DETROIT There's race. And there's racist.
Why does it remain so difficult for reasonably intelligent people to differentiate between the two?
Yet Jermaine O'Neal, a young man who never spent one second even pretending to get a college education, was branded a racist by people who should have enough sense to know better. All he did was raise a question about race.
The Indiana Pacers' All-Star just wanted to know "why?"
Why is NBA commissioner David Stern hell-bent on negotiating a 20-year-old age minimum for the NBA draft? Why choke off a pipeline responsible for the top three vote-getters in last season's balloting for the league's most valuable player?
O'Neal wondered out loud if, somehow, race played a role in this steadily growing tidal wave.
The answer is no, but the question provoked instant outrage. Has inquisitiveness suddenly become a crime? Believe it or not, but there once was a time -- before talk radio -- when asking why would inspire thoughtful discourse.
This isn't an age issue. It isn't a race issue.
It's strictly an economic issue.
There. That took no more than 10 seconds to give O'Neal the answer he sought.
Instead, the 24/7 focus was on the supposedly racist connotations of O'Neal's question. Have we forgotten what the word means? Possibly so, considering how easily it's tossed around these days.
Racist means virulent hatred.
You want to know what that breed of intolerance looks like?
Friday marked the 58th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the baseball color barrier and throwing himself into a maelstrom of animosity. Robinson feared for his safety, enduring treatment that turns the stomach and raises the blood pressure to this very day.
Now there isn't one player with more than a thimble's worth of reason who actually thinks the NBA loathes an ethnic group that makes up 78 percent of its talent pool, so the league wants to punish it.
But curiosity allows a player to toss out any and all possibilities, even those that seem ridiculous at face value.
This is simply business.
The NBA collective-bargaining agreement expires after the NBA Finals in June, but there are rumblings that a deal might be reached in a matter of weeks. Don't expect the rancor of the hockey stalemate.
Stern masterfully has framed the negotiation as a way to keep teenagers from immediately jumping from the senior prom to the NBA draft in a matter of days. It's a brilliant public-relations move, but it's not Stern's top priority in an agreement. He mostly wants to minimize the owners' risk in long-term contracts.
And if keeping the door open for 18-year-olds becomes an immovable point for the union, then the players must surrender something in return -- and that most likely would be a reduction in the number of guaranteed years in contracts.
Either way, Stern wins.
Stern thinks an age restriction would stand up to a court challenge because it would be the result of collective bargaining. And he thought that long before Maurice Clarett's ill-fated challenge of the NFL's age restrictions.
If the NBA and its players dare think outside the box, they can find a viable compromise.
Instead of an age restriction, adopt a sliding scale on contract length based on the age of the player. If an 18-year-old wants to enter the league, he couldn't receive more than a two-year deal. If a 19-year-old signs, he receives a three-year deal.
This system would reward those who want more experience before joining the NBA, while satisfying the public and media pressure for teams to take a chance on finding the next Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Amare Stoudemire.
This isn't about race. It's about improving quality and stalling the steady erosion in the league's fan base.
O'Neal became an easy target because he jumped directly from high school to the far end of the Portland Trail Blazers' bench for the early years of his NBA life. His critics charged that he spoke without thinking, but what's more thoughtful than asking why if you're not completely sure about something?