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A Player For The Ages
Frank Deford
March 21, 1988
Boston's Larry Bird, in what may be his finest season, gets Red Auerbach's vote—over Bill Russell—as the best ever
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March 21, 1988

A Player For The Ages

Boston's Larry Bird, in what may be his finest season, gets Red Auerbach's vote—over Bill Russell—as the best ever

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Back in Boston, Woolf stood by his demands, and his children were hounded and threatened in school. Finally Auerbach and Woolf settled on a $650,000-a-year deal, which made Bird the highest paid rookie ever. Now the pressure was squarely on Bird. He shrugged and said, "If I fail, I fail. I've failed classes before. I know the feeling."

But the Celtics were saved. Within a year, not a seat was available in Boston Garden, and one hasn't been for going on nine seasons. The Celtics went from 29-53 in 1978-79 to 61-21 in '79-80, best in the league, and they've never had a losing month since the cornerman, who couldn't possibly turn a franchise around, joined them.

Several weeks ago, at a $1,500-a-couple dinner honoring Bird, with the proceeds going to the New England Sports Museum, a $250,000 statue of Bird by Armand LaMontagne was unveiled. Auerbach stood up that night and said, "If I had to start a team, the one guy in all history I would take would be Larry Bird. This is the greatest ballplayer who ever played the game." To say this took an extraordinary amount of "soul-searching" on Auerbach's part. It meant that Bill Russell was No. 2.

Today the Celtics are in first place, as usual, and Bird, at the age of 31, is enjoying what may well be his finest season in spite of a broken nose and a fractured bone under his left eye, which has forced him to wear protective goggles. He has even slimmed down some, and not long ago, driving along in his Ford Bronco with Dinah, he put out his hand to her. Larry has been in love with Dinah for 12 years, and she in love with him. In his hand was a big diamond ring. He said, "You can wear this if you want to." She opted to.

Now, the most illuminating thing in this whole saga is that hotel bill from 1979. You see, except for the basic room charge and the tax, there was nothing else on it. No room service, no restaurant charge, no long-distance phone calls, no nothing. Having dealt with many other athletes, Woolf naturally assumed that the kid would charge at will. But that wasn't how Larry Joe Bird was raised back in French Lick, Indiana.

"Larry has a way of making everybody he comes into contact with a better person," Woolf says. "If you think the Larry Bird on the court has character and is unselfish—well, off the court he's even more so." Among those who know Bird well, the same catalog of qualities is cited again and again: honest, loyal, steadfast, dependable—his existence shaped by the contradictory, almost mystical ability to be the cynosure, yet always to contribute to those around him. Mel Daniels, who was an assistant coach at Indiana State when Bird played there, said it best: "It's like a piece of Larry goes to each player by the things he does." Tony Clark, a Terre Haute radio executive who grew up with Bird, says, "Larry epitomizes the word friend. Do you understand that?"

Yes.

"Then you really don't have to know anything else about him."

Evidently what we see of him in public, working at his vocation, is an extension of the person. It hasn't always been easy to understand this, though, because Bird is an exceptionally private man. Of course, every celebrity loves to swear that he's really very shy. It's an appealing lie. But Bird is shy. Bill Hodges, the coach who helped recruit him for Indiana State, says, "Larry was the most shy and introverted guy I'd ever been around in my life." Bird was so self-conscious in high school that he wouldn't go to watch his older brother Mark—who also wore No. 33 and was a star for Springs Valley High—play basketball until his final varsity game. It ran in the family. "My father was proud of us, but he wouldn't go see us play," Larry says. "Dad didn't like crowds either."

The son's inherited inhibitions were magnified by the fact that he was thrust into the glare as if he were some archeological treasure. Before his junior year at Indiana State, Bird was an unknown quantity on a second-level team. Moreover, even then, a decade ago, there already existed the reverse racism that makes basketball cognoscenti chary of any white player.

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