact three. once both fighters were in the ring, the ring announcer introduced larry holmes first. it was a longstanding tradition in boxing that the champion was introduced second. the champion was always introduced last. that was a position of honor. for some reason, cooney was given that honor. he was introduced second. i cannot remember it happening before this bouts. i cannot remember it happening since. holmes was disrespected in the rink. the two fighters, they come together for their instructions. the referee gives them their instructions. when they are done, the two
fighters touch gloves and, despite all of the racial talk out there all of the racial anxiety swirling around this fight, larry holmes says to gerry cooney, let's have a good fight. and i remember being at home. i remember hearing larry holmes saying that. and that was the exact moment that i became a larry holmes fan. and this course is not about me, but let me say something about this fight. it's not about me, right? of course, it's not -- i hope not. at the beginning of 1982, early june of 1982, i was 13 years old. i was a huge sports fan. i was -- we've been looking at these "sports illustrated" covers. my bedroom walls were covered in "sports illustrated" covers. sports posters. i was very excited about all sports. very excited about boxing. i was getting very excited about this fight. i knew about larry holmes, of course. i knew very little about gerry cooney. but i remember as this fight got
closer, very badly wanting gerry cooney to beat larry holmes. i wanted cooney to win. i grew up in a mostly white neighborhood. i went to mostly white schools. all of my friends were white. i was reading the sports page. i was reading "sports illustrated." i was reading "time" magazine and the messages that i was getting from these publications was that white people want cooney to win and black people want larry holmes to win. those were the messages. that's what i was learning. i was neither smart enough to know what was going on, nor did i have enough self-confidence to be able to break away from these messages, but i bought it. i took the bait. i mean, i started thinking that cooney somehow represented me. this is the way ideas about race operate in this country.
this is how racism operates in this country. you unthinkingly align yourself with someone because they happen to share the same pigmentation that you do. i bought it. i was rooting for cooney and larry holmes says, let's have a good fight and all of a sudden, i felt like a heel. not a tar heel. tar heel is good. i felt like a dope. a great white dope, i guess is the way to think about it. you read a book about ali, malcolm x was in that book. ali said americans have been bamboozled to think in terms of an us against them mentality. a black versus white mentality. i bought it. i like to think i don't do that now, but this is the way that ideas about race are transmuted in sports. very interesting moment, i
think, in thinking back at it. anyway, larry holmes says, let's have a good fight. it was a very good fight. holmes came out. he was fighting hard. he was fighting viciously. he knocked cooney down in the second round with a one-two combination. that is left-handed jab, right-handed cross. cooney was knocked down in the second round. somehow managed to get back up. he made it through the second round. and then cooney fought what most people considered to be the greatest fight of his career. he went toe-to-toe with larry holmes into the late rounds. but holmes was just better. holmes was a skilled boxer and a slugger. cooney was really just a slugger. by the 12th round, cooney was so tired, his arms were tired. he couldn't get his punches up anymore. on two different occasions, he
hit larry holmes right in the groin. right below the belt. there's one of those moments. larry holmes was doubled over in pain. cooney had points deducted from his score. there was actually, after the second hit there was a break in the action so holmes could recover. time was stopped. holmes went to his corner. he sat down. his trainer reached both hands into his pants and started vigorously massaging his genitals. we have to get you right again. i tell you, watching this on tv, i became a man that night, without a doubt. finally, in the 13th round, holmes knocked cooney down. cooney falls, he struggles, he tries to get up, but he was totally out of it. dazed and confused. his trainers throw in the towel. larry holmes remains the heavyweight champion of the
world. 13th round technical knockout. gerry cooney was a decent fighter, not a complete hoax, but so much of his popularity, so much of the reason for his fame was because of white hope and white hype. i think larry holmes was right when he said that. so this is the opening story to get us into the 1980s. you want to ask a question about this fight or make a comment? >> how did he lose his popularity after the fight? >> cooney fights a few more times and fades into obscurity. there's kind of a -- like with the joe lewis schmeling story. they become friend later on after they moved beyond this episode.
