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SI FOR KIDS
A Player for the Ages
Boston's Larry Bird, in what may be his finest season, gets Red Auerbach's voteover Bill Russellas the best ever
Issue date: March 21, 1988
The little country boy in Indiana had a recurring dream. In it, he has found a million dollars cash, and he has dug a hole for it under the front porch, and he is hiding there with it. His older brothers walk up and down the steps just above him, but he stays so quiet, they don't have an inkling that their kid brother is down there with a million dollars cash. ''I had that same dream all the timeover and over and over and over,'' says the man who was the little boy.
But Larry Bird is not a Great White Hope. Anybody who thinks that misses the point of Larry Bird. Little white boys today would much prefer to grow up to be Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins, for however clever and hardworking, they're also truly spectacular players. They can fly. But when kids imitate Larry Bird, mostly what they do, so humdrum, is reach down and rub their hands on the bottoms of their sneakers. Even with a last name that cries out for a sassy nickname, Larry Bird remains, simply, Larry. He seems merely the sum of little bitsa bit more clever than you and me, a bit more dedicated, a bit better on his shooting touch, a bit better with . . . but certainly nothing out of the ordinary. Larry Bird is like when you first learn fractions and you have to change everything to 12ths12ths!to make it possible to add up the thirds and fourths and sixths and stuff. All the other great players are so obviously whole numbers.
And so, as improbable a basketball star as Bird is, he's tantalizingly possible. Not the Great White Hope. Never. White hopes are supposed to beat up on the other races, defend Caucasian honor. Bird is simply one of those grown- up daydreams: I wish I could be pretty; I wish I could be back in high school and know what I know now; I wish I could be king of the world; I wish I could find a million dollars; I wish I could be Larry Bird.
He looks up, chuckling at how the little boy got his dream right after all. ''Well, I guess I found the million,'' Larry Bird says. ''Even found a little more to go with it.''
BOB WOOLF, BIRD'S ATTORNEY, brings out a hotel bill dated April 6, 1979. It was for Bird and his girlfriend, Dinah Mattingly, at the Parker House, when Bird first visited Boston. Bird inspected the city, met Red Auerbach and went to a Celtics' game, wearing a hideous tan sport shirt. He watched as the home team lost its seventh in a row before 7,831 fans. That season the Celtics finished last in their division and sold out the Garden exactly once. Auerbach had sagely drafted Bird the year before, as a junior eligible, but Boston would lose the exclusive rights to him if he didn't sign soon, before the next draft. Woolf suggested a million a year, and Auerbach, apoplectic at that, countered with half a million, maybe, if you counted the perks. He said, ''It's been proven. A cornerman can't dominate the game. A big man, occasionally even a guard. But one man playing a corner can't turn a franchise around.''
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.''
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.
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.
Now, the most illuminating thing in this whole saga is that hotel bill from 1979. You see, except for the basic room charge and the tax, there was nothing else on it. No room service, no restaurant charge, no long-distance phone calls, no nothing. Having dealt with many other athletes, Woolf naturally assumed that the kid would charge at will. But that wasn't how Larry Joe Bird was raised back in French Lick, Indiana.
''Larry has a way of making everybody he comes into contact with a better person,'' Woolf says. ''If you think the Larry Bird on the court has character and is unselfishwell, off the court he's even more so.'' Among those who know Bird well, the same catalog of qualities is cited again and again: honest, loyal, steadfast, dependablehis existence shaped by the contradictory, almost mystical ability to be the cynosure, yet always to contribute to those around him. Mel Daniels, who was an assistant coach at Indiana State when Bird played there, said it best: ''It's like a piece of Larry goes to each player by the things he does.'' Tony Clark, a Terre Haute radio executive who grew up with Bird, says, ''Larry epitomizes the word friend. Do you understand that?''
''Then you really don't have to know anything else about him.''
Evidently what we see of him in public, working at his vocation, is an extension of the person. It hasn't always been easy to understand this, though, because Bird is an exceptionally private man. Of course, every celebrity loves to swear that he's really very shy. It's an appealing lie. But Bird is shy. Bill Hodges, the coach who helped recruit him for Indiana State, says, ''Larry was the most shy and introverted guy I'd ever been around in my life.'' Bird was so self-conscious in high school that he wouldn't go to watch his older brother Markwho also wore No. 33 and was a star for Springs Valley Highplay basketball until his final varsity game. It ran in the family. ''My father was proud of us, but he wouldn't go see us play,'' Larry says. ''Dad didn't like crowds either.''
