Isiah Thomas’ intelligence underrated, but Larry Bird was probably smarter

I’ll have a few posts up this weekend about “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever,” Jack McCallum’s new book. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book for review.

My opinion that John Stockton deserved to make the Dream Team ahead of Isiah Thomas has nothing to do with either player’s intelligence. Both rank among the smartest players of all-time, though most would probably give the edge to Stockton.

That’s unfortunate.

It’s certainly justifiable to give the advantage in intelligence to either player. They’re close. But I suspect Stockton would garner more support because he’s white and Thomas is black. Race certainly appeared to be a factor when Jack McCallum conducted a poll for Sports Illustrated during the 1991-92 season:

Coaches and general managers were asked a difficult question in this week’s poll: Who is the league’s smartest player? In an extremely close race Larry Bird of the Celtics collected 10 votes and Jazz point guard John Stockton got 8.5. (Rocket coach Don Chaney split his ballot between Stockton and point guard Isiah Thomas of the Pistons.) Forward Chris Mullin of the Warriors and guard Jeff Hornacek of the Suns got two votes each, Thomas got 1.5, and Cav point guard Mark Price got one.

In “Dream Team,” McCallum elaborates on the fact that four white players led the voting:

Racist? I can’t say that. But I never saw any evidence that Thomas was not as smart a player as, say, Stockton, and that’s a compliment to both of them. One caveat: several GMs and coaches say that they would’ve voted for Magic, an African-American, had he been active during the season. But then, I never saw any evidence that Thomas was not as smart a player as Magic, either.

The most conclusive case that I can offer that Bird may stand alone at the top of the list of heady players comes from former Pistons player Laimbeer. Laimbeer does not like Bird and the feeling is mutual. But not long ago Laimbeer told me: Let’s face it, it would be hard to find a smarter player than Bird.”

Thomas has a legitimate grievance about falling behind Stockton in the poll, but if Bill Laimbeer said Bird was the smartest player, Bird was probably the smartest player.