he was exposed for not being as good a fighter as so many people had hoped. and boxingwise, he fades into obscurity. certainly never gets a chance to fight for the title again. >> did anything significant happen the night of the fight? >> there was noville, thankfully. it's not like 1910. we don't have scores of people getting hurt. scores of people dying when the black man wins. but just the fact that it's 1982 and there are still anxieties about a race riot happening, it got a lot of people questioning just how far has this country really come with regard to race. yes, we've had a civil rights movement and a black power movement but have we really moved beyond racial anxieties? yeah. >> what was the public opinion of larry holmes? >> afterwards? before? >> more of was he find of a -- >> that's a good question. i wouldn't put him in this good negro integrationist camp of
patterson or liston who was thought many ways in the opposite. people weren't terribly interested in larry holmes. that's because larry holmes was not muhammad ali. he just couldn't talk in the way ali could. again, who can? we saw ali talking. the nation just wasn't terribly interested in larry holmes. so this fight really, in some ways, wasn't about larry holmes. this fight was about gerry cooney. all about the white challenger. just to continue with the holmes story. holmes goes on. he's eventually 48-0. and then he's fighting, i think it's michael spinks in hopes of 49-0 and tying marciano's record. he lost that fight and was 48-1. at the press conference, everyone said, see, you're no rocky marciano and larry holmes recently said, rocky marciano
could not carry my jock strap. he was tired of all the marciano talk. any other questions or comments? all right. let's put this fight into larger historical context, right? what was going on in the united states perhaps that caused so many americans to invest so heavily in gerry cooney? this takes us to the story of a white backlash to the civil rights and black power movements. movements we haven't discussed. for two deck thaed civil rights and black power movements had been gaining same. beginning in the 19 fifts. black americans start scoring major civil rights victories through the courts, legislations, through their own protests. black americans were dramatically protesting racism. in the late '60s, they are dramatically protesting lingering racism in the united
states. and here's what happens. by the 1970s, many white americans began to feel as if they had become the victims of the civil rights and black power movements. that they were being victimized by all of the changes. there was a growing belief among many white americans that the nation, and specifically, the government, the federal government, that these -- that the nation and the government were overly fixated on the problems facing black americans and were not fairly considering the problems facing white americans. and there was a very interesting and what i'm going to call unfortunate coincidence in timing here. the gains made by the civil rights and black power movements occurred right at the same time as a steam economic downturn in
the united states. after three decades of the american economy steadily rising, at the start of the 1970s, the economy slows and the economy begins to digress, regress. this was due to a number of factors. complicated global factors. the cost of the vietnam war. the rising price of oil in the middle east. the fact that american companies were now sending jobs overseas. this begins in the late '60s and early 1970s. so many white americans, like all americans, were feeling a pinch. they were feeling an economic pinch. wages were lowering in the 1970s. job opportunities were drying up in the 1970s. times were not as good as they had been.
rather than look at their declining economic status and blaming these complex global and economic factors, what many white americans did was they blamed people of color. it was almost as if people thought about race as a scale, you know, and as white status seemed to be going down, because of these economic factors, white americans noticed that black americans, their status, well, seemed to be going up because of the civil rights and the black power movement. and so the idea was, it must be their fault. it must be because of them. in the 1970s then, race became seen in many ways, this is a good way of putting it, as a zero-sum calculus and that any gains by blacks were understood as losses by whites and vice versa.
