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SI FOR KIDS
He was just what Boston needed
Posted: Wed September 30, 1998
He still looked like an old black-and-white yearbook picture when he arrived in Boston in the summer of '79, all mismatched Kmart clothes and mounds of messy milk-white hair. He talked like an attendant at the last-chance-for-gas station and led many people in Boston to believe that he was some dim-witted rube, a raw-boned Hick from French Lick who would surely fall down dizzy at the first sight of the Prudential Building. It was all an act, of course, the first great game Larry Bird played as a member of the Boston Celtics.
The truth was, there was no room for clothes or books or jewelry in Bird's bag because when he came to Boston he was lugging all that attitude. Fortunately for the sports fans of New England, he brought enough for all of us. He joined the Celtics less than a year after Bucky Dent's windblown popup reached the screen and broke the hearts of Red Sox fans, and a few weeks after a thoroughly unlikeable Celtics team won just 29 games and finished the 1978-79 season in last place. A dark cloud moved in over the Hub as Boston sports fans drooped at the shoulders and did what they do best: felt sorry for themselves.
Larry Joe Bird changed all that. He brought an edge, an attitude, a collective confidence that, as long as No. 33 wiped the soles of his sneakers and stepped on the court, we could do you one better. He was the big guy in our gang and we threw back our shoulders and followed him into the street brawls. A lot of athletes are competitive, cocky and driven to succeed, but rarely does that attitude spread like a rumor through an entire region.
In 1979-80, Bird started every game and won Rookie of the Year. The Celtics won 61 games, at the time an NBA record for a one-season improvement. A year later, with some help from Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, Bird won his first title, and the Legend of Larry was born.
One moment that probably won't be immortalized in Springfield: On a warm day in late June 1981, 100,000 fans descended upon City Hall Plaza to celebrate the Celtics' first title since 1976. The TV stations treated the occasion like a presidential inauguration and politicians tried to steal a piece of the goodwill.
After a few forgettable remarks to the crowd, Bird spotted an X-rated sign that made light of rival Moses Malone's dining habits. "Moses does eat [expletive deleted]," he announced. As the blow-dried TV types gasped, the mob erupted in laughter and applause.
The biggest star in the city always knew how to talk to the little people, his people. Bird was usually the last one to leave the locker room at the end of the night, but he often found time to stop and play liar's poker with the security guard. Of course, more often than not, he bluffed the poor guard out of a buck, plucking the bill from his victim's hand as he headed for his car.
Bird grew up dirt poor in Indiana and once worked on the back of a garbage truck, and he clung to his blue-collar ways as fiercely as he fought for a rebound. He wouldn't cross a picket line or buy Japanese. He would engage writers or equipment guys in $5 shooting contests and celebrate those victories with the same glee that came from winning his three $10,000 three-point shooting titles.
He loved his beer, but not enough to pay $7 a bottle for it. Can't let a bartender beat you like that. While his high-rolling Dream Teammates dropped tens of thousands at the tables in Monte Carlo casinos as they prepared for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Bird stopped by the hotel bar for a cold one. When the bartender passed Bird a bottle and informed him of the price, Larry Legend walked away, still thirsty but proud. "You can keep your $7 beer," he said.
Years earlier, in a less pricey pub in Dallas, Bird looked up from his beverage to see waves of young people roaming the neighborhood. He asked Boston Globe scribe Dan Shaughnessy what was going on and was told that Bruce Springsteen was playing nearby.
"Who's he?" asked Bird.
"Who's he?!?" said Shaughnessy, stunned. "Larry, he's the you of rock-and-roll."
Bird shrugged and returned to his beer.
"He must be pretty good then," he said.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Gerry Callahan is a Massachusetts native who worked for The (Lowell) Sun and Boston Herald before joining the magazine in 1994.
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