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Everyone marveled at his skills
Posted: Wed September 30, 1998
Larry Bird almost made me like the Celtics. That may not seem like much of a compliment, but before I gave up my allegiances to become a supposedly objective reporter, I grew up a Knicks fan in New York, where hating Boston is not a choice, it's a duty. From an early age, I despised all things Celticthe leprechaun, the parquet floor, Red Auerbach's cigar. But then this pasty-faced country kid came along and made me rethink my attitude. He destroyed the Knicks, just as he did everyone else in the league, and after a while, you had to stop being angry that he did it and start trying to figure out how he did it.
Bird looked like he had never been in the same room as a barbell. He wasn't a great leaper, hardly ever bothering to dunk. If you had timed him in the 40 you probably would have suggested that he take up bowling. Yet he somehow made fools of players who had bigger biceps, better hang times and more speed, and whether you were rooting for or against him, you had to marvel at him.
Beyond that, Bird made the game seem more accessible to anyone with modest athletic talents. To watch him excel night after night was to be reminded that instinct, vision, intelligence and diligent practice were more important than a 40-inch vertical leap. You could not help but admire him for that, no matter what your hometown team was.
I remember sitting in the stands at Madison Square Garden one night when the Celtics were in town. The New York fans were riding Bird unmercifully, calling him a hick and chanting "overrated" repeatedly during warmups. Bird never changed expression, never let on that he heard a word. Then he went out and put on a clinic. He seemed to make every jumper on offense, anticipate every pass on defense. Late in the game, he cut down the lane, took a pass from a teammate and in the same motion flicked a no-look pass over his right shoulder to Kevin McHale for a dunk. It was such a beautiful play that there was an audible gasp from the crowd, and then a burst of applause. Bird had won the tough New York fans over, and they simply had to give him his due.
Only the greatest athletes have that ability, the capacity to make an audience forget competition and appreciate individual artistry. Even if he had never won three NBA championships, three MVP awards and an Olympic gold medal, Bird would have deserved entrance into the Hall of Fame on that quality alone. The Hall is a place for artists, and Larry Bird was a creator of masterpieces.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor covers the NBA beat and appears regularly on CNN/Sports Illustrated and CNN's This Week in the NBA.
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