we can just as easily bring gender in this. make this not just a white story but a white man's story as the status of american male workers was falling nepsame time the status of american women was rising with title nine and all of these pieces of legislation that we discussed. and many white american men felt on the defensive. they were being attacked. they were the new victims in american society. this is a great example of this. affirmative action. affirmative action policies were part of this calculus. this zero-sum calculus. affirmative action begins in the united states in 1965 when federal and state governments begin implementing affirmative action policies. the idea here is that in order to combat the lingering effects of racism, the lingering effects of jim crow segregation, different aspects of american
society, the government needed to take affirmative action. schools needed to take affirmative action to let applicants of color in. try to desegregate schools. the government needed to take affirmative action when handing out contracts. give those contracts to businesses owned by black americans. something aggressive. something affirmative needed to be done to even out the racial scales of equality. this is the idea behind affirmative action. many white americans saw affirmative action as a total negative negative. as they saw it, suddenly they were being victimized by the government's policies. they were the victims of racism, right? what was known as reverse racism. as this placard suggests. i am a victim of a hate crime,
affirmative action. i am being unfairly and unequally treated. so there was a real growing sense of resentment among some white americans. a sense that they were under siege and then at that -- and that black rights were now trumping white rights. and that is the rally cry of the backlash movement. whites have rights, too. don't forget about us. now we're the ones who are being treated unfairly. so i'm going to relate this to sports. don't worry. more sports. but do you want to ask a question about this backlash or raise an issue? yeah. >> did this occur in any specific location of america, like the south, kind of like we see today? is it more -- >> that's an excellent question. it's a national phenomenon. what -- i'm going to be talking
about boston in just a few minutes as the epicenter of the white backlash movement. i mean, maybe unfairly we come to think that this is going to be mostly a southern phenomena because of a lot of the things we've been talking about in this clarks but it is definitely a national phenomenon and boston will be the place we'll focus on in just a second. other questions? okay. let's relate this to sports then. just -- here's what happens. just as black americans had historically latched on to black athletes, latched on to them as symbols of strength, symbols of power, as symbols of deliverance in a time of anxiety, in a time of unfairness, white americans began latching on to white athletes for exactly the same reasons. and in some ways, it makes perfect sense that this would happen in the world of sports because sports were one of the
arenas in which black gains were most obvious. i mean, to put it bluntly, the world of sport was becoming blacker as the 1970s progressed. african-americans were doing very, very well in the world of sports. and there's one sport in particular in which this is definitely true. the sport that i want to focus on, this is basketball. we talked a little bit about basketball, college basketball. i'll talk more about it and then focus on pro basketball. you know about this moment, 1966. the symbolic turning point in basketball. symbolically. moving from a white dominated sport in the american mind to a black dominated sport in the american mind came in the 1966 ncaa title game when texas western, their all-black starting five, defeated the university of kentucky, which was an all-white team. there was a reaction.
there was a backlash to this moment. some tried to undercut the significance of this moment. they tried to explain it away. and it could get very, very ugly. there was one time great west virginia basketball player that played for the lakers. in 1966 he was an announcer for the phoenix suns. he said that texas western team can do everything with a basketball except autograph it. it may be good basketball players but they're dumb. undercutting their accomplishments. the game of college basketball itself changes when texas western wins. there are rule changes that are implemented. the coach of kentucky, of that all-white kentucky team, was adolf rupp. rupp arena in kentucky. his team had been dumped on repeatedly in that 1966 title game. so adolf rupp used his
influence. he got the ncaa to ban dunking in college basketball. beginning in 1967, dunking was against the rule. you all love the dunk. everyone loves the dunk. but in 1967, the dunk was abolished in basketball. technical foul if you did it. rupp was one of the reasons why this happened. another reason was because of the amazing 7'2" center at ucla, lew alcindor. we talked about him in the context of the olympics. opposing coaches saw alcindor as unstoppable. he's too good. he is ruining the game. all he does is dunk and we can't stop him. so let's get rid of the dunk. no dunking allowed. lew alcinder is outspoken. didn't play for the 1968 olympic team. we talked about this.