The son's inherited inhibitions were magnified by the fact that he was thrust into the glare as if he were some archeological treasure. Before his junior year at Indiana State, Bird was an unknown quantity on a second-level team. Moreover, even then, a decade ago, there already existed the reverse racism that makes basketball cognoscenti chary of any white player.
Basketball had long been the realm of small-town boysbackwater Hoosiers being, in fact, the beau idealbut by the 1970s the sport had been so completely transformed into a black urban exercise that Bird might as well have dropped in from Paraguay or Sri Lanka. Ironically, too, for most of the Republic's existence we had reveled in the folk wisdom that country bumpkins were the true brains, certain to get the best of city slickers. Almost overnight, though, the reverse became true; a new myth held that ''street smarts'' were the best kind. Bird's utter genius on the court had to be accounted for in some way, however, and so he was explained away as some sort of idiot savant of the hardwood.
Moreover, when he became an overnight sensation in 1979, his shyness was at its most severe because the events of the previous few years had left him hurt and defensive. Bird had left high school for Indiana University as the consummate small-town hero, but he shuffled back to French Lick less than a month later, even before the Hoosiers' preseason practice had begun. Overwhelmed by the huge Bloomington campus, broke, lonely and intimidated by the wardrobe and wherewithal of a more worldly roommate''a damn mistake I made,'' says Bobby Knight, who would have been Bird's coachBird flat out quit. Worse, back in French Lick, he sensed that many of his devoted fans felt that he had let them down, embarrassed the town. To this day Bird remembers who the fair-weather friends were.
Then within the year Larry's father committed suicide. Joe Bird was a laborer who was well liked in the Springs Valley and admired for the work he could do with his hands, but he could never seem to escape creditors and alcohol.
At Indiana State, where Bird matriculated a year after leaving Indiana, his life began to come back together, but then in 1975, at 19, Bird, who had never spent much time with girls, rushed into a disastrous marriage. Within a year they were divorced, but, as a final blow, Bird discovered after the marriage had ended that his former wife was pregnant. Their daughter, Corrie, was born in August 1977, before his junior year. Bird says he isn't allowed to spend much time with his little girl. He and his ex-wife aren't friendly, and however much he loves his child, he still flagellates himself for the youthful union that produced Corrie.
''When I was a kid I thought people who got divorced were the devil,'' he says, shaking his head. ''And then I go out and do it myself right away. Getting married was the worst mistake I ever made. Everything that ever happened to me, I've learned from it, but I'm still scarred by that. That scarred me for life. That and being broke are the two things that influenced me most. Still.
''That dream I told you aboutfinding the million dollars. I have one other dream, too. The bad dream. I still have it sometimes. My wife is trying to get me to come back to her, but Dinah is there, too, and I keep saying to Dinah, 'I don't want to go with her, I don't want to go.' ''
The Birds are known for their tempers, but Larry is so palethe limpid eyes, the white-on-white mustachethat his face lends itself more to the gentler emotions. He turns almost tender now: ''And Dinah was with me through all that stuff. She was there. I don't know how many times that poor girl stood under the basket and passed the ball back to me. Over and over, standing there, throwing it back to me so I could shoot. And then all the time takin' care of my injuries.'' And a quick broad smile: ''Course, we've gotten a lot of beer drinkin' in together, too.''
Dinah jokes with friendswell, maybe it's a jokethat Larry finally gave her the engagement ring only after his beloved Doberman, Klinger, died. And Bird still evades the direct question about matrimony: ''I've told Dinah, 'Now why get married and ruin a good relationship?' But she really doesn't like it one bit when I say that.'' She can take some heart when Larry slips a little and says he thinks when he and Dinah get married that they might adopt children rather than have their own.
Anyway, they'll live back in French Lick, where they spend the off-season now, in the house Larry had built with the regulation basketball court and the satellite dish. Lu Meis, a department store executive who befriended Bird in Terre Haute and is now his partner in Larry Bird Ford-Lincoln-Mercury in Martinsville (which boasts a parquet showroom floor), says that once he went with Bird up to Indianapolis to inspect a house Bird was thinking of buying in the big city, but all Bird really seemed interested in was the sprinkler system, which made such a nice lawn. No, Larry Bird will stay in French Lick.
