- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

In the space of two days, we’ve had Bill Parcells talking about “Jap plays” and Larry Bird saying — and Magic Johnson seconding — that the NBA could use a few white superstars. All we need now is for somebody to call somebody else an “Indian giver,” and we’ll have a Touchy Subject Trifecta.

Which would really get my Irish up.

Let’s dispense with the “Jap plays” first. In the old days, a trick play in football was called (among other things) a “rat play.” I know this because Glenn Presnell, a terrific tailback with the Detroit Lions in the 1930s, told me so. His Lions sprang one early in the 1935 title game against the Giants, and it set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.

“Our coach, Potsy Clark, wanted to throw a pass before the weather got too bad and everything,” he said. (By the end of the game, the field was covered with snow.) “So we called ‘the Rat Play.’ It was just a name we had for it, because it was kind of a sneak play. I took the snap [in the single wing offense] and sprinted over to the right, and Frank Christensen, who had lined up as the blocking back, would kind of lay low there for a second and then slip out from behind the line and go down the left sideline.

“Nobody followed him, and I just threw the ball across the field to him. He ran to about the 2-yard line, I think it was, and we scored the first touchdown in about three plays.”

The Lions went on to win their first NFL championship 26-7, jump-started by “the Rat Play.”

Of course, “the Rat Play” is a nice, safe name for it. Rats are, after all, among God’s most disenfranchised creatures. (They don’t have a union or anything.) Call the same play a “Jap play,” though, and you’re asking for trouble, especially in these hypersensitive times.

Parcells, ordinarily a wise fellow, went into full Damage Control Mode after his slip of tongue and apologized to everybody but the rodent population. “Today, during my news conference, I made a very inappropriate reference,” he said, “and although I prefaced it with the remark ‘no disrespect to anyone intended,’ it was still uncalled for and inconsiderate. For that, I apologize to anyone who may have been offended.”

… And especially to my own linebacker, Dat Nguyen, who, though not of Japanese ancestry [he’s Vietnamese], might be the only Actual Asian in the National Football League.

No need, really, to discuss Parcells’ unfortunate choice of words at length — except to say: Can we please go back to calling them “rat plays”? I mean, it’s OK for Austin Powers’ father to say, “There are two things I can’t stand in this world: People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures, and the Dutch.” But it isn’t OK for the coach of America’s Team to say something like that.

Bird’s and Johnson’s comments about the dearth of white stars in the NBA — to be aired tonight in an interview with ESPN’s Jim Gray — are worthy of a few paragraphs, however. The two legends, it should be noted, were speaking mainly from a marketing point of view. As Larry put it, “It is still a black man’s game, and it will be forever. I mean, the greatest athletes in the world are African-American.” Still, he said, “the majority of the fans are white America. And if you had just a couple of [prominent] white guys in there, you might get them a little excited.”

I’d go a little further and say: Variety is the spice of life, and if you’re wondering what’s missing from the NBA these days, part of it might be the variety the game offered in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. In the ‘72 finals, just to cite one example, you had the Lakers’ Wilt Chamberlain, a black center, playing in the paint, and the Knicks’ Jerry Lucas, a white center, launching one-handers from what today would be 3-point territory. I don’t know about you, but I miss that kind of diversity. There’s such a numbing sameness to these playoff games now. Sometimes it seems like NFL Europe, like everybody’s using the same playbook.

I found it interesting that when the Pacers were trying to solve the riddle of the Pistons’ defense during the Eastern Conference finals, they tried the Jerry Lucas Solution. That is, they inserted Austin Croshere, a card-carrying White Guy, at center and had him bomb away from the outside. Croshere made three 3-pointers in Game4 to help Indiana to an 83-68 victory, the Pacers’ highest point total of the series.

“Austin changed the game,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said.

On Tuesday night, in Round2 of the Pistons-Lakers bout, it was Luke Walton, another Flaming Caucasian, who was one of the big stories for L.A. “He was the player of the game,” coach Phil Jackson said after his team’s semi-miraculous 99-91 overtime win. Well, Walton was certainly the surprise of the game, bounding off the bench to total seven points (on 3-for-3 shooting), eight assists and five rebounds in 27 minutes of frenzied action. He was “Thunder” Dan Majerle reincarnate, a Young John Havlicek impersonator.

“It amazes me how he can get me the ball,” Shaquille O’Neal said, “and guys I’ve been playing with for five, six, seven years can’t get me the ball.”

It’s like this, Shaq: Black players have their strengths and white players have their strengths, and they’re not always — I think we’ll agree — the same strengths.

Vive la difference.

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