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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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"No." Pause. " Mr. Woolf, I thought you told me this was an important call."

His unbending ways would seem to make it even more difficult for him because, vocationally, his world is upside down. Everywhere but in basketball he is the classic American hero: a tall white Protestant heterosexual Anglo-Saxon male. But in his professional life Bird is a racial minority (and, in his stature in this profession, an absolute anomaly). Many young whites in basketball are uncomfortable, if not downright intimidated, by this reversal, but Bird revels in being the odd man out. "I like it like that," he beams, positively gushing. Once he was very poor, and now he is very white.

Because there are almost no blacks in rural Indiana and because Bird didn't play with any blacks in high school, most people are under the impression that he was able to cultivate his game in a racial vacuum, so to speak, growing the sort of what-he-don't-know-won't-hurt-him confidence that city whites are unable to develop because they get shot after shot bashed back in their noses. In fact, all during his adolescence, Bird played pickup games against older blacks who worked at the Springs Hotel. Early on he knew exactly what he was up against. So he learned to shoot falling away, to fake, to develop his natural ambidextrous bent (he both writes and eats lefthanded) and later to shoot better and farther out.

Invariably too much is made of the fact that the boss or the diva or the senator works longer hours than the laborer. Of course, the top dogs do. They also make more money, get more credit and have more fun. Still, the hours that Bird devotes to his job are astonishing. "I've taken a lot of jump shots in my day," he says. But perhaps even more enlightening is the fact that despite the grind of the NBA, which is accentuated in Bird's case because he gets so much attention, and despite the fact that he's so good that he admits he often gets bored because it's all so easy, despite all that, there have been only two occasions in the more than 800 games he has played in the NBA in which he felt he didn't give an honest day's work for the dollar, when he went home and asked Dinah, "Did it look like I was hustling out there tonight?"

However he performs, Bird is back in spirit, renewed for the next game. At the Boston Garden when the national anthem is played, Bird gazes to the heavens. Everyone assumes that he's looking at the Celtics banners, but ironically, he began to fix his eyes on only one banner—the retired No. 4. But not retired by the Celtics. The No. 4 belonged to the Bruins' Bobby Orr. Bird has stared at the black and gold banner so many times, he can see it in his mind's eye. He knows every stitch, how many lines pierce the circle around the capital B. "Eight. Don't bet me," he says.

Bird had met Orr only once and had never seen him play, but he had heard how great he was as a player and had learned how much Boston admired Orr as a person. Bird had been too bashful ever to tell Orr this, though, and revealed it only last month in his speech at the Sports Museum dinner, where Orr was on hand for the unveiling of Bird's statue. When Orr heard Bird speak of him, the breath went out of him in a whoosh, and there were tears in his eyes.

"My god," Orr whispered in the dark. "My god."

Bird won't ever reduce his commitment to his sport. "You've got to understand," he says. "My whole life's been basketball. It was never a recreation for me. It was something I fell in love with." The coming irreconcilable conflict in his life is how he can give up this passion while he still has a breath in his pale body. Yet how could he keep playing the game at a less than perfect level? For now, he says he's "95 percent sure" that he will hang up his jock after the 1990 season, when he would be 33� years old.

For however long he plays, though, Bird will always draw more attention—even suspicion and scrutiny—because he is the Caucasian aberration. This fact bubbled over last May after the Celtics edged the Pistons in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals. Emotions were so raw that Chuck Daly, the Detroit coach, shut the door and urged the players to "watch what you say," but shortly after the press flooded in, a distraught young forward, Dennis Rodman, blurted out that Bird was "very overrated," a regular winner of the MVP only because of his race.

Smelling blood, reporters repeated these remarks to Isiah Thomas, who seemed to concur, saying, "If Bird was black, he'd be just another good guy."

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