Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh thought it would be a nice gesture to take his new coach, Larry Bird, to breakfast in May. He chose a bustling downtown Indianapolis restaurant where he'd eaten, undisturbed, numerous times. But when Walsh ushered Bird inside, the noisy patrons quieted after one collective gasp. "They looked like they'd seen a ghost," says Walsh.
The Bird sighting caught the restaurant's other customers by surprise. He had been out of basketball—and the public eye—for more than five years. Since retiring from the Boston Celtics because of back injuries, Bird had surfaced only fleetingly for charity outings, appearances on behalf of Miller Lite beer for its campaign against drunken driving, and cameos in his role as the Celtics' special assistant to team owner Paul Gaston.
He had spent his winters in Naples, Fla., with his wife, Dinah, playing golf, tending to his flower garden and watching his children—Connor, 6, and Mariah, 4—grow. In the summer he took his family home to French Lick, Ind., the country town where he was raised. French Lick (pop. 2,164) is less than 2½ hours south of Indianapolis, and yet for the blanket of privacy it afforded Bird, it might as well have been halfway across the world. Nobody asked Bird for an autograph in French Lick except tourists.
But in that Indianapolis restaurant the waiters were suddenly besieged for their pens. By the time Bird had finished his meal, more than a hundred fans had gotten him to sign. Dozens more were waiting for him outside. Motorists pulled over to the curb, hoping for a glimpse of him. Bird's appointment in May as coach was the biggest coup in the Pacers' 30-year history, and Indianapolis was embracing—or was it suffocating?—its new savior. "Jeez," said Walsh, when he and Bird finally had escaped. "I forgot you were a damned icon."
Bird had never forgotten. How could he have? He'd spent most of his adult life avoiding crowds and cameras. A quiet dinner out, a stroll down a city street, a trip to an amusement park? No way. Going to the movies was possible, but only if Bird waited until the theater lights had dimmed and the film had started so he could slip quietly into the back row, a baseball cap jammed over his blond hair.
During the 1985 NBA Finals, while Bird was warming up for the second half of a game against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Forum, Boston coach K.C. Jones pulled him aside and informed him that a threat had been made on his life. NBA security personnel were positioned throughout the arena, Jones explained, and Bird could either return, under guard, to the Celtics' hotel, retreat to the locker room or continue playing. Bird went back to his spot in the layup line. "Larry, I see you're still out here," said Jones.
"Of course, K.C, it's the Finals," Bird replied.
"Great," Jones said. "But do me a favor. When we go back to the huddle to start the second half, could you stand at center court? I'm afraid this guy might be a bad shot."
When the time came, Bird ran directly into the center of the huddle and draped his arm over Jones's shoulder.
Bird encountered a more direct death threat in '86 when he walked out of the Celtics' hotel in Milwaukee with off-duty Indiana state trooper Tom Hill. A man leaped from behind a parked car and pulled out a hunting knife. He cursed Bird and announced his plan to cut him up. Hill advised the assailant to rethink his position, and he did, returning to his car and driving off.