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His influence felt, seen everywhere
Posted: Wed September 30, 1998
The games at noon time at the Newton (Mass.) YMCA changed after Larry Bird came to Boston. For one thing, guys started to reach down and wipe the soles of their sneakers with their hands during every stop in the action. Old guys. Young guys. Guys.
"Why are you doing that?" I would ask.
"Larry does it," the young guys, old guys would reply.
"Why does Larry do it?" I would ask.
"He wants to clean off the bottoms of his shoes so he doesn't slide," the young guys, old guys would say. "Or maybe he wants to get his hands a little dirty so he can hold onto the ball better. Or maybe ... tell the truth, I don't know why he does it. Just the fact he does it is good enough for me."
Anything he did was copied. Everything. His moves, his very expressions, tumbled down through the phylums of the athletic world and landed, kerplunk, at this bottom level. Chubby insurance executives suddenly were trying to execute the proper no-look touch pass. Third-year students from nearby Boston College law school were falling back to shoot the three-pointer with an old-time, set-shot form.
There was a moveLarry would fake a pass, the defender would look toward the path he expected the ball to follow, while Larry would drive past his back to the basket. It was almost a one-man give-and-go. Everybody tried it. Firemen. Psychiatrists. Aging sportswriters. Sometimes it even worked. There was another movethe intentional miss, throwing the ball hard off the backboard, then coming full steam down the lane to collect the rebound for the layup. Everybody tried that, too.
Larry Bird was the accessible legend. His game was in his head as much at it was in his body. To try to do the things that Julius Erving or Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson would doto try to fly through the airwas impossible. To try to be, say Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, seven-feet-whatever, also was impossible. To try to think and then act like Larry Bird ... well, at least you could try.
He was the master of the little things, the smallest pieces of basketball business. He was the master of rebound position, getting to the right spot first, hooking an arm, sticking out his butt to gain leverage. He was the master of the left hand, able to drive and shoot from either side. (The fact that he was naturally left-handed, but always had played basketball righthanded did not hurt.) He was the master of anticipation, the quick step into the passing lane to intercept a pass. He was the master of all the masters, maybe even of Jordan, when it came to the fundamentals of the game.
I lived and worked in Boston through his entire 13-year run. Watching him, night after night, was the best of sports fun. He was as good to watch on the nights when the shots weren't dropping, when he almost had to score his 20 points and grab his 10 rebounds by flatout will, as he was to watch when he was nailing everything in some playoff joust with Magic and the Lakers.
One tribute, often made, is that "he made everyone around him better." Heck, he was so good he made everyone on every court in the area better.
Not great, perhaps, but better.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Leigh Montville wrote for The Boston Globe for 21 years before joining the magazine in 1989.
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