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NavigationLarry Bird: 33Navigation

He was worth the wait

By Jackie MacMullan, Sports Illustrated

Posted: Wed September 30, 1998

The first time Larry Bird met Red Auerbach, he was traveling up the escalator at the Peachtree Hotel in Atlanta, as the legendary boss of the Boston Celtics was coming down.

Bird was only a sophomore at Indiana State, not yet an icon, only a young kid from the country who showed the kind of drive and promise worthy of an invitation to a college all-star game in Atlanta, and a free stay at the Peachtree. He recognized Auerbach instantly, and sputtered out an awkward "hello" when Auerbach stuck out his hand and gave Bird a shake as their descending and ascending paths briefly crossed on the electric stairs.

"I wonder what he's doing here," Bird said to one of his teammates.

"I was there to see Bird," Auerbach would confirm years later. "My college guys had put the word out: He was something special. I wanted to see for myself."

It was Auerbach who determined that the Celtics would use the sixth pick in the 1978 draft to select the junior-eligible Bird, knowing full well that Boston would have to wait an entire season for his services before he would assume his place in the timeline of the historic franchise. Auerbach was willing to be patient. He was gambling that Larry Bird would prove to be worth the wait.

Auerbach was never more prophetic. From the moment Bird slipped on his No. 33 jersey, he captivated his new city with his wit, his honesty, his working-class charm and his stunning abilities. In one short season, Bird accomplished the impossible: He supplanted the legendary hockey hero, Bobby Orr, whose status had been preserved despite having been traded to Chicago three years earlier, as the most popular athlete in Boston.

Bird won the affection of his fans with a disarming frankness and a fierce determination to offset the glare of stardom by stubbornly remaining true to himself. With the money from his first pro contract, he bought a modest home and a truck. The Mercedes and the Rolex watches, he explained later, were not part of his equation. He delighted in mowing his own lawn at his Brookline home until he realized that fans were stopping in the middle of the road to gawk, snap a picture or strike up a conversation.

"It wasn't good for the traffic pattern of the neighborhood," sighed Bird when he confirmed that he had finally put his mower away and hired someone else to tend to his yard.

When he came to Boston, Bird knew little about the NBA. He did not recognize his coach, Bill Fitch, at his first press conference. He would later confess that he could care less about most players and their accolades, yet that did not deter him from leading the Celtics to three championships and picking up three MVP trophies for himself. His brilliance on the floor was accented by his willingness to take the biggest and the toughest shot, night after night. He craved the pressure and relished the role of being the one who would accept responsibility for the outcome of the big game.

"There is no such thing as a bad shot," Bird once said, "unless it doesn't go in."

His game was molded by a collection of intangibles and cemented by his court vision and unrelenting competitiveness. He was neither the biggest, fastest, smoothest or strongest player, but he was the most focused, the most cunning, the most determined. He pushed on through an array of excruciating injuries to his back, heels and elbow that would have forced most players into retirement years before, but as long as the Celtics were in sight of a championship, Bird played on.

When he was on top, he would toy with opponents by explaining to his defender, as he was receiving the ball, precisely how he would beat him off the dribble, cut right, then pull up for a 20-footer. Then, of course, he would do exactly that.

In the final season of his career, ravaged by back problems that would eventually require fusion surgery, the swagger of that invincible Bird was gone. In its place was a proud, battered warrior who should have been on the table in an operating room but vowed to stagger across the finish line instead because the people of Boston had paid good money to watch him play.

Those people will tell you the joy of watching Bird was priceless. His career is a preserved gift that grows more valuable as each day passes. "There will never be another Larry Bird," declared Auerbach, who knows something special when he sees it.

"Just as well,'' said Bird, when told of Auerbach's comments. "Maybe the next guy can jump higher."

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jackie MacMullan spent 13 years at The Boston Globe, including eight covering the Celtics, before joining the magazine in 1996.

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