In the brouhaha that followed, only Bird was unflustered. When Thomas called him up shortly thereafter to explain that he had been quoted badly, that his inflection and expression had meant to convey facetious humor, Bird wouldn't even listen to Thomas, because to do so would suggest that he took Thomas's remarks seriously in the first place. Instead he handed the phone to his mother and told Thomas to explain it to her because she liked Isiah, and she was the one who was upset.
Arguments can, of course, go on forever about Bird's superiority. It's common for his teammates to say that playing with Bird reveals him to be even more remarkable than he appears to the naked eye, and there's a tendency among mature blacks and whites alike in the NBA to forgive Rodman for his callow unenlightenment. Bird himself doesn't put any more credence in the other extreme, in the greatest-ever pronouncements of people like Auerbach. "That's nice stuff to hear, but I don't believe it," he says, shrugging and then adding that he'll be quite content if history is only kind enough to speak of him in the same breath as Magic Johnson and John Havlicek. However, it is difficult to believe that any athlete in any sport has demonstrated Bird's instinctive supernatural feel for his game.
But then, as a mere mortal, Bird also possesses touch, strength, stamina, hand-eye coordination, exceptional vision—he is forever spotting friends sitting way back in the bleachers—and overall court ken. This last gift is usually most vividly explained by saying that Bird is able to conduct a game in slow motion that everyone else is playing at breakneck speed.
Yet for all these extraordinary basketball-playing attributes, it is fashionable for observers to say that Bird overcomes not being an athlete. The most amazing thing has happened in America in the past few years. The definition of the word athlete has been narrowed from the dictionary's age-old "one who is trained in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility or stamina" to exclusively mean someone who is quick (and, where it applies, can also jump high). It's understood, for example, that if it's reported that a coach needs more athletes, it means he needs some quick, black jumpers.
As a consequence, since strength, stamina, hand-eye coordination, etc., are no longer accepted as athletic attributes, when somebody like Bird succeeds in what's accepted to be an athletic endeavor, then it can only be because he's smarter and works harder than all the black guys. In Bird's case, he probably has worked as hard as anybody ever has in sport, and he does possess an incredible sixth sense, but that has no more to do with his race than it does with his Social Security number.
Indeed, the irony of criticizing Bird for taking advantage of his special racial status is that it's difficult to imagine anyone who is so evenhanded, who lives more by the creed of fairness. His best buddies are the same ones he grew up with. He still drives a Ford Bronco and dresses for it. He never met a Jew until he was 20 years old, but in Boston he lives in a Jewish neighborhood. His best friends on the Celtics fit no type. Buckner, who is black, might have grown closest to him, and Bird calls former Celtic Cedric Maxwell, another black man, "my greatest teammate by far."
When the Celtics won the title in 1984, Bird approached Auerbach and said, "I'd like to buy a [championship] ring for Walter." Walter Randall was an old equipment man and sometime trainer who died in '85. "No other player ever thought of that," Auerbach says. Rick Shaw, the team manager at Indiana State, went up to Bird on the sad flight back from the Sycamores' Final Four defeat at the hands of Michigan State in 1979 and handed him a team pennant to sign. Bird didn't just autograph it. He wrote, "Thank you for all the things you've done for me. Love, Larry." When Bird left for the All-Star Game a few years ago, Woolf said he hoped that he could carry Bird's MVP trophy back to Boston again. Bird said, "No, Mr. Woolf, this year I'd like to see Robert [Parish] get it," and in the game he worked toward that end.
From himself on the court he seeks only consistency and considers that the true mark of excellence. "But Larry's so sensitive to what his teammates need that he changes the emphasis of his game to accommodate them," says Jim Rodgers, the Celtics' senior assistant. "It's a unique form of personal consistency, concentrating on the needs of others, isn't it?"
A Celtics teammate, Bill Walton, says: "So much of it—playing, in the locker room, away from basketball—has to do with how much he cares. Larry cares about every element of everything he's involved in. With some people, the sphere of their life is so very small. The sphere of Larry's life is just huge."
And yet these embers of generosity were kindled by the most incendiary competitive fires. Even now in the Valley there's not much amazement that Larry Bird turned out to be the greatest basketball player ever—what the hell, somebody had to, so it might as well be a French Lick boy—but there is some surprise that he could rise above the family temper to reach those heights. In order to win, Bird taught himself not to get angry, rather to gain satisfaction from somebody else's hot blood. "I've learned it's a lot more fun making a shot with a guy hanging on you," he says.