lew alcinder believed, said, there is a racial motivation to this. this is because i am black. very provocatively, alcinder said this. the dunk is one of basketball's great crowd pleasers and there's no good reason to give it up except that this and other niggers were run away with the sport. african-americans are dominating basketball so now the rules are being changed. alcinder says, i know why this is going on. th this is an anti-black rule change. from '67 to '76, no dunking in college basketball. okay. we discussed college basketball a lot in this cls klaaass. let's talk about pro basketball, the nba. the nba was established in 1946. it was an all-white league for
four years. the nba's desegregated in 1950 when earl lloyd debuts for the washington capitals. so in 1950, the nba was desegregated. we've talked about the difference between these terms. desegregation and integration. the nba was desegregated in 1950 and by the 1970s, the nba was totally integrated. totally integrated. the nba was predominantly black. it was mostly black. most of the roster spots were taken up by african-americans. remember, basketball is an urban sport. basketball was created to fill the sporting needs for urban americans, the people living in cities beginning with the great migration during world war i, the northern urban cities were becoming more and more black, increasingly populated with
african-american families. their children played basketball. and basketball was becoming an urban -- was an urban. therefore, basketball was more and more a black sport. by the 1970s, most of the nba players were black, and this caused a major public relations problem for the nba. as you know, and as we have discussed, people like seeing representations of themselves on the field of play. in the sporting arena. so for many white americans, the bulk of the paying customers for the nba at this time, they no longer felt like they were being represented in the nba. white americans lost interest in the national basketball association. so here is the indisputable truth about the nba. it may be hard to imagine now because the nba is so popular.
in the 1970s, the nba was not popular. the nba was a suspect sports league. there was an historian who calls the 1970s the dark ages of the league. he means that in a couple of ways. it's unpopular. very few people were watching the nba. actually less and less as the 1970s go on and dark is a play on race. the reason it's unpopular is that the nba was perceived -- i want to emphasize this -- perceived as being too black. the nba had a quote/unquote, blackness problem. here's a chart. an interesting chart. as the percentage of black players goes up in the nba, as the nba goes from being about 60% black to 75% black, there is a corresponding dip in tv
viewership. this chart suggests that the blacker the nba got, the less popular the nba got. there's an interesting blip there on the radar in 1977, right? all of a sudden, there's a resurge in interest in nba basketball. what accounts for this? if we want to continue with this racial story, what accounts for it is bill walton. 1977 was a year dominated by the portland trail blazers, dominated by their fabulous, when healthy -- he was often hurt. their fabulous white center bill walton. people were tuning in when walton is excelling. they're not tuning in when it's black players who were excelling. another factor that helps explain the growing unpopularity of the nba in the 1970s was fighting. there was a ton of fighting in the nba and this has a racial angle as well. the nba has really cracked down
hard on fighting now. fighting is forbidden in the national basketball association. not so in the 1970s. nba games in the 1970s were like hockey games. there were fist fights all the time in nba basketball games. every team had an enforcer. they had a guy like maurice lucas. big, brave, tough, strong. his job was to physically intimidate the other team. his job was to physically punish the other team's top scorer. to use his fists whenever necessary. we're going to have a fight. maurice lucas, you're the guy. every team had a guy like maurice lucas. the -- in some ways, the defining moment of the nba in that entire decade, the 1970s, it comes in 1977 with what is known simply in nba lore as "the
punch." when you say "the punch" in the nba, people know wlats you're talking about. houston rockets were playing at the los angeles lakers in 1977 and there was a fist fight at center court. there were always fights. the rockets forward rudy tomjanovich who is white ran to the middle of the court. ran to the fight. it was unclear if he was coming to join in the fight or if he was coming to break the fight up. a member of the lakers, kermit washington, who was black, saw tomjanovich coming in. he turned around and threw a right cross right into tomjanovich's face. and rudy tomjanovich splashed to the ground. i say he splashed because there was just blood everywhere. washington had shattered tomjanovich's jaw, his nose,
both of his cheekbones. tomjanovich couldn't breathe. spinal fluid began dripping into his brain. it really looked like tomjanovich was going to die right there on the forum floor. tomjanovich didn't die. he stabilized. he returned to the nba five months later. he was never the same player. this picture right here was the defining image of the nba in the 1970s. it was the image of a black man obliterating the face of a white man. and so the nba was just being criticized on a number of grounds. it was unpopular among white americans for a number of reasons. it was criticized for its style of play. people thought there was a selfish, i gotta get mine style playoff, where individual stats
