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Still, to the dismay of Boston fans yearning for an instant return to glory, Dave Cowens, who as player-coach led the Celtics to a last-place finish in the Atlantic Division last season, says, "This team needs a lot more than Larry Bird. Whether he has a tremendous impact on us depends on the players he plays with." To that, Cousy adds hope: "Bird will make everyone else play better."
The amount of money Bird got is too much, even though it's the going rate. Woolf agrees and says it would be especially awful "if Larry doesn't put out 100%." Bird grins as he says, "I will, Mr. Woolf, I will. I know I ain't gonna be great right off, but I ain't afraid to get out there and try. You never know which point will be the most important one." For the Celtics, the most important point was getting him signed, for they know Bird can do a ton for them in many areas. Ticket sales in Boston Garden, for example, have skyrocketed almost 25%.
Only injury is cited by basketball experts as an eventuality that could keep stardom from his door. Most feel that, at the worst, he will start out as merely good and then get great. In his first exhibition game Bird scored 18 points against Philadelphia, followed that with 13 against Washington and then he erupted for 36 in a loss to the Knicks in which he made half of his 24 shots, added 15 rebounds and left a vivid impression. Former Marquette Coach Al McGuire thinks the money may be a weight around his neck, that black players will be particularly anxious to handcuff him and that he is a bit slow afoot. "I make up for it by being smart," says Bird. While it may be only speed that Bird lacks, Cousy contends that when it comes to superstars, "Speed definitely separates the men from the boys."
Pro basketball is and always has been littered with college stars who failed to fulfill their promise in the pros. Even Tom Gola and Bill Bradley, two of the best college players ever—and, interestingly, both white guys who were a bit slow afoot—failed to become transcendent pros. They were only solid. Says Bird, "If I fail, I fail. I've failed classes before. I know the feeling."
It is unlikely that Bird will fail, what with his unerring accuracy from the outside (the new three-point rule helps him), but his preference is to pass. "If the other guys score," says Bird, "you start seeing a gleam in their eyes. Besides, passing is more of an art than scoring." At a recent dinner on Cape Cod, Ethel Kennedy asked him what he liked most about basketball. "Passing," said Bird. Woolf heard that, laughed and said, "See what a great guy he is?" Al McGuire thinks it will take Bird one season before he'll be an all-star. "I know what I can do and what I can't," says Bird. But when pressed, he can't think of much he can't do. Nor can anyone else.
The doubt most frequently heard is: can Bird handle stardom? He's not a flash and dash kind of guy. Like a Boston hero of another era, Ted Williams, he doesn't wear ties. He quit Indiana University after a couple of weeks because it was too big. He asked Woolf just to mail him his contract so he wouldn't have to bother to come to Boston and sign it in the limelight. When he bought a home, he got a $100,000 ranch house on a site adjoining Woolf's property in Brookline. When showing Bird another house, Woolf told him, "This is a nice neighborhood, a lot of doctors and lawyers." "I don't want to live here," said Bird. "Who am I going to talk to?"
Woolf tries to promote Bird as a man with Will Rogers' humor, and Bird often measures up. For example, after knocking himself out to show his client around the Metropolitan Boston area, Woolf asked Bird, "Is Boston better or worse than you thought it would be?" Answered Bird, "About the same."
However, he has often hidden his humor—and himself—from the press. But there is suspicion that he was encouraged in this by his Indiana State coach, Bill Hodges, in an ill-advised attempt to show the press the error of its ways. Still, in Boston, where reporters have been known to get on an athlete now and again, Bird could have his moments. Asked about this potential trouble area, he says, "I'm nice to people I like." And people sure seem to like Bird. Converse, Spalding, 7-Up and Ford have opened their checkbooks to him. "There's a mystique about Larry," says Woolf, forever the agent.
The other day as Woolf was professing his love for a partridge that has lived on his property for years, and Bird was professing his love for hunting wildfowl, there was a break in the laughter, during which Bird was asked to describe Bird.
"Slow and big," he said.