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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. It's Thursday and time again for a look at the world of sports with our very own Tony Cox.

TONY COX: Hey, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Now, I know it's getting late in the NBA playoffs and I understand that a lot of basketball fans are hoping for a Lakers-Celtics championship match-up.

COX: Well you know, that's right, actually. And it's a real possibility in fact, now that the Lakers and Celtics are only one game away from the finals. But it's not over yet. It's one of the topics of my conversation this week with New York Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden. Hey, Bill.

Mr. WILLIAM RHODEN (Sports Columnist, New York Times): The great Tony Cox.

COX: How're you doing, man?

Mr. RHODEN: How're you doing, man?

COX: Listen, before we get to the basketball playoffs, I want to talk about a column that you wrote this week in the New York Times looking at the subject of race and sports. Here's the background. Your piece was centered on the controversy surrounding the African-American manager of the New York Mets, Willie Randolph, whose team is in last place in the NL East and went into today's game with a so-so record of 26 wins and 27 losses. And the heat is really on his tail from the New York press. "Is it racial?", Randolph was asked in a recent interview. He then answered the question saying, quote, "It smells a little bit," end quote.

Of course that comment brought even more heat down on him for which he later apologized. Now Bill, here's what you wrote. Quote, "In the post-Jeremiah Wright environment of racial etiquette, those who seek mainstream support, including managers and coaches, are loath to discuss hardcore racial realities and are encouraged to distance themselves from anyone who does." So when and where is the line drawn over discussing race as an issue?

Mr. RHODEN: Well, I mean, Tony, I think that people would rather you just not discuss it at all, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RHODEN: I mean - I think first of all, when you're winning - the Mets just won their second game in a row last night. So now all of a sudden there are happy smiles and the atmosphere is a little lighter because winning sort of cures things. But I think the underlying issue is this sort of lingering racial hostility, misunderstanding that exists between different racial groups. And I think it's crystallized in baseball, particularly where you have a large, large number of Latin players, significant number of African-American players, some white players and of course an overwhelmingly white media. And I think that's when you begin to have the problems, because all these complex issues are being filtered through the prisms of a sort of Eurocentric press corps which is overwhelmingly white, as I said, and really ill-equipped to critique itself and to look at things through other prisms.

So when Willie Randolph talks about double standards, the first thing is, oh, come on, Willie, what do you mean? You know what I mean. But you know, too often the press, which I said is overwhelmingly white, is serving as judge, jury and executioner. So there's no balance. So - and then of course, the next day, you know, Willie apologized, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it, I'm sorry. You know.

COX: And then moved on. Well you know, here's how you closed your piece. Quote, "We like to talk about how much progress we've made. Let's not fool ourselves" end quote. Are you pessimistic or being realistic?

Mr. RHODEN: I'm just being realistic, Tony. And that's based on, you know, living as long as we have lived. What is that? Five decades?

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Well, I'm not saying.

Mr. RHODEN: I mean, I just think that you have to be realistic. And I think that you don't have to go any further than our presidential race to realize that there's a really hardcore feelings about race and ethnicity that we just really have to deal with. But you don't deal with it, Tony, by not dealing with it, by not talking about it.

COX: All right, let's move on to baseball - actually, move on to basketball, I should say. We are seeing something that we haven't seen in quite a while. The two most famous franchises, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, are in the conference finals, and it looks like they could meet for the championship beginning next week. A lot of people, writers included, want to see that for nostalgic reasons. That include you?

Mr. RHODEN: No, I just like to see, you know, great basketball. To be honest with you, I wouldn't mind seeing Detroit get into the finals against the Lakers. But you know, that's the great thing about a seven-game series, Tony. The best team will win. Clearly, clearly the Lakers are the best team in the West. Some people are saying they're the best team in basketball. The great thing about these playoffs from the East is finally seeing Kevin Garnett performing on this kind of stage, on a championship stage. I think that he's probably one of the three best players in the NBA right now. But you know, I like Detroit, Tony. I just - I like the way they play. I like their approach to the game. But you've got to win a seven-games series.

COX: You absolutely do. You know, the league admitted - too late to help San Antonio, of course - that that controversial no-call at the end of their playoff loss to the Lakers Tuesday was a mistake. And you know, people are now saying that's evidence that they want the Lakers and Celtics to be in the final. But we're not going to go there again on that.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Let's end with this. We've got less than a minute. Let's talk about the French Open. How are the Americans doing? I know James Blake is out now.

Mr. RHODEN: Blake is out, but the Williams sisters are in. You know, Venus and Serena are in. And I don't think Venus has ever won the French, I don't think either one of them has won the French. So, so far so good. But you know, Justine Henin is tough, Nadal, Rafael Nadal has never lost.

COX: He owns Roger Federer on the play. That's just amazing to me.

Mr. RHODEN: You know, so I - I love to see one of the Williams sisters play. But they've got a really, really steep mountain to climb.

COX: Now, Serena won the French back in, what, 2002? Am I right about that or no, do you remember?

Mr. RHODEN: No I don't remember. I don't remember her ever winning in the French, but you know, like I said, I'm in my 50's.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Having a senior moment. Bill Rhoden, it's always good to talk to you. We'll talk later, after the NBA finals.

Mr. RHODEN: All right, Tony. You take care.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox speaking with Bill Rhoden, a sports columnist for the New York Times and author of "Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete." Rhoden joined us from the NPR studios in New York.

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