In a way Terre Haute serves as insulation, a halfway house between the French Lick cloister and the city where Bird spends most of the winter working. One almost expects visas for Boston to be distributed in Terre Haute. A radio station brings in Celtics games. The newspapers sometimes feature the Celtics over the Indiana Pacers. Larry Bird memorabilia is a cottage industry. At Larry Bird's Boston Connection hotel, the locals flock to watch Celtics games via satellite on the big screen in the Bird's Nest Sports Loungerarely tossing so much as a glance at the Indiana Hoosiers game on the tiny TV screen by the bar. The hallowed MVP Club dining room showcases a photograph of Larry taken by Kenny Rogers. In the coffee shop, also known as the Boston Garden Family Restaurant, miniature Celtics championship banners hang from the ceiling, and the place mats lovingly depict Larry's hands, life-size, complete with his crooked fingers.
Available at this shrine are more than 100 Larry Bird mementos, including Larry Bird golf balls, Larry Bird shower curtains, Larry Bird playing cards (he's the joker), Larry Bird chocolates and Larry Bird clothes for Ken (Barbie's significant other).
Max Gibson, a Terre Haute businessman, is Bird's partner in the hotel venture, and, says Bird, Gibson is the closest thing to a father figure he has had in his life since his own father died. Larry, the fourth in a family of six children, has always gotten along well with older men. But he's zealous in making sure that anyoneof any agewho would cozy up to him is not just poaching on his fame or fortune.
Except for Dinah, an FBI agent's daughter, who was born in New York, and whom he met at Indiana State, all of Bird's best pals go back to French Lick. They were the boys with whom he fished for bluegill or looked for mushrooms under the elm trees or played basketball. ''Cars or girlsthey didn't interest Larry at all,'' says Gary Holland, his coach at Springs Valley his senior year. Sundays, for example, Bird would meet up with Tony Clark and maybe another guy or two and they would drive off to some bigger town where there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, pick up a big bucket, and then come back to the Valley and play ball all day. Nights, Tony says, they would just ''cruise around to see who's around.''
Essentially, when he's back in French Lick in the off-season, Bird lives much the same life, only Dinah makes a prettier sidekick. They rise when the spirit moves themBird is a legendary sleeperand while she jogs, he works out at the high school, using the equipment he donated. Then after lunch he'll get in some golf or tennis. Or maybe they'll play tennis together. After dinner Larry and Dinah hang out and have a few beers around the Valley. ''We're usually in bed by nine o'clock,'' he says.
Could he live this sort of existence year-round after he's through playing? Bird shakes his head at this question, and his tiny little mouth drops open in amazement. ''Why not?'' he says. In the Celtics' media guide, Bird's biography reads ''favorite food is steak and potatoes . . . favorite TV show is Bonanza. . . .''
Why not indeed?
THEY'VE ALWAYS PLAYED basketball in rural Indiana. The hoop, without a net, was over the barn door. Hoosiers. When the U.S. was more regional, and simpler, that was Indiana. Why, 35 or 40 years ago, if you walked under the big red neon EAT sign and entered John Henry's luncheonette in French Lick and said that basketball would become a city game played mostly by blacks, you would have been considered as nutty as if you had said that someday the Japanese were going to make more watches than the Swiss.
But just because blacks now fare better in the upper echelons of the game doesn't mean that people don't still love basketball in Indiana. Wayne Embry, the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a black man who grew up playing basketball in the Midwest, says, ''I resent comments that basketball is a black man's sport. It's an American sport, and that's how the world ought to acknowledge it.''
The game program published by Springs Valley High supports this view. Its section on the history of Black Hawk basketball contains eight paragraphs. Larry Bird appears in the seventh. He's not bigger than basketball in the Valley, even if he may be the greatest basketball player in the history of humankind.
French Lick (pop. 2,265) remains isolated from urbanity, even suburbanity; it's situated approximately in the middle of a rustic triangle formed by Evansville, Ind., and Louisville, Ky., to the south and Bloomington to the north. No interstate reaches French Lick. The houses going up the hill are of white clapboard, and the Lions Club meets the first and third Tuesdays every month at the Villager.
