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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 little country boy in Indiana had a recurring dream. In it, he has found a million dollars cash, and he has dug a hole for it under the front porch, and he is hiding there with it. His older brothers walk up and down the steps just above him, but he stays so quiet, they don't have an inkling that their kid brother is down there with a million dollars cash. "I had that same dream all the time—over and over and over and over," says the man who was the little boy.

A lot of grown men have another dream. In it, they're Larry Bird. It's just as reasonable to imagine you're Larry Bird as to imagine you've found a million dollars. Sure, Larry Bird is 6'9", but he doesn't look particularly tall, no taller than the other tall men out there on the court. And he doesn't appear to be fantastic. He isn't sleek. He isn't fast. It seems that he can barely get his feet off the floor. He essays push shots, from another era. He's white, from another era.

But Larry Bird is not a Great White Hope. Anybody who thinks that misses the point of Larry Bird. Little white boys today would much prefer to grow up to be Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins, for however clever and hardworking, they're also truly spectacular players. They can fly. But when kids imitate Larry Bird, mostly what they do, so humdrum, is reach down and rub their hands on the bottoms of their sneakers. Even with a last name that cries out for a sassy nickname, Larry Bird remains, simply, Larry. He seems merely the sum of little bits—a bit more clever than you and me, a bit more dedicated, a bit better on his shooting touch, a bit better with...but certainly nothing out of the ordinary. Larry Bird is like when you first learn fractions and you have to change everything to 12ths—12ths!—to make it possible to add up the thirds and fourths and sixths and stuff. All the other great players are so obviously whole numbers.

And so, as improbable a basketball star as Bird is, he's tantalizingly possible. Not the Great White Hope. Never. White hopes are supposed to beat up on the other races, defend Caucasian honor. Bird is simply one of those grown-up daydreams: I wish I could be pretty; I wish I could be back in high school and know what I know now; I wish I could be king of the world; I wish I could find a million dollars; I wish I could be Larry Bird.

He looks up, chuckling at how the little boy got his dream right after all. "Well, I guess I found the million," Larry Bird says. "Even found a little more to go with it."

Bob Woolf, Bird's attorney, brings out a hotel bill dated April 6, 1979. It was for Bird and his girlfriend, Dinah Mattingly, at the Parker House, when Bird first visited Boston. Bird inspected the city, met Red Auerbach and went to a Celtics' game, wearing a hideous tan sport shirt. He watched as the home team lost its seventh in a row before 7,831 fans. That season the Celtics finished last in their division and sold out the Garden exactly once. Auerbach had sagely drafted Bird the year before, as a junior eligible, but Boston would lose the exclusive rights to him if he didn't sign soon, before the next draft. Woolf suggested a million a year, and Auerbach, apoplectic at that, countered with half a million, maybe, if you counted the perks. He said, "It's been proven. A cornerman can't dominate the game. A big man, occasionally even a guard. But one man playing a corner can't turn a franchise around."

Larry said, "I'm just from a small town, and it don't make no difference where I play at."

Boston stood solidly with Auerbach. The Globe editorialized that pro basketball had "achieved the ultimate and the ultimate appears to have limited appeal." For that matter, America appeared to stand solidly with the Globe. Bird himself said, "I can see why the fans don't like to watch pro basketball. I don't either. It's not exciting."

So Bird went back to Terre Haute, where he was finishing up at Indiana State, and played softball and hung around with Dinah. One day on the diamond he broke the index finger on his shooting hand. He ambled over to a teammate, a fellow named Danny Miracle, and shoved the twisted digit toward him. "Pull it out, Dan," Bird said. "Pull it out."

Miracle, looking at a minimum $500,000-a-year hand, recoiled in horror. "T can't do that, Larry," he said. Irked, Bird moved on to find someone who would straighten the damn thing out so he could play some more ball.

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