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Jack McCallum
November 28, 1988
The struggling Celtics have lost Larry Bird to bone spurs until at least March
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November 28, 1988

The Bird Is Grounded

The struggling Celtics have lost Larry Bird to bone spurs until at least March

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"Everything I did hurt," said Bird. "Running, sliding on defense. My shooting wasn't as affected as other areas—maybe I couldn't jump as high as I normally do to get my shot off, but that isn't very high anyway—but when I'd plant and shoot, there would be a lot of pain."

Bird might have had the surgery earlier had it not been for the influence of two people—Walton, who still isn't officially retired from basketball, and Dan Dyrek, a physical therapist in Boston and a close friend of Bird's. Two weeks ago Bird called Walton, who's recuperating in San Diego from—what else?—foot surgery, which he had in September. Walton, who once defined minor surgery as "something they do to someone else," urged caution. Of more significance to Bird was the counsel of Dyrek, who advocated manual manipulation of the ankle area.

Ultimately, though, the pain caused by the spurs' rubbing against the Achilles tendons and the nerves in the heels—Bird likened the sensation to "running with little knives in my shoes"—became too great, so Bird agreed to follow the recommendation of Scheller and at least half a dozen other specialists and have the spurs removed. "I've been living on the edge for two years," said Bird. "It was time to get it done."

The procedure was fairly straightforward—the spurs were cut away with scalpel and chisel. The tricky part was to get at them without damaging the tendons in which they lay. Scheller and Mann had to separate the fibers of the tendons before removing the spurs. Indeed, the length of Bird's recovery will depend on how much damage was done to the tendons. In a postsurgery press conference, Scheller said that "30 percent of the surface area of the tendon was involved," which is about what he had expected.

"I think he'll come back," continued Scheller. "There were no degenerative changes in the tendon."

If Bird tries to come back too soon, he could risk tendon damage and other complications. Scheller has revised his original three-month rehab estimates to 3� to four months. That means Bird could be back in uniform in mid-March, with nearly a month left in the regular season—plenty of time to get ready for the playoffs. Says Dr. Anthony Daly, a noted orthopedic surgeon who examined Bird last year, "If he comes back too soon, [the injuries] could recalcify." Meanwhile the rest of the Celtics will try to hang in there. As of Sunday the team had not made a roster change to replace Bird, and apparently it was in no hurry to do so, believing that this is the time to allow its young players to emerge. Besides, say the Celts, trying to find someone of Bird's versatile talents would be futile. "We lost a great scorer, rebounder, passer and presence," says coach Jimmy Rodgers. "Outside of that, he's just an average guy."

At the moment, Boston's small forward is a three-headed player who can shoot ( Jim Paxson, though he lacks Bird's three-point range), post up and score inside ( Reggie Lewis, but he's not the passer Bird is) and take a head of blond hair onto the floor (Brad Lohaus). None of the three, however, including the 7-foot Lohaus, can rebound like Bird, and certainly none of them will be double-teamed. That means even more defensive pressure will be put on Parish and McHale.

In fact, as odd as it may seem given Bird's deserved reputation as a mediocre one-on-one defender, the Celtics might miss his defense most of all. His savvy and size (6'9") enable him to guard any of the opposition's frontcourt players. Against the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks, for example, Bird frequently stuck with the center, which left the pesky, long-armed McHale to harass the smaller, point-conscious forwards Adrian Dantley and Dominique Wilkins. Now, because neither the 6'6" Paxson nor the 6'7" Lewis (who are, after all, really shooting guards) has the size to check big people, McHale will have to perform that task, and point guard Dennis Johnson, a man of formidable defensive credentials, will sometimes come down and try to stop the hot forward. D.J. doesn't need the extra responsibility. At 34, he's playing at a steady but hardly spectacular little-engine-that-could pace.

Even for those six games they had Bird, the Celtics were out of sync. "They don't seem as sure of things," said Milwaukee forward Terry Cummings after the Bucks' Nov. 12 win over Boston. A Celtics team that isn't "sure of things"?

For one thing, Bird isn't the only player who's injured. Johnson is battling recurring tendinitis in his right Achilles tendon, and shooting guard Danny Ainge has missed four games with a strained medial collateral ligament in his right knee. Ainge says he's now "about 90 percent." If his injury flares up again, rookie Brian Shaw will go to point guard, and Johnson will move to shooting guard, a position with which he's unfamiliar.

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