Ah, but there's quite another past to French Lick. It's not just a typical small town in Indiana. Not at all. There are mineral springs in the Valley, and French Lick and its sister town, West Baden (where Bird actually resides now), have long had reputations as Fancy-Dan resorts. Once there was music and dancing, champagne, gambling and beautiful, loose women. Everyone from Al Capone to Franklin Delano Roosevelt holidayed there.
The mineral springs featured Pluto water, a naturaland very powerfullaxative. Indeed for some 75 years one of the largest enterprises in French Lick was the bottling and distribution of the local water, using the slogan: ''When nature won't, Pluto will.'' The locals amended that and yukked: ''If nature won't, Pluto will; if Pluto can't, goodbye Bill.''
By the time Larry was born on Pearl Harbor Day of 1956, though, most of the Valley's glory was gone. By the early 1970s even the Pluto Corporation had changed from bottling water to household cleaning products. Even though the Springs Hotel in French Lick is still there, many of the younger people, unlike Larry, have cleared out, and Orange County is one of the poorest in the state.
Young Larry knew damn well that he was poor. No, it was not oppressive. But, yes, it was there. The Birds had enough coal to stay warm, but too many nights the old furnace would break down, and the house would fill with black smoke, and they would all have to stand outside, freezing, while Joe Bird tried to fix things. By then it was morning and time to pay the bills.
The creditors never let up on Joe. ''I always hear he was the kind of guy would give you the shirt off his back,'' Larry says. ''A lot of people tell me them things now because of who I am, but I know the ones who're tellin' the truth.''
His mother, Georgia, was employed mostly as a waitress. ''I remember, she worked a hundred hours a week and made a hundred dollars, and then went to the store and had to buy $120 worth of food,'' Larry says. ''If there was a payment to the bank due, and we needed shoes, she'd get the shoes, and then deal with them guys at the bank. I don't mean she wouldn't pay the bank, but the children always came first.'' Often things were so tough, one way and another, that Larry had to move in with his grandmother, Lizzie Kerns. He adores her. But Grandma Kerns didn't even have a telephone then.
While having been poor ''it motivates me to this day,'' Bird saysled to his million-dollar dream, it didn't occur to him that basketball would be the thing that would lead him to that cache. ''I never once worried about college when I was in high school, and I never worried about the pros in college,'' he says. ''When it was the Celtics drafted me, I could've cared less.''
In fact, once he made up his mind that he just wasn't happy at Indiana and that he was going to quit, once he went back to French Lick and got a maintenance job with the town, he was quite happy. This was the period, ever celebrated (or smirked at), when he worked on a garbage truck. Actually that was Bird's assignment only one day a week, but he enjoyed it immensely, ''having a blast,'' tossing garbage sacks around with his old buddy Bezer Carnes.
''I loved that job,'' Bird says. ''It was outdoors, you were around your friends. Picking up brush, cleaning up. I felt like I was really accomplishing something. How many times are you riding around your town and you say to yourself, Why don't they fix that? Why don't they clean the streets up? And here I had the chance to do that. I had the chance to make my community look better.'' Bird is a damn sight more impressed with the work he did for French Lick that year than he is with the boulevard named after him that cuts through town.
''I've always enjoyed French Lick, and I could care less what they say about it,'' he says. ''I think maybe if you grow up in a small town you learn better to weed out the good and the bad. There's always going to be a lot of petty jealousy in a small town. If you understand thatand I always haveyou can learn better to make your own judgments.''
The hard part, Bird seems bent on proving, isn't that you can't go home again. The hard part is showing the ones who never left that the best part of you never left either. Bird will pick up the $17 Thursday night beer tab, until, Clark says, ''the minute he senses that you expect him to pick it up.'' Bird may pull down $2 million or $3 million a year, but when his little brother Eddiethe best player on the Indiana State teamgot a D in one course, Bird took back the Jeep he had given him. ''It's damned inconvenient for Eddie,'' Gibson says, ''but Larry won't budge till he gets rid of that D.'' If money isn't going to change Larry Bird, Larry Bird doesn't see why his money should change anybody else, either.
So Larry goes down to the bait shop, and he goes fishing with Max Pluris, who is fixing up Bird's house, and he paints his grandmother's house, and everybody out of town makes a huge to-do about how everybody in French Lick treats him just like he's normal.
Well, big deal.
He is normal.
AROUND HIS FRESHMAN year in high school, when other fires were being lit in most boys his age, Bird's love for basketball began to blossom. He had shot up to just over six feet and a scrawny 135 pounds, and, to his amazement, his father promised him 20 bucks if he made the freshman team.
