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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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The hard part, Bird seems bent on proving, isn't that you can't go home again. The hard part is showing the ones who never left that the best part of you never left either. Bird will pick up the $17 Thursday night beer tab, until, Clark says, "the minute he senses that you expect him to pick it up." Bird may pull down $2 million or $3 million a year, but when his little brother Eddie—the best player on the Indiana State team—got a D in one course, Bird took back the Jeep he had given him. "It's damned inconvenient for Eddie." Gibson says, "but Larry won't budge till he gets rid of that D." If money isn't going to change Larry Bird, Larry Bird doesn't see why his money should change anybody else, either.

So Larry goes down to the bait shop, and he goes fishing with Max Pluris, who is fixing up Bird's house, and he paints his grandmother's house, and everybody out of town makes a huge to-do about how everybody in French Lick treats him just like he's normal.

Well, big deal.

He is normal.

Around his freshman year in high school, when other fires were being lit in most boys his age. Bird's love for basketball began to blossom. He had shot up to just over six feet and a scrawny 135 pounds, and, to his amazement, his father promised him 20 bucks if he made the freshman team.

From a father who didn't shoot around with his boys, this made a real impact. Would your dad be proud of you now? "He was proud," Bird snaps back emphatically. "Even then he was proud of what all his boys had done."

Joe Bird's drinking made it difficult for him to be an idol to his son, but the people who know Larry suspect that many of his strong principles trace back to the man who struggled with his demons. "I remember one time," Larry says. "I was 13, or 14 maybe, and my father came home with an ankle all black and blue and red—out to here." He holds up his hands, almost a foot apart. "He needed me and my brother just to get his boot off, and he was in awful pain, but the next morning we got the boot back on, and he went to work." Pause. "That really made an impression on me."

From his mother, Larry seems to have drawn a sense of responsibility and determination—what could, in its darkest moments, be called stubbornness. "Oh, I can be moody, like Mom," he says. "One thing can make me mad for two days. Only she'll stay mad over one thing for two months."

This is balanced by a playful, almost childish sense of humor that, even when it verges on meanness, leaves everybody laughing and saying, "Well, that's just Larry." Once he inspected a used car Clark was thinking of buying and told him that the muffler bearings were hopelessly shot. Clark went back to the salesman and accused him of trying to cheat him. "You think I can't tell when the muffler bearings are gone?" Clark screamed. There are no such things as muffler bearings.

Once at a drive-in theater Dinah left the car, heading for the refreshment stand, and Larry drove it to another space. Dinah comes back, loaded up with Cokes and popcorn, and the car isn't there. So Larry toots the horn, and she heads in that direction, and then some other wiseacre toots his horn and she turns that way, and everybody starts tooting, and there's Dinah, standing in the middle, literally holding the bag.

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