The race issue is out of the closet in professional basketball, and we have Dennis Rodman to thank for it. It was Rah-Rah Rodman, Detroit's motorized hot dog, who said after Larry Bird scored 37 points in their seventh game -- still another heroic Bird effort in a decisive game -- "The only reason he won all those MVPs is because he's white." Isiah Thomas compounded the slander by saying, "If {Bird} was black, he'd be just another good player."

To quote Kevin McHale, who made the proper response, they're "idiotic." Bird is not just a great player, he's a very great player. And if he were black, he'd be a very great player. His career averages are 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists per game. If they took a poll tomorrow for the all-time NBA team, you could stop naming forwards at B: Bird and Baylor. Isiah, especially, should have known better than to say that about Bird, since it was Bird's steal of his flabby pass in Game 5 that resuscitated the Celtics.

The greater issue here, however, isn't Bird's ability, but what extent race plays in shaping the attitudes of players and fans. (On this subject Isiah made worthy statements to Ira Berkow of the New York Times that we'll get to later.) Boston seems to be the team the other teams want most to beat. Part of this, undoubtedly, is because of the Celtics' lengthy tradition of winning; it's why so many baseball teams yearn to beat the Yankees. Part, I suspect, is because the Celtics are the NBA's whitest team. Whereas nine of the NBA's 23 teams didn't have a white starter last season, the Celtics had more white starters (three) and more white players (eight) than anyone else. The Celtics are so white they have been referred to derisively as "South Africa's team."

Yesterday four black colleagues told me it was their unequivocal impression that blacks generally rooted against the Celtics. Part of this, to be sure, was their shared perception that Boston is the most racially polarized Northern city. "I can't find it in my heart to feel any warmth for a Boston team," said one. But there was also, clearly, the element of racial non-identification. Despite the fact that Celtics have a black coach, K.C. Jones, blacks may view the team with distrust, as if it were an extension of a racist system that historically had oppressed them. "To my generation of black people," said a colleague, 30ish, "the Celtics have always been the team of the white guys. Look at all those white legs. They have three BYU players on the team. You can't tell me that some of the guys on the end of their bench could make any other team in the league." Another said the Celtics generally are perceived in the barber shops as "smart-aleck white boys," particularly Danny Ainge, Boston's fractious version of Rah-Rah Rodman.

The irony in this is that the Celtics have historically been, in terms of equal opportunity, the most progressive NBA franchise. (In a similar irony, the Dodgers have been the most progressive baseball franchise despite Al Campanis' remarks.) Under Red Auerbach's leadership, the Celtics were the first NBA team to have a black player, Chuck Cooper, the first to have a black coach, Bill Russell, the first (1963) to have an all-black starting team: Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Tom Sanders, Willie Naulls. Only Seattle has had more black coaches (four) than the Celtics' Russell, Sanders and K.C. Jones.

Conversely, it's probably true that whites generally root for the Celtics. White people make up a small minority in the NBA, and the Celtics are the one team they can easily identify with. The impulses that attract white fans to the Celtics may not be dissimilar to the impulses that attract black fans to the Georgetown basketball team. The affection -- provided it's not exclusively racial -- can be a healthy expression of pride.

Yet we suspect that certain whites who root for the Celtics, root against Georgetown; vice versa for certain blacks. That's racism. It's not only wrong, it's stupid, because if ever there were two similar basketball programs, they are the Celtics and Georgetown. John Thompson played for Auerbach and is his disciple. Both teams stress discipline, the understanding of a specific role, honest, consistent effort and self-sacrifice. What is Reggie Williams if not Larry Bird -- the captain, the leader in scoring, rebounding and assists, the fundamentally sound, economical, efficient player who will carry the weight in crucial moments. Both teams give you basketball the way it should be played. If you root for one, you should root for the other.

Now to Isiah's expansive comments about how racism is perpetuated through euphemisms and code words: Speaking of the stereotypical way black players and white players are categorized, Isiah said, sardonically, "When Bird makes a great play, it's due to his thinking and his work habits. It's all planned out by him . . . All we do is run and jump. We never practice or give a thought to how we play. It's like I came dribbling out of my mother's womb."

Isiah took deserved umbrage at the euphemistic use of the word "athlete" to connote blacks. "Magic and Michael Jordan and me, we're playing on God-given talent, like we're animals -- lions and tigers who run around wild in a jungle, while Larry's success is due to intelligence and hard work."

To refute the notion that Bird, by virtue of being white, is not an athlete, Isiah reviewed his doomed pass in Game 5: ". . . this white guy on the other team, who is supposed to be very slow, with little coordination, who can't jump, all of a sudden appears out of nowhere, jumps in, grabs the ball, leaps up in the air as he's falling out of bounds, looks over the court in the space of two or three seconds, picks out a player cutting for the basket and hits him with a dead-bullet, picture-perfect pass to win the game. You tell me this white guy, Bird, did that with no God-given talent?"

These are eloquent, perceptive statements. Sportswriters and sportscasters are too often guilty of unconsciously perpetuating racism through stereotypical mythology. Ironic, however, is Isiah's using as an example of an "athlete" Magic Johnson, a calculating, non-leaping, hard-working, intelligent player, this year's MVP and, like the calculating, non-leaping, hard-working, intelligent Bird, the co-best player in the NBA.