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SI FOR KIDS
He just loved the game
Posted: Wed September 30, 1998
It is overly simplistic to say that the fun went out of the NBA when Larry Bird bid adieu. But a lot of it did. For as much as Bird was described as the quintessential warrior, the kick-'em-in-the-ass team leader who once challenged his teammates by calling them sissies, I always thought of himas I thought of Magic Johnsonas an overgrown kid who loved the gamesmanship of basketball, loved it in a way that had nothing to do with dollars and championships and personal acclaim.
In that respect, one of my favorite Bird memories took place at the 1986 All-Star Game in Dallas, the first year that I covered the league. That was the season that the pageantry of All-Star Weekend kicked into full gear. The slam-dunk contest still seemed fresh and alive (5' 7'' Spud Webb out-skied Dominique Wilkins for the title) and the NBA was trying a new experiment called the three-point shootout. No one was sure whether the competition would be taken seriously by the players and how it would be received by the fans.
Well, Bird took it seriously. From the moment he was announced as one of the eight shootout contestants, Bird gleefully talked about the competition and proclaimed himself to be the favorite. At the time, remember, the Celtics were on their way to one of the best seasons in NBA historythey would finish at 67-15 and polish off the Houston Rockets in six games for the titleand Bird was at the height of his powers, superior to both a still-ascending Michael Jordan and a Magic who hadn't yet acquired an outside shot. But when Bird talked about the contest, he was like a school kid going after the gym-class foul-shooting record.
In Dallas, Bird approached the contest with the same kind of intensitysingle-minded yet gleeful. Obviously, he was considered one of the favorites, but there was the feeling that he was a little slow on the release, and that the man to beat was Leon Wood, a long-shooting rookie marksman from the Philadelphia 76ers. I was there when Bird approached Wood at the morning shootaround on the day of the contest.
"Leon," said Bird in his distinctive Hoosier twang, "I've been watching you. Are you shooting different than you used to?"
"I don't think so," said Wood. "Why?"
"I don't know," said Bird. "Something looks different about your release. Don't worry about it, though."
Then Bird walked away, leaving a bewildered Wood to ponder what the greatest player in the world had noticed about his form. Bird, of course, had seen nothing different. But you could've stuck a fork in Leon Wood right then because he was done.
Later, as the shooters dressed in the locker room, Bird stood up and announced, "All right, who's playing for second place?" Then he went out and dusted off Craig Hodges 22-12 in the last round, raising his finger as he released the final ball. By the time it went through the basket, Bird was already heading for the sideline, mission accomplished.
"I'm the three-point king, I'm the three-point king," a smiling Bird proclaimed after it was over.
Something about that competition has stuck with me through all these years. The simple joy that Bird got out of the contest, the elemental feeling of competition, suggested a kind of purity to me that defined Larry Bird. And a purity that you don't see much today.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum covered the NBA from 1985 through 1993 and is the author of Unfinished Business, a 1991 book about the Bird-led Celtics.
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