meant more than team wins. but more and more americans were clearly turn away from the nba because as they saw it, the nba had a violence problem and the n nb a had a blackness problem pb for a lot of americans they saw those two things as the same thing. big moment. a moment that really sealed the deal for a lot of americans and made them immensely distasteful of the nba. i've been talking for a while. you want to ask a question about this or -- yeah, joe. >> so on that chart, wasn't 1980 magic's first nba finals? >> yeah, we're going to get to that. 1980 is magic's first nba -- >> do you feel magic johnson made a big difference -- >> i'll explain why. you couldn't even watch the nba finals live in 1980. but it's going to change. we can continue with this chart. it's going to go up. it's going to go up and you are
right to talk about johnson. and we have to talk about another player as well. the title of this lecture is the great white hope so there's someone else we need to talk about, too. other questions? all right. well, let's get to that story. the nba is in the depths of unpopularity in the '70s. it's becoming less and less popular and then the saviors arrive. larry bird and ervarvin "magic" johns johnson. the standard line when talking about bird and magic is to say that the nba was going to die had it not been for bird and magic. that's an overstatement, all right? the nba would have eventually figured it out. david stearn was out there. he was going to take the reins in a few years. the nba was going to be okay. but what is so remarkable here is that magic and bird enter the league in 1980 and they almost instantly transform the image of
the league in the american mind. to a large extent i'm talking about the white american mind here. the nba goes from the depths of unpopularity in 1979 into the sporting mainstream by the mid-'80s. by 1984. and it really has to do with magic and bird. i mean, they are the ones who turned the league around. magic johnson, a brilliant, immensely charismatic basketball player. charisma is important. larry bird, a brilliant, uncharismatic but white basketball player, all right? so magic's charisma and bird's whiteness matter. this was the winning combination that is going to help the nba overcome its, quote/unquote, blackness problem. and there's a paradox here, right?
there's definitely a paradox at work. a sport or a league that is too black is seen as a problem. people tune out. they're not interested. but a league that can be fueled by black versus white competition. black versus white antagonisms, well, that sells in american sports. the evidence is overwhelming. in this course, we have seen again and again and again how racial tension sells sports. give me an example. how many can we think of? yeah. jonathan versus jeffreys. okay. jack johnson and jim jeffreys. immensely popular fight. 1910. >> when jackie robinson sold out dodger stadium. >> jackie robinson's first year in major league baseball.
we have this one black player in this white-dominated sport. racial drama. yeah. joe lewis and mack schmeling. national simp also part of the equation but that's a huge, monumental black versus white fight. any other thoughts? isaac murphy and snapper garrison. the horse racing jockeys, right? they were the biggest show in town in the 1890s. major taylor. the great black wheelmen of the turn of the 20th century. cycling was very exciting when it was taylor against the white cyclists. when taylor was segregated out of the sport, the popularity of cycling plummeted. race-based rivalries in sports intrigue. they excite. the social stakes of the event are just raised. it becomes much more than a sporting event.
so magic and bird come into the nba. it is because of skin color that most americans think of them as being antitheical. think of them as being polar opposites of each other. let me make a case for their remarkable similarities. their similarities as far outweigh their differences. they were both 6'8" 6'8"6'8", 6'9", 6'8", 6'9", roughly the same size. bird played small forward. magic johnson played point guard which was absolutely unheard of at that height in 1980. neither bird nor magic were especially athletic. no incredible speed. no explosive jumping ability. but they were two of the smartest, most creative, most competitive players the nba has ever seen. they demanded everything from their teammates. tremendous leaders, both of them. they made everyone around them
better. bird and magic were basketball geniuses. that's exactly what they were. basketball geniuses. both had a court awareness that i have never seen before. they both had the ability to anticipate what was going to happen next before anyone else on the court. i mean, they were mirror images of each other that way. this is interesting. bird n magic first went head-to-head in 1979. the ncaa championship game when magic johnson's michigan state spartans defeated larry bird's then undefeated indiana state sycamores. indiana state was undefeated going into this game but magic beat them. to this day, this is the highest rated college basketball game ever. more people watched this college basketball game than any other. and that is because of bird and magic. these two great players, one
black, one white. when people talk about the renaissance of college basketball, a sport that was also becoming more unpopular over the course of the 1970s, they point to this game. magic and bird repopularized college basketball as well. after this game, these two players, they go their separate ways. they go into the nba. magic goes to los angeles. larry bird goes to boston. opposite coasts. this also helps ensure national interest. this is interesting. larry bird was actually drafted in 1979. he was drafted before his senior year. he made it very clear, i'm not going into the nba. i'm going to play basketball my senior year in college. the celtics wanted larry bird so badly, they drafted him in 1979, and they said that's fine. you can sit out a whole year. we'll get you in 1980. you can't do that anymore.