From a father who didn't shoot around with his boys, this made a real impact. Would your dad be proud of you now? ''He was proud,'' Bird snaps back emphatically. ''Even then he was proud of what all his boys had done.''
Joe Bird's drinking made it difficult for him to be an idol to his son, but the people who know Larry suspect that many of his strong principles trace back to the man who struggled with his demons. ''I remember one time,'' Larry says. ''I was 13, or 14 maybe, and my father came home with an ankle all black and blue and redout to here.'' He holds up his hands, almost a foot apart. ''He needed me and my brother just to get his boot off, and he was in awful pain, but the next morning we got the boot back on, and he went to work.'' Pause. ''That really made an impression on me.''
From his mother, Larry seems to have drawn a sense of responsibility and determinationwhat could, in its darkest moments, be called stubbornness. ''Oh, I can be moody, like Mom,'' he says. ''One thing can make me mad for two days. Only she'll stay mad over one thing for two months.''
This is balanced by a playful, almost childish sense of humor that, even when it verges on meanness, leaves everybody laughing and saying, ''Well, that's just Larry.'' Once he inspected a used car Clark was thinking of buying and told him that the muffler bearings were hopelessly shot. Clark went back to the salesman and accused him of trying to cheat him. ''You think I can't tell when the muffler bearings are gone?'' Clark screamed. There are no such things as muffler bearings.
Once at a drive-in theater Dinah left the car, heading for the refreshment stand, and Larry drove it to another space. Dinah comes back, loaded up with Cokes and popcorn, and the car isn't there. So Larry toots the horn, and she heads in that direction, and then some other wiseacre toots his horn and she turns that way, and everybody starts tooting, and there's Dinah, standing in the middle, literally holding the bag.
Oh well, that's just Larry.
In basketball this sort of mischievousness takes on the bold edge of bravado. The story of Bird walking into the locker room before the three-point shoot-out at the 1986 All-Star Game and snorting that all the other bozos were playing for second place (which they were) is now a legend. He has said that he wouldn't know half the players in the league if they didn't wear their names on their shirts. Bird has also been known to saunter up behind some poor kid standing at the free throw line late in a close game and whisper, ''I know you're going to blow these two.''
He kids his teammates, too. He regularly rags the other Celtics by telling them that he's writing a book entitled Game Winners, and it's almost up to a thousand pages long, but he wishes at least one of them could make it on at least one lousy page.
''Nothing he says is malicious,'' says Quinn Buckner, who was Bird's teammate for three seasons. ''He's certainly not jealousof your skills or your finances or anything. And everybody who knows Larry understands how well he understands peopleso it doesn't take much to appreciate how well intentioned he is.''
Bird has always been remarkably honest. He lays it all out plain, and no amount of cajoling will get him to reconsider his priorities. Bird was once offered $25,000 to make a brief appearance at a bar mitzvah being held only a block from his suburban Boston house and rejected it out of hand. One day a couple summers ago Dinah called him inside because Woolf was on the phone with some important business.
''I have three things, Larry,'' Woolf began. ''Derek Bok, the president of Harvard, would like you to address the freshman class this fall.''
''SPORTS ILLUSTRATED wants you to pose for a cover.''
''LIFE magazine wants to do a photo essay on you, but you won't have to pose. The photographer will. . . .''
''No.'' Pause. ''Mr. Woolf, I thought you told me this was an important call.''
His unbending ways would seem to make it even more difficult for him because, vocationally, his world is upside down. Everywhere but in basketball he is the classic American hero: a tall white Protestant heterosexual Anglo- Saxon male. But in his professional life Bird is a racial minority (and, in his stature in this profession, an absolute anomaly). Many young whites in basketball are uncomfortable, if not downright intimidated, by this reversal, but Bird revels in being the odd man out. ''I like it like that,'' he beams, positively gushing. Once he was very poor, and now he is very white.
Because there are almost no blacks in rural Indiana and because Bird didn't play with any blacks in high school, most people are under the impression that he was able to cultivate his game in a racial vacuum, so to speak, growing the sort of what-he-don't-know-won't-hurt -him confidence that city whites are unable to develop because they get shot after shot bashed back in their noses. In fact, all during his adolescence, Bird played pickup games against older blacks who worked at the Springs Hotel. Early on he knew exactly what he was up against. So he learned to shoot falling away, to fake, to develop his natural ambidextrous bent (he both writes and eats lefthanded) and later to shoot better and farther out.
