By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Correcting a correction

Can’t editors at the New York Times check their own archives before subjecting one of their reporters to the ignominy of a published correction? On May 14, Times sportswriter William Rhoden wrote a column about the New York Knicks that contained the following passage about former coach Isiah Thomas:

No coach in recent Knicks history was treated as harshly as Thomas. From the moment Thomas was named team president to the moment he was forced to coach the team he assembled, Thomas was the object of an intense dislike that, near the end, bordered on hatred. Some old-timers in the news media never forgot his comment about Larry Bird (if Bird were black, he would be regarded as just another player).

But you’ll no longer find the passage about Bird in the online version; it’s been expunged, as though the Times fears you’ll go blind if you read it. There’s now a correction at the bottom that says:

The Sports of The Times column on Wednesday, about the harsh environment surrounding the Knicks while Isiah Thomas was the coach, erroneously linked Thomas to a racially charged comment about Larry Bird when both men were top N.B.A. players. It was Dennis Rodman — once a teammate of Thomas’s — who famously suggested that Bird would have been regarded as an ordinary player had he been black.

Trouble is, Rhoden got it exactly right. After the Detroit Pistons lost to the Boston Celtics in the 1987 playoffs, both Rodman and Thomas, then the team’s star players, made the incisive observation that Bird was, you know, white. Here’s how the Times’ Ira Berkow described it on June 2, 1987:

In the visiting and losing team’s locker room Saturday afternoon in Boston Garden, Isiah Thomas, the Detroit guard, said he didn’t want it to sound like sour grapes, and that there was no question that his team got beat, and that they came up short, but he harbored a resentment.

In regard to Bird, he [Thomas] said, ”I think Larry is a very, very good basketball player. An exceptional talent, but I’d have to agree with Rodman. If Bird was black, he’d be just another good guy.”

Dennis Rodman, the teammate to whom Thomas had referred, had said that Bird was ”overrated,” and that the only reason he had won three straight league most valuable player awards (until this year, that is), ”is because he’s white. That’s the only reason.”

So, yes, Rodman spoke first. But Thomas agreed with him, and used language that was just as offensive, if you’re inclined to be offended. Rhoden was not using quotation marks, so there was no reason for him to capture Thomas’ quote word-for-word. But it strikes me that Rhoden’s construction comes closer to Thomas than to Rodman. Gee, he must have done his research.

The simple fact is that Rhoden got hung out to dry by editors who apparently couldn’t have been bothered to dig out what really happened 21 years ago. Heck, I remember it, which is why I started diving into the archives. Anyone who was following basketball in 1987 remembers Thomas’ crass comments — more so than Rodman’s, since Thomas was a nationally known celebrity.

Rhoden should demand a retraction.


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7 Comments

  1. io saturnalia!

    Amen. Why must the New York Times continue to hurl itself on the pike of low standards and political correctness?

  2. Neil

    Nice catch Dan. Being old can have its uses, like when the memory kicks in. And when what you remember turns out to correspond to what actually happened, all the better!

  3. flightjkt

    Fact-checking aside, what I found suprising was Rhoden’s insinuation that Isiah Thomas never got a fair chance as the head coach/GM from “the old timers in the media” (read: white sportwriters), which is ridiculous.

  4. NY sports fan

    Rhoden is right to get a retraction, but completely wrong in what he wrote.New York fans hated Isiah Thomas because he was a terrible GM/coach. He consistently put together poor, lazy teams consisting of big money/no production players that lost much more than they won.Fans hate losing teams, and the fact that Thomas was a constant distraction with his off-court behavior didn’t help either.Leave it to the Times to make this a black/white issue when it was clearly more about wins and losses.That’s why for sports coverage in NY, you have to read the Post and the Daily News (just don’t read those papers news sections, EVER!)

  5. Anonymous

    as an age-old knock fan, i have to agree with the above commenter. It is not humanly possible to mess up a team with the money, franchise history and fan base of the NY knicks unless you simply stink utterly at the job.

  6. Mr Punch

    The substantive issue, of course, is that we all had reason to know, long before he became GM of the Knicks, that Thomas was a terrible judge of basketball talent. His failure was utterly predictable; and fans do tend to be particularly hard on players, coaches, and executives who obviously shouldn’t have been in there in the first place.

  7. io saturnalia!

    And anyone who listened to the late, great Johnny Most’s broadcasts of the games already knew Thomas was a selfish jerk.Not to mention that the 76ers’ Steve Mix was put on God’s green earth for one purpose and one purpose only: to take cheap shots!Man, I miss the old days of the Celtics, as great as the new days are.

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