you can't draft someone and claim their rights a year later. it's actually known as the larry bird rule. larry bird's drafting puts a stop to this. but the celtics, the boston celtics, badly wanted larry bird. and a lot of people thought it was no coincidence that boston would use a draft pick for a great white player and wait a whole year. it just seemed to fit with the racial outlook of the city in the 1970s. and so here we need to talk about boston, okay? we're going to come back to this backlash story. more than any other american city, it was boston that symbolized the white backlash of the 1970s. let me remind you. the boston red sox were the last major league baseball team to sign a black player, right? elijah pumpsie green in 1959. a lot of people thought this was
indicative of the racial climate in the city. they weren't surprised that it was boston that went last. more to the point in the 1970s, boston was the center of the anti-b anti-b anti-busing movement in the united states. busing was the single most disruptive social policy of the 1970s. affirmative action was controversial. controversial. in the 1970s, the federal courts were trying to desegregate schools. schools were still segregated in places like boston. they were not segregated by law. they were segregated because of neighborhood segregation. blacks in boston lived in one part of town, whites in boston lived in another part of town. charlotte was another center of controversy. the federal courts ordered that
black students be bused from black neighborhoods into white neighborhoods. black students be bused from black schools into white schools. in order to engineer integration. these policies sparked intense opposition. particularly in south boston, neighborhoods filled with white irish catholic bostonians. they objected to the appearance of black students in their schools. this is what it looked like. the buses had police escorts. the people in south boston lined the street and gathered at the school. as these buses came into their neighborhoods they threw rocks the buses and they threw bananas at the buses. they yelled racial slurs at the black students. who were, the courts were
ordering attend their schools. in south boston, they did not want these black children coming into their neighborhoods. they objected, this is not fair, they argued. the opposition to busing and the seething racial hatred in boston at this time was memorialized in this pulitzer prize-winning photograph in 1976. by stanley foreman. he called it the soiling of old glory. it shows what happens when a black civil rights lawyer happened to walk right in the middle of the white anti-busing rally. just accidentally. this white high school student on the left, who was upset that black students were now coming to his school. he took the american flag he was using an a symbol of
protest, and used it as a weapon. to try to hurt the civil rights attorney. this is boston in the 1970s. racial anxieties are high. racial tensions are very high. there is a white backlash movement in boston in the late 1970s. into these anxieties comes larry bird. bird immediately turns the celtics into winners. he is the great white hope. there's all this hype about larry bird, and he lives up to it. in 1979, the year before bird was on the celtics they won 29 games. one of the worst teams in the league. next year with the same roster except now they have larry bird 61 games. from 29 wins to 61. bird wins the rookie of the year award.
