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GIFTS THAT GOD DIDN'T GIVE
John Papanek
November 09, 1981
Larry Bird was blessed with his height, but lots of work made him the NBA's most complete player since Oscar Robertson
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November 09, 1981

Gifts That God Didn't Give

Larry Bird was blessed with his height, but lots of work made him the NBA's most complete player since Oscar Robertson

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Outside the gym it's a chilly and gray Brookline, Mass. evening. Inside it's steamy and hot and marginally violent. It is the first of October, the last day of a rite known as orientation camp, and eight players, including one promising rookie and one has-been, are scrimmaging for their lives against the home team from Hellenic College. The following morning the veterans would check into camp, and soon afterward, most of the members of the orientation class would be checking out. The veterans, after all, are the real owners of the green jerseys—the World Champion Boston Celtics.

It is seven o'clock, and the real Celtics are at once celebrating the official end of summer and dreading the transition from champions to defending champions. No NBA team has successfully defended a title since the 1969 Celtics, so this last night of liberty is to be cherished. But not by Larry Bird, who can't wait until morning.

His premature appearance in the Hellenic College gym, calculated, as always, to be as unobtrusive as possible, is, as always, anything but. The pair of worn sweat pants, the navy-blue sweat shirt and the blue baseball cap bearing the inscription WEST BADEN POLICE that is pulled down over his straw-blond hair (but not his blue eyes) fail to mask Bird's true, 6'9", ultra-white identity. There is a palpable skip in the beat of the practice when everyone realizes he is in the gym. All the would-be Celtics nod to him in careful reverence, and what they are thinking shows even more clearly now that he is here. Bird knows what they're thinking, but he wants them all to relax. He recognizes his responsibility to them, even though most will never get to play on his team.

"You guys gettin' your asses beat again?" he calls out in his southern-Hoosier twang as he sits down next to some rookies. The tension eases, and the players go even harder as Bird calls out encouragement across the gym from where Coach Bill Fitch has been hollering commands all evening. Bird salts his Herb Shriner Hoosierisms with a dash of Redd Foxx vulgarity and the players love it. Bird is a champion. He has proved it. But more than that, he is what the Creator had in mind when he invented the teammate. For this moment—and for this moment only—all the rookies and free agents and Larry Bird are one. Celtics. Eight minds cry out at once: "Please grant me the chance to play with Larry Bird!"

When the court clears and everyone leaves the gym, Bird ventures onto the floor, alone with a basketball and a goal to shoot at—a creature in his natural habitat if ever there was one.

He begins his routine by setting the ball down by his feet—lovingly, if that is possible—and then jumping rope vigorously for five minutes to warm up. When he finishes, he bends down to the ball, but instead of picking it up he gives it a hard slap and it springs to life, leaping up to Bird's hand like an eager pet. He never holds it, just begins striding briskly downcourt while the bouncing ball weaves itself intricately in and out of his legs. He quickens his pace from a walk to a jog, from a jog to a run—stopping, starting, darting, spinning. The basketball is his dancing partner, never causing Bird to reach for it or to break stride in any way. When Bird begins to feel loose, he flings the ball against a wall and back it comes, in rhythm. Off a door, off a chair...the ball seems to be at the end of a rubber band attached to his right hand.

Now he finds himself making layups, 10 with his right hand, 10 with his left. No misses. Then hooks from eight feet: 10 and 10, no misses. He backs away along the right baseline for 15-foot jump shots. He misses three in a row, and for the first time the ball goes its own way and Bird has to chase it. When he catches up with it, he flings it, a little bit angrily now, off a wall or a section of bleachers. Once, when he has to go way into a corner of the gym for the ball, he spots a small trampoline lying on its side. Thwang—he hurls the ball into the netting and it shoots back to him. A new game. He passes into the trampoline 25 or 30 times, harder each time, until the ball is a blur flying back and forth, powered by nothing but flicks of his wrists.

He catches the last pass from the trampoline, spins and shoots from 35 feet—and the ball hits nothing but net. Three points. Not only is the shot true, but the ball hits the floor with perfect spin and, bouncing twice, comes right into his hands at 15-foot range on the left baseline. With his body perfectly squared to the basket, the fingers of his right hand spread behind the ball, the left hand guiding the launch, he makes another jump shot. He moves three steps to his right and the ball is there—as expected—and he swishes another. He continues to move "around the world" all the way back to the right baseline, making 10 15-footers without a miss and without reaching for the ball. It is always there to meet him at the next spot. Then he goes back the other way and never misses. From 20 feet he makes 16 of 20, and then he begins all over again, running up and down, dribbling the ball between and around his legs, heaving it off a wall every now and then, putting it down for the jump rope, then calling it back into action.

After two hours of this, Bird shrugs off a suggestion that his performance has been slightly short of incredible. "Nah, I was really rusty," he says. "I've missed it. Being out there all alone...I've always liked it best that way. At midnight, like that, when it's really quiet, or early in the morning when there's nobody else around."

If Bill Russell symbolized the Boston Celtic ideal of humility, teamwork and excellence through 11 championship seasons, the torch was passed to John Havlicek, then Dave Cowens and now to 24-year-old Larry Joe Bird. Bird, in fact, carries humility to an extreme. He spurns publicity (and untold thousands of dollars) and doesn't enjoy sharing with strangers his innermost—or, for that matter, outermost—feelings. To some, he is every bit what he calls himself—"Just a hick from French Lick." He went through most of his senior season at Indiana State without talking to print reporters because, he explained, he wanted his teammates to get publicity, too. "When Larry makes up his mind to do something, nothing can change it." a Celtic official says. That intense resolve goes a long way toward explaining Larry Bird. "How do you differentiate the great athletes from the good ones?" asks Cowens, sitting in his athletic director's chair at Regis College in Weston, Mass. "It's a savvy, or something. Larry's got it. Something mental that other players with more physical talent don't have. If I were starting a basketball team, I'd look for a great center, but if I couldn't find a great one, I'd take Larry Bird."

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