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'As Nearly Perfect As You Can Get'
Jack McCallum
March 03, 1986
In a glorious seventh season, Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics is demonstrating that he may be the NBA's best player of all time
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March 03, 1986

'as Nearly Perfect As You Can Get'

In a glorious seventh season, Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics is demonstrating that he may be the NBA's best player of all time

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HOW BIRD MATCHES UP

 

SEASONS

GAMES

FG%

FT%

REB. AVG.

ASST. AVG.

POINTS

AVG.

Bird

7

533

.494

.866

10.6

5.9

12,682

23.8

Robertson

14

1,040

.485

.838

7.5

9.5

26,710

25.7

Baylor

14

846

.431

.780

13.5

4.3

23,149

27.4

West

14

932

.474

.814

5.8

6.7

25,192

27.0

Erving*

15

1,161

.507

.774

8.7

4.2

27,681

24.6

Barry*

14

1,020

.455

.893

6.7

4.8

25,279

24.8

Cousy

14

924

.375

.803

5.2

7.5

16,960

18.4

Through Feb. 23
*ABA stats included

There has never been a basketball player quite like the Celtics' Larry Joe Bird, in whom talent and tenacity rage a daily wire-to-wire battle for supremacy. Owing to the extraordinary importance of the giant pivotman in the game, it is probably impossible to declare that, in his seventh season, the 6'9", 220-pound Bird, a forward, is greater than Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—that is, the greatest player of all time. Or maybe it isn't.

"Before Bird I used to vacillate," says Bob Cousy, now a Celtics broadcaster. "The question didn't seem relevant. But Bird came along with all the skills, all the things a basketball player has to do. I think he's the greatest." Chimes in Milwaukee Bucks coach Don Nelson, "He's the best player ever to play the game." And there comes this weighty word from Westwood. "I've always considered Oscar Robertson to be the best player in the game," says John Wooden. "Now I'm not so sure that Larry Bird isn't." Even Laker general manager Jerry West, who refuses to compare players from different eras, says of Bird, "He is as nearly perfect as you can get in almost every phase of basketball."

Bird's play over the recent weeks has revealed an athlete at the height of his powers. When Kevin McHale went down with a heel injury, Bird just gritted his teeth, stooped and hefted McHale's load to his shoulders. In the Celtics' eight games since the All-Star break, Bird has averaged 30.8 points, 13.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists. But those are only numbers, and numbers don't necessarily provide a true picture when one is comparing players from different eras. "The one thing you have to avoid when you talk about Bird is statistics," says Red Auerbach. "It's his presence, the total way he commands attention on the court, that counts." Indeed, Bird reserves a spot in his personal hell (a place with no basketball courts) for the guy who plays with one eye on the stat sheet. "And there are a lot of them in this league," he says. "We've even had some here."

Inasmuch as the Celtics, with a best-in-the-league record of 43-11, have hardly missed a beat without McHale, Bird has to be the leading contender for his third straight MVP award, an accomplishment achieved in the NBA by only Russell and Chamberlain. Bird can probably count on Jack Ramsay's vote. After Bird struck for 47 points (including the game winner in overtime), 14 rebounds and 11 assists at Portland on Feb. 14, the Trail Blazer coach, a man not given to overstatement, called him "the greatest clutch player of all time." Five nights later, after Bird ravaged Golden State for 36 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists, Warrior head man John Bach went scurrying for his dictionary. "Bird's a hermaphrodite," he said. Bird might raise an eyebrow at that word, but Bach meant, in Webster's sense, "something that is a combination of diverse elements."

"As an all-around player, there's never been anyone better," said Pacer coach George Irvine, the victim of a 30-11-12 Bird line Sunday night (his sixth triple double of the season). "A unique phenomenon," says San Antonio veteran Artis Gilmore of Bird.

If Auerbach will turn his head for a moment, it can be noted that Bird is the only player listed among the season leaders in five different statistical categories. They include, of course, scoring (fifth at 25.3) and rebounding (ninth at 10.1), but these don't begin to address his uniqueness. He's the third-leading free-throw shooter at 89.3% and the only full-time player in the top six. A man's free-throw accuracy tends to decrease with playing time, but that doesn't hold for the indefatigable Bird, who said last week, "I have only one real goal in this league: to play every minute of every single game." (He averages 38.9 minutes and hasn't missed a game this season; in the preseason, Bird's back had been so bad that he had "almost counted out the whole year.") The top three-point shooters in the league are small, jump-shooting guards...except for Bird and Dallas forward Dale Ellis. Lightning-quick black athletes—such as Alvin Robertson, Clyde Drexler, Maurice Cheeks, Isiah Thomas—are the league leaders in steals...except for Bird, in eighth place with 2.19, the slow, white guy, the guy whom Portland's Mychal Thompson admiringly calls "the greatest white player to play a black man's sport." Amazing.

Can it be said that, at the very least, Bird is the best forward ever? "No question," says Bullets coach Gene Shue. "There will be no one to compare with Oscar Robertson and Jerry West at guard and Bird at forward." Many agree. Others, who insist that longevity must be considered, still favor Elgin Baylor, citing his excellence over 14 seasons, and a smaller group gives the nod to 15-year veteran Julius Erving for his seminal stylistic contributions. But the facts point to Bird. (See chart, above.) He doesn't defy gravity in the manner of Baylor and Erving, it's nomenclature that he kicks the absolute hell out of. "Bird is a totally unique player," says Pete Newell, Golden State's director of player personnel and one of the game's keenest minds. "There has never been a forward who does so many things so well." In the final analysis it may be simply impossible to compare Bird with others at his position, the ultimate compliment. "The only comparison that comes to my mind is Oscar, a guard," says Bach. But even Robertson didn't possess Bird's shooting range or rebounding ability.

Bird, who has never been accused of false modesty, clings to the position (publicly at least) that Magic Johnson is the game's best active player. "He makes his teammates better to a greater degree than I do. It's his character, not just his abilities," says Bird.

But the same is true of Bird who, at the age of 29, at last seems comfortable with being Larry Bird. And just who is that?

First of all, it's someone who plays with a recklessness and intensity that are as unfathomable as they are unfashionable. With time running out in the first half of the Golden State game last week, Bird crashed into the seats in pursuit of a loose ball—there are any number of All-Stars who wouldn't do that in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. It's someone who, like Muhammad Ali, challenges himself by boasting. Last year in the fifth game of the Eastern Conference semifinal against Detroit, Bird stared at Isiah Thomas, who had just led a Piston charge, and said, "Are you through?"

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