they almost made it to the nba finals. the celtics lost to the 76ers in the eastern conference finals. who was there meeting the 76ers in the finals but magic johnson also a rookie, and the los angeles lakers. this is just a sports story, but it's a good one. the lakers were up three games to two in the series. game six was in philadelphia. a game everyone assumed the 76ers were going to win because kareem abdul-jabbar was injured. he had a very serious ankle injury. people thought the sixers were going to win. magic johnson steps into a phone booth, puts on his cape, goes
out on the court and he jumps center, he takes kareem's place. he plays power forward and he plays small forward and he plays shooting guard and he plays point guard. he is a 20-year-old rookie and he plays all five positions in game six. and that's his line. 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals. the greatest single game in nba history, i would argue. if you look at the stakes and you look at what magic johnson did. he carried the lakers to the nba championship. if you wanted to watch this game live, which i did, you were out of luck. these games were tape delayed and shown at 11:30 p.m. after the late night, evening news. that's how unpopular the nba was. but now it's about to get
popular. bird and magic are on the scene. we're going to dig a little deeper. but i'll pause again. do you have questions about busing, bird and magic? >> people in south boston were bused to southie because the english didn't want them in boston. >> there's no rule that says that if you've been subject to discrimination that you can't discriminate against others. part of the anxiety is that in south boston these are working-class bostonians who are clinging to their homes and to their neighborhoods desperately. they don't have a lot of money. they are anxious about the appearance of black students in
their schools, that their neighborhoods and their schools are going to go down in value. that helps to explain the anti-busing reaction. it doesn't excuse it, but it does explain it. >> the opposition to busing, didn't the guy drop out of school? >> joseph rakes, there's a great book about this photograph. the high school student is riding the subway the next day and he sees this photograph in the newspaper and he says who is that guy with the flag? and he says, it's me. he didn't recognize himself. he was traumatized by this. he becomes the face of racism in the united states. he becomes the face of bigotry. and there's a devastating effect on his life. absolutely. yeah. yeah? >> when they would bus students
in, how would they choose which students would go? >> i'm not exactly sure. students were hand-picked -- do you have a comment on that? >> it was largely based on parents' choice. >> we believe in integration and desegregation. >> basically sacrificed their kids to this. >> there were quotas. some white students were bused into the black areas. but minimal, minimal numbers. >> the neighborhood adjacent to south boston was roxbury and dorchester, they were really rough african-american neighborhoods.
>> it was a white island within this increasingly black city. we are going to aggressively hold on to what we have. >> it was not necessarily a safe place. >> i want to hear more about the boston mafia later. sounds interesting. yeah. okay. here's what happens. this game is not shown on national tv. but the nba is about to get incredibly popular. because now the nba has magic and bird. two incredible creative players, one white and one black. i can't emphasize that enough. for added drama they are on opposite coasts. los angeles and boston. two cities that seem to be worlds apart. from a marketing perspective, the nba could not have invented this any better. it is absolutely perfect. and then, as the 1980s progress,
here's what happens. the celtics actually become more white. in the middle of the 1980s, the nba was 75% african-american. the boston celtics were two-thirds white. they were good. they were great. the second-best in the decade, the lakers were the best in the decade. but the celtics were a racial outlier, as we say now. i think it is telling that when the lakers would come in to boston to play the celtics, black bostonians would say kick their ass, man. beat the celtics. we don't like the celtics. we want you to be those white boys. and so the magic and bird rivalry, the rivalry between the lakers and the celtics, it is incredible basketball. great basketball drama. it is also compelling racial drama. it is with bird and magic that we get the renaissance of the
nba, because of these of these racial tensions. each won the mvp three times. this is an award you're voted to receive. bird's celtics were in the nba finals five times, they won three nba titles. magic and the lakers were in eight times, winning five nba titles. they went head to head three times, the lakers won two of the three. from a basketball standpoint, we can have an argument over who was the better player. i submit it was magic johnson. i am happy to have that argument, if you want. it is fun, but not terribly important. let me make the case from our perspective, that from the vantage point of the american historian, larry bird is the much more historically significant player.
and i want to end with this idea, let me justify my choice. we have talked about this before. let me remind you of this very important idea in our course, manning's idea of symbolic representation. this is the idea that the single black individual, like the black athlete, represents the larger black collective. a lot of what we have been talking about in this course is how black athletes were these symbols, the symbolic representatives. joe lewis, jackie robinson, wilma rudolph. their achievements were a reflection of what all black americans wanted, right? they were symbols of integration. muhammad ali, he is the symbol, the embodiment of the black power movement. when he succeeds, the movement succeeds.
