Don't ever think that Bird did not have fun on the basketball court. The idea that he was enslaved by a Hoosier work ethic is absurd. When he was in a talking mood, he dispensed as much trash on the court as Muhammad Ali did in the ring, and no one ever said that Ali did not have fun. Bird's line of chatter was neither vicious nor vindictive—though it was annoying to the opposition; just ask even-tempered Julius Erving, who grabbed Bird by the throat in a memorable 1984 confrontation in Boston Garden—it was Larry's way of having fun. Yes, he respected the game, and, yes, he worked hard for his money, but basketball was not a religion for him, as some have claimed. At the end of an otherwise forgettable game against the Golden State Warriors several seasons ago, Bird rose from the bench a few seconds before the final buzzer and flicked a towel at a Warrior shooter just as he released a shot from near the sideline. The player winced, then stared angrily as Bird walked away, smug and serene.
More than most players, Bird had a fan's appreciation of the game. He liked to talk about basketball and rate the players, and his judgments, while not unerring, were excellent. A group of reporters named its Rotisserie basketball league the Larry Bird League not only because its scoring system favored the all-around. Bird-like player, but also because Bird himself annually drew lots to determine the order of the league's draft. He would never admit it, but the small honor pleased him.
In contrast to Magic and Jordan, Bird was not comfortable in the spotlight at first. He neither understood nor appreciated the demands of his celebrity, and for the life of him he could not comprehend why he needed to explain, say, the arc of his three-point shot to a bunch of reporters. Gradually he grew to enjoy the process and became one of the game's better interviews. He still wore his fame casually, like a Springs Valley High School letter sweater draped over his shoulder, but he knew it was there. Yet, there was a reticence about Bird that made him unpredictable, even mysterious. Whereas Michael and Magic were almost always good for a quote, Bird would frequently slip out the back door. That was his right, of course, but it definitely wound up costing him some public relations points over the years.
He couldn't have cared less. It might be a cliché to call him the Hick from French Lick, but it's true. To some that meant his life was an American dream come true, the small-town kid who turned into a big-time hero.
During the 1987 All-Star weekend in Seattle, Bird was in the NBA hospitality suite one afternoon munching cheese and talking to Celtics executive Jan Volk, when NBA Entertainment debuted its Bird video on a big-screen TV in the suite. Snippets of Bird in action—hitting a three-pointer, throwing a no-look redirect to Kevin McHale—rolled across the screen against the sound track of John Cougar Mellencamp singing Small Town. Bird was surprised when the video came on but quickly turned his back to it, as if it were a documentary on copper mining or something. On it played, a fine organic blend of song and scene, Mellencamp singing about the small town while Bird launched himself into the scats for a loose ball, punched the air after a key basket and just generally outhustled the free world. On and on, as the enraptured audience watched, and Bird stood with his back to the screen.