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Larry Bird, the Designated Savior of professional basketball, was being driven back to Boston following a recent visit to the sport's Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Agent Bob Woolf, who negotiated Bird's five-year contract with the Celtics—at $650,000 per, plus an estimated $325,000 signing bonus—was at the wheel of the gray Cadillac Fleetwood. Bird's contract is the most lucrative ever for an NBA rookie; indeed, only veterans David Thompson in Denver, Bill Walton in San Diego, Moses Malone in Houston and Artis Gilmore in Chicago make as much or more. Woolf glanced over at the $3.6 million man and said, "All I can say is you'd better be good."
"I'll knock 'em dead," replied Bird.
"But what if you don't?"
"Then everybody will say, 'Gee, I don't know what could have happened to him. He sure was good in college.' "
And both of them broke up laughing. Why not? Bird and Woolf have the cash; the NBA and the Celtics have the crossed fingers. If Bird is anything short of splendiferous on the court, he will be judged a failure of enormous proportions. Not since Walton came into the NBA in 1974 has there been so much interest—yea, unbridled hope—invested in a single player. Says Bird with a shrug, "Nobody expects much of a rookie." Wrong. Says Boston's new coach, Bill Fitch, "I'd say he adds a little to our expectations." Ah, come on, Bill.
Bird, like Walton, comes out of college as a player of exceptional promise, but that's hardly the only reason for the excitement he has stirred up in the pros. The central cause for all the to-do is that Bird, again like Walton, is white, while NBA rosters are predominantly black. The hope among those who think that the color of the players has a major influence on whether fans come out and tune in is that Bird will make them do both in increased numbers. However, there are those who think the NBA's apparently sagging image has nothing to do with a paucity of Great White Hopes, and Bird's among them.
"I can see why fans don't like to watch pro basketball," he says. "I don't, either. It's not exciting." If that makes those at league headquarters cringe, it is also classic Bird. He talks straight ("Very few people can turn a team around by themselves, and I'm not one of them"), he shoots straight (28.6 points per game last year at Indiana State, where he was College Player of the Year) and, most important, he passes straight. Indeed, Bob Cousy, the greatest ball handler in the league's history, says, "He has exceptional passing ability, the best I've ever seen." Nonetheless, Fitch cautions, "Yeah, but if the guys he's passing to are throwing up bricks, well, Bird won't be too good."
Speculation about Walton's signing with San Diego (see page 102) and the subsequent debate over compensation for Portland, Walton's old team, generated plenty of headlines during the off-season (both months of it). But just as much talk centered on the negotiations and signings involving Bird and another rookie on the left coast, former Michigan State whiz-bang Earvin (Magic) Johnson, 20, now with the Los Angeles Lakers. Former UCLA Coach John Wooden says, "Frankly, it has been difficult for me to understand how the Lakers could lose with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They shouldn't have needed Magic to win. With him, surely they will."
Surely. For Magic has exuberance that registers an 8.5 on the Richter scale, which is the main missing ingredient in the pro game. There are those who snipe that he can't jump well, can't play defense at all, can't be a guard at 6'8" and can't shoot well enough to play forward. All he can do, it seems, is get his team to win by finding fast-break opportunities when there seem to be none and repeatedly making passes of star quality. Los Angeles Assistant Coach Paul Westhead says, "He's like an artist. He creates basketball as he goes along." Laker General Manager Bill Sharman says his only concern about Johnson is that "he has had so much success so quickly that I hope we don't expect too much too soon."
For his part, Magic says, "I discovered as a kid that the way to win was not to have a bunch of guys who could shoot 20-foot jump shots. What we'd do is get five average guys who could shoot layups. Then we'd pass—and win."