Larry Joe Bird emerged from the Boston Celtics' locker room at their practice site, Hellenic College in Brookline, Mass., last Friday afternoon, wearing jeans, an LSU Tigers cap (a gift from a fan) and a resigned expression. A pair of soft brown shoes covered the most-analyzed feet in the NBA since those of Bird's former teammate Bill Walton. "Right now, as we're standing here, I have pain," said Bird, shaking his head. Surgery awaited him in the next 24 hours, but to Bird that wasn't the bad part. The bad part was that he faced between three and four months of rigorous rehabilitation.
"I've always said the main advantage of playing basketball was you only had to put in two hours a day to get your work done," said Bird, who, in fact, has always spent countless hours honing his skills. "Now, with what I've got to do in rehab [swimming, riding a stationary bike] it's going to take six hours to accomplish the same thing." Nonetheless, Bird will have a lot of hours to fill: no pregame shooting rites, no backgammon and card games on airplanes, no trying to slip unnoticed past autograph hounds in a hotel.
On the bright side, he may have the time to get his dark-blue Lincoln Continental inspected (it's five months overdue). Or he may be able to monitor more closely the path of his contract with the Celtics. Bird negotiated an extension but hasn't signed it because of salary-cap technicalities. The contract will pay him $1.8 million in 1988-89 and the same amount next season, and about $4.2 million in each of the '90-91 and '91-92 seasons. Regardless of how well he recovers from last week's surgery, Bird will earn those sums.
But outside of those things, what will Bird do with his free time? He thought for a moment and then said, "Well, maybe I'll take up roofing."
By 4:30 on Saturday afternoon, Bird's sense of humor was presumably intact, but he was missing one small bone spur in the Achilles tendon of each foot. The spurs had been the source of much misery over the past two years. Just as he is on the court, Bird was double-teamed during the 90-minute operation at Boston's New England Baptist Hospital. Team doctor Arnold Scheller cut a spur that was one fifth of an inch long and one sixth of an inch wide from one of Bird's ankles, and Roger Mann, an eminent foot surgeon from San Francisco, cut an identical-sized spur from the other. Both doctors pronounced the surgery "very successful." Still, no one can say for sure whether Bird, who turns 32 on Dec. 7 and has 862 NBA regular-season and playoff games behind him, will ever again be the player he was before the surgery.
Ditto for his team. Already an unbalanced mixture of very old, very young and very little in between, Boston suddenly finds itself adrift in the Atlantic Division without the rudder that has kept it on course since 1979. Bird could miss as many as 57 games. Consider leprechaun-hunting season officially open in the NBA.
One of the league's truly horrible teams, the Washington Bullets, took two shots last weekend, grazing the Celtics in Boston on Friday night before losing 114-108 and then gunning them down 108-104 in Landover, Md., on Saturday. That defeat dropped Boston's record to 4-5. While the Celtics aren't likely to fall apart without Bird—"Let's see, they're down to only four All-Stars now," says Brendan Suhr, the Atlanta Hawks' director of scouting—the idea of Boston settling into, say, the sixth, seventh or even eighth playoff spot in the East isn't unthinkable.
In the six games that Bird played this season, Boston wasn't even that good. He tried to play through the pain that had been bothering him since the Celtics' trip to Madrid for the McDonald's Open in mid-October, but all he got for his efforts was soreness and frustration, and all the Celtics got was a 2-4 start, their worst since 1978-79, the season before Bird roosted in Boston. When he finally called it quits after a game against the Miami Heat on Nov. 15, Bird's numbers weren't that bad—19.3 points per game on .471 shooting, 6.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists—but he was hardly playing like a future Hall of Famer.
He shot only one free throw against the 76ers in a 129-115 loss at Philadelphia on Nov. 5 and didn't get to the line at all in a 108-100 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 12. The king of the three-point shot had not even attempted one this season. Of his 37 rebounds, only one was offensive. Whenever Bird would feed the ball inside to Kevin McHale or Robert Parish, he was done for that possession; he would drift back on defense instead of moving to get open on the perimeter of the offense or following a teammate's shot in hopes of getting a rebound. And the real bad news was that his offense shone in comparison with his inconsistent defensive play.
"My teammates used to look to me for 30 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, something like that," said Bird on Friday. "Now they wanted to say, Hey, get off the court!" He laughed mirthlessly, because it was true. His pride hurt more than his ankles, and his ankles hurt real bad. So he finally decided, after two weeks of indecision and media speculation, to have the operation.