Invariably too much is made of the fact that the boss or the diva or the senator works longer hours than the laborer. Of course, the top dogs do. They also make more money, get more credit and have more fun. Still, the hours that Bird devotes to his job are astonishing. ''I've taken a lot of jump shots in my day,'' he says. But perhaps even more enlightening is the fact that despite the grind of the NBA, which is accentuated in Bird's case because he gets so much attention, and despite the fact that he's so good that he admits he often gets bored because it's all so easy, despite all that, there have been only two occasions in the more than 800 games he has played in the NBA in which he felt he didn't give an honest day's work for the dollar, when he went home and asked Dinah, ''Did it look like I was hustling out there tonight?''
However he performs, Bird is back in spirit, renewed for the next game. At the Boston Garden when the national anthem is played, Bird gazes to the heavens. Everyone assumes that he's looking at the Celtics banners, but ironically, he began to fix his eyes on only one bannerthe retired No. 4. But not retired by the Celtics. The No. 4 belonged to the Bruins' Bobby Orr. Bird has stared at the black and gold banner so many times, he can see it in his mind's eye. He knows every stitch, how many lines pierce the circle around the capital B. ''Eight. Don't bet me,'' he says.
Bird had met Orr only once and had never seen him play, but he had heard how great he was as a player and had learned how much Boston admired Orr as a person. Bird had been too bashful ever to tell Orr this, though, and revealed it only last month in his speech at the Sports Museum dinner, where Orr was on hand for the unveiling of Bird's statue. When Orr heard Bird speak of him, the breath went out of him in a whoosh, and there were tears in his eyes.
''My god,'' Orr whispered in the dark. ''My god.''
BIRD WON'T EVER REDUCE his commitment to his sport. ''You've got to understand,'' he says. ''My whole life's been basketball. It was never a recreation for me. It was something I fell in love with.'' The coming irreconcilable conflict in his life is how he can give up this passion while he still has a breath in his pale body. Yet how could he keep playing the game at a less than perfect level? For now, he says he's ''95 percent sure'' that he will hang up his jock after the 1990 season, when he would be 33 1/2 years old.
For however long he plays, though, Bird will always draw more attentioneven suspicion and scrutinybecause he is the Caucasian aberration. This fact bubbled over last May after the Celtics edged the Pistons in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals. Emotions were so raw that Chuck Daly, the Detroit coach, shut the door and urged the players to ''watch what you say,'' but shortly after the press flooded in, a distraught young forward, Dennis Rodman, blurted out that Bird was ''very overrated,'' a regular winner of the MVP only because of his race.
Smelling blood, reporters repeated these remarks to Isiah Thomas, who seemed to concur, saying, ''If Bird was black, he'd be just another good guy.''
In the brouhaha that followed, only Bird was unflustered. When Thomas called him up shortly thereafter to explain that he had been quoted badly, that his inflection and expression had meant to convey facetious humor, Bird wouldn't even listen to Thomas, because to do so would suggest that he took Thomas's remarks seriously in the first place. Instead he handed the phone to his mother and told Thomas to explain it to her because she liked Isiah, and she was the one who was upset.
Arguments can, of course, go on forever about Bird's superiority. It's common for his teammates to say that playing with Bird reveals him to be even more remarkable than he appears to the naked eye, and there's a tendency among mature blacks and whites alike in the NBA to forgive Rodman for his callow unenlightenment. Bird himself doesn't put any more credence in the other extreme, in the greatest-ever pronouncements of people like Auerbach. ''That's nice stuff to hear, but I don't believe it,'' he says, shrugging and then adding that he'll be quite content if history is only kind enough to speak of him in the same breath as Magic Johnson and John Havlicek. However, it is difficult to believe that any athlete in any sport has demonstrated Bird's instinctive supernatural feel for his game.
But then, as a mere mortal, Bird also possesses touch, strength, stamina, hand-eye coordination, exceptional visionhe is forever spotting friends sitting way back in the bleachersand overall court ken. This last gift is usually most vividly explained by saying that Bird is able to conduct a game in slow motion that everyone else is playing at breakneck speed.
