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Ford was trying to keep the Celtics focused on a fifth straight win, which would be almost unprecedented on an NBA road trip, so he worked them hard in practice.
It was a tough day for the autograph hounds outside the Jewish Community Center too. Most of them were adults, and Bird was feeling frisky.
"Excuse me, but don't you have a job?" he said to one, who tagged along, demanding that he sign after Bird first refused.
"You know, the Marines are looking for a few good men," he said to another. "Maybe you're one of 'em."
He finally made it onto the bus and flopped down onto his seat. Obnoxious autograph seekers have become an increasing problem in sports, particularly to athletes like Bird, whose signature is valuable on the open market. It has become nearly impossible for Bird to distinguish the young fan who sincerely wants his autograph from the money-hungry trader. Bird has an excellent memory for faces and he often surprises a traveling autograph seeker with a refusal. "I jest signed for you in Denver," he will say, and the hound will stare at him wide-eyed.
Lately, Bird had taken to signing Pete Rose's name on his cards from time to time. "But Doc made me stop when I signed it on the team photos," he said.
Bird hates the hypocrisy of the whole autograph game: "These guys, most of 'em, will say, 'Hey, Larry, you're the greatest,' and when I don't sign three autographs for 'em, they'll turn around and say, 'Asshole. Piece of shit. Hey, what an asshole Larry Bird is.' I hate it when somebody comes up to me when we're out of town and I sign for him, and then he turns around and says, 'You know, we're gonna kick your ass tonight.' Why does he say 'we'? I always ask the guy, 'How many baskets will you score?' "
When the Celtics arrived back at the hotel, a contingent of Smith, Pinckney, reserve forward Dave Popson and reserve center Stojko Vrankovic left for a nearby arcade for a round of miniature golf and various other time-killing recreations. Kleine, who was waiting to go for ribs with Bird, watched the group with amusement.
"McHale and I figured out why Michael is so good at games," said Kleine. "Miniature golf, shooting games, video games, things like that. See, Mormons—Smith is from Brigham Young—had to spend all their dates in places like arcades and amusement parks because they were afraid to be alone with their girlfriends in case things got, you know, out of hand. That's why they're always real good in that stuff. Anyway, that's our theory, and we're sticking with it."
Later that afternoon, Bird sat—or "set," as he would put it—in the lobby of the Hotel Westcourt in Phoenix, enjoying the day off, enjoying being Larry Bird, enjoying being the sine qua non of a potential championship team, something he had not been in a few years. He adjusted himself repeatedly on a couch, trying to find a comfortable position. His back felt relatively good on the court, particularly after a few minutes of action had warmed it up, but in his private moments, at home or in a hotel room, he constantly had to change positions, lying on the floor for a few minutes, then standing, then sitting, then leaning against a wall. He had stopped going to the movies on the road because he couldn't sit comfortably and didn't want to keep getting up. By the stop in Phoenix, it seemed that Bird had turned a corner with his back problems. No longer could he hope that they would work themselves out. He had been through a month of hell, and there was no guarantee that it was over yet. When surgery was mentioned, he didn't pooh-pooh it, as he used to. He knew it was a definite possibility, both to enable him to continue playing and to have a pain-free life after basketball.