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SI Flashback: A Player For the Ages (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday October 24, 2007 2:26PM; Updated: Wednesday October 24, 2007 2:31PM
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By Frank Deford

'' Larry said, ''I'm just from a small town, and it don't make no difference where I play at.'' Boston stood solidly with Auerbach. The Globe editorialized that pro basketball had ''achieved the ultimate and the ultimate appears to have limited appeal.'' For that matter, America appeared to stand solidly with the Globe. Bird himself said, ''I can see why the fans don't like to watch pro basketball. I don't either. It's not exciting.''

So Bird went back to Terre Haute, where he was finishing up at Indiana State, and played softball and hung around with Dinah. One day on the diamond he broke the index finger on his shooting hand. He ambled over to a teammate, a fellow named Danny Miracle, and shoved the twisted digit toward him. ''Pull it out, Dan,'' Bird said. ''Pull it out.''

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Miracle, looking at a minimum $500,000-a-year hand, recoiled in horror. ''I can't do that, Larry,'' he said. Irked, Bird moved on to find someone who would straighten the damn thing out so he could play some more ball.

Back in Boston, Woolf stood by his demands, and his children were hounded and threatened in school. Finally Auerbach and Woolf settled on a $650,000-a- year deal, which made Bird the highest paid rookie ever. Now the pressure was squarely on Bird. He shrugged and said, ''If I fail, I fail. I've failed classes before. I know the feeling.''

But the Celtics were saved. Within a year, not a seat was available in Boston Garden, and one hasn't been for going on nine seasons. The Celtics went from 29-53 in 1978-79 to 61-21 in '79-80, best in the league, and they've never had a losing month since the cornerman, who couldn't possibly turn a franchise around, joined them.

Several weeks ago, at a $1,500-a-couple dinner honoring Bird, with the proceeds going to the New England Sports Museum, a $250,000 statue of Bird by Armand LaMontagne was unveiled. Auerbach stood up that night and said, ''If I had to start a team, the one guy in all history I would take would be Larry Bird. This is the greatest ballplayer who ever played the game.'' To say this took an extraordinary amount of ''soul-searching'' on Auerbach's part. It meant that Bill Russell was No. 2.

Today the Celtics are in first place, as usual, and Bird, at the age of 31, is enjoying what may well be his finest season in spite of a broken nose and a fractured bone under his left eye, which has forced him to wear protective goggles. He has even slimmed down some, and not long ago, driving along in his Ford Bronco with Dinah, he put out his hand to her. Larry has been in love with Dinah for 12 years, and she in love with him. In his hand was a big diamond ring. He said, ''You can wear this if you want to.'' She opted to.

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