Yet for all these extraordinary basketball-playing attributes, it is fashionable for observers to say that Bird overcomes not being an athlete. The most amazing thing has happened in America in the past few years. The definition of the word athlete has been narrowed from the dictionary's age-old ''one who is trained in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility or stamina'' to exclusively mean someone who is quick (and, where it applies, can also jump high). It's understood, for example, that if it's reported that a coach needs more athletes, it means he needs some quick, black jumpers.
As a consequence, since strength, stamina, hand-eye coordination, etc., are no longer accepted as athletic attributes, when somebody like Bird succeeds in what's accepted to be an athletic endeavor, then it can only be because he's smarter and works harder than all the black guys. In Bird's case, he probably has worked as hard as anybody ever has in sport, and he does possess an incredible sixth sense, but that has no more to do with his race than it does with his Social Security number.
Indeed, the irony of criticizing Bird for taking advantage of his special racial status is that it's difficult to imagine anyone who is so evenhanded, who lives more by the creed of fairness. His best buddies are the same ones he grew up with. He still drives a Ford Bronco and dresses for it. He never met a Jew until he was 20 years old, but in Boston he lives in a Jewish neighborhood. His best friends on the Celtics fit no type. Buckner, who is black, might have grown closest to him, and Bird calls former Celtic Cedric Maxwell, another black man, ''my greatest teammate by far.''
When the Celtics won the title in 1984, Bird approached Auerbach and said, ''I'd like to buy a [championship] ring for Walter.'' Walter Randall was an old equipment man and sometime trainer who died in '85. ''No other player ever thought of that,'' Auerbach says. Rick Shaw, the team manager at Indiana State, went up to Bird on the sad flight back from the Sycamores' Final Four defeat at the hands of Michigan State in 1979 and handed him a team pennant to sign. Bird didn't just autograph it. He wrote, ''Thank you for all the things you've done for me. Love, Larry.'' When Bird left for the All-Star Game a few years ago, Woolf said he hoped that he could carry Bird's MVP trophy back to Boston again. Bird said, ''No, Mr. Woolf, this year I'd like to see Robert [Parish] get it,'' and in the game he worked toward that end.
From himself on the court he seeks only consistency and considers that the true mark of excellence. ''But Larry's so sensitive to what his teammates need that he changes the emphasis of his game to accommodate them,'' says Jim Rodgers, the Celtics' senior assistant. ''It's a unique form of personal consistency, concentrating on the needs of others, isn't it?''
A Celtics teammate, Bill Walton, says: ''So much of itplaying, in the locker room, away from basketballhas to do with how much he cares. Larry cares about every element of everything he's involved in. With some people, the sphere of their life is so very small. The sphere of Larry's life is just huge.''
And yet these embers of generosity were kindled by the most incendiary competitive fires. Even now in the Valley there's not much amazement that Larry Bird turned out to be the greatest basketball player everwhat the hell, somebody had to, so it might as well be a French Lick boybut there is some surprise that he could rise above the family temper to reach those heights. In order to win, Bird taught himself not to get angry, rather to gain satisfaction from somebody else's hot blood. ''I've learned it's a lot more fun making a shot with a guy hanging on you,'' he says.
Championships mean even more to Bird''His mission,'' Auerbach calls them. ''That's why I play,'' Bird says. ''I'm just greedy on them things. Winning the championshipI've never felt that way any other time, no matter how big some other game was. I remember the first time we won, against Houston ((in 1981)). We were way ahead at the end, and so I came out with three minutes left, and my heart was pounding so on the bench, I thought it would jump out of my chest. You know what you feel? You just want everything to stop and to stay like that forever.''
And that, in his way, is what Larry Bird does for us. He not only slows the world down, but he turns it back. ''I've studied it,'' Woolf says, ''and I think, above all, there's just an innocence with him. I think Larry takes anyone who knows himor sees him playingback to grammar school. Remember back then? Back then we didn't brag. We dove after the ball. We looked after our friends. I think with Larry we believe he'll save the team. We believe he'll save us somehow. So you follow him.''
Look for the open man yourself. Fill the lane. Use the glass. Use the glass! Box out. Make him go to his left. Or just reach down and touch the bottoms of your sneakers. The game is a mile a minute. The world is a mile a minute. Even the memories are a mile a minute these days. But somehow, with Larry Bird, you can see it all before you. So slow. So dreamy. You just want everything to stop and stay like that forever.
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