historically speaking, this is the power of the black athlete, that what they do seems to have so much more significance than just that isolated event. this is the power of the black athlete. this is also the burden of the black athlete. they are never just competing for themselves. they have the weight of black america on their shoulders. for example, joe lewis. a perfect example. yes? >> only had one black player, bill russell. >> bill russell is a great black player, and also the first black coach in the nba. the celtics are ahead of the curve in many ways. let me keep on talking. here is what happens though. in the 1980s, the script about symbolic rotation flips. people are no longer talking
about the symbolism of the black athlete. suddenly, they are talking about the symbolism of the white athlete, focused on larry bird. larry bird became something bigger than himself, a representation of something bigger than himself. in the 1980s, he was not just a basketball player. he symbolically represented a white male ideal that was on the defensive in the 1980s, as many saw it. a white male ideal that seemed to be losing ground, not just in sports, but in society at large. whether it is true or not, that was the perception. and so, for many white americans, that photograph gives us a sense of this, particularly for many bostonians, larry bird is their symbol. he is their representative. he becomes their great white hope.
but this works in one more way. i keep saying this. let's complicate this. just as larry bird was the symbol and the representative of white americans, he became the subject of scorn for many black americans. for many black americans, the idea was that bird was being celebrated by white americans, being celebrated by a white-dominated media well beyond his talent level. isiah thomas, the brilliant guard for the detroit pistons, he lost to the bird's celtics in the playoffs in 1987. he was clearly upset. and he sounded off on the media's praise for larry bird. "larry is very, very good. but if he were black, he would be just another good guy." we wouldn't be celebrating larry bird.
give him black skin, he's just average. this comment sparked a firestorm. they got people talking about race. larry bird's defenders went after isiah thomas. downplaying bird's ability, that is reverse racism. reverse racism. bird's critics pointed to "sports illustrated," the cover. the nba's best player. his critics said all of the mvps, the way the media anoints him as the best player in the league, it's because he's white. this is journalistic affirmative action. that is what it is. we have claims of reverse racism, and we have claims of journalistic affirmative action, the nation is talking about race. it is talking about these issues. larry bird is the symbol, the athlete upon which americans heap their praise and their
scorn. and i just want to point this out, this is totally new in american history. historically, it is the black athlete around which we have had conversations about race, about equality, about civil rights, about freedom. black athletes who dared to appear in white-dominated sports. we talked about those athletes. the jackie robinson conversation, the joe lewis conversation. now, the conversations about race in the 1980s are about that white basketball player in that green uniform. a great white hope in a black america's sport. i will say this. larry bird, he wanted nothing to do with these conversations. he hated talking about race. he said, i don't think in terms of color. i have no interest in talking about race. it doesn't matter what the athlete wants, though, in these situations. i mean, they are the symbols
around which our conversations about race, our disagreements about race -- they are the symbols around which these conversations orbit. questions? >> reverse racism? >> that's a term that becomes popular in the middle 1970s. the martin luther king said judge was by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin. the argument was, this is judging people by the color of their skins. those are the arguments on both sides. yeah, that term was used then. other questions about race, backlash, larry bird? yeah. >> i think for a long time, red
auerbach took good players from holy cross. >> you're getting all holy cross on me, aren't you? >> he took players from holy cross, and put them on the celtics. >> early in the '50s and '60s, the nba is very much a local league. it is not on national tv. there is no idea about who is good in california, if you're in boston. but because of the media, you can now watch lew alcinder, kareem abdul-jabbar. that is the guy we want. basketball is all local. in the '50s and '60s, it becomes national. >> the guy that recruited, from
new york? >> we talk about the reasons why frank maguire is able to bring them to new york. other questions, other thoughts? no one wants to argue back and say larry bird was way better than magic? >> i'm not going to argue either way. >> it doesn't matter. >> i was a boston fan. one of the things i remember reading in the press, they always talk about how hard of a worker larry bird was. i do not remember reading that as much about magic. it was more natural ability. >> i think this plays into our ideas about race. bird's is due work ethic, magic has natural ability. i am arguing that those are players you should not make that comparison. neither have particular athleticism. they have athleticism, clearly, but not explosive athleticism. in some ways, from the basketball standpoint, they are the same guy. but it is interesting we think ab