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Travels With Larry
Jack McCallum
November 11, 1991
WHEN THE BOSTON CELTICS TRAVELED WEST LAST FEBRUARY, THE AUTHOR GOT A CLOSE-UP OF LIFE WITH LARRY BIRD AND HIS TEAMMATES
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November 11, 1991

Travels With Larry

WHEN THE BOSTON CELTICS TRAVELED WEST LAST FEBRUARY, THE AUTHOR GOT A CLOSE-UP OF LIFE WITH LARRY BIRD AND HIS TEAMMATES

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How quickly things change in the NBA. Jennings stood at courtside before the Celtics game against the Bulls at Chicago Stadium on Feb. 26 and considered the circumstances. McHale was still out. Bird's back was starting to bother him again and was obviously affecting his shooting form—he had averaged only 30% from the field over the past three games. Two days earlier Boston had a 17-point lead in the last 11 minutes at Indiana but lost to the improving Pacers 115-109. The Bulls, on the other hand, had won nine in a row and 18 straight at home, and they were just a half game behind the Celtics for the best record in the East. And who the hell was going to guard Michael Jordan? Outside the arena, it had started to snow.

"Can you win, Jon?" Jennings was asked.

"Tonight?" he said. "No way."

It was simply life in the NBA. Some games are losers from the moment a team checks into the hotel, and this was one of them. In the locker room, there was kind of a let's-get-it-over-with feeling. Before the game Shaw was laughing about a skit he had seen on In Living Color in which comedian Tommy Davidson talked about the tendency of black singers to offer long, stylized renditions of the national anthem before sporting events. A half hour later, Shaw was nearly paralyzed with laughter as a young black female singer took three minutes and 40 seconds, possibly a world record, to get through The Star-Spangled Banner. It turned out to be the last humorous moment for the Celtics, who were never in the game. In the first period, the Bulls' Scottie Pippen saved a ball from going out of bounds by throwing it directly into Parish's groin area. "Boools-eye" is the way Chief later described the save. Chicago led 74-48 at half time, 105-69 late in the game and 129-99 when it was all over.

Ford worried about the effect the loss might have on his less-experienced players. "Our young guys are very fragile," he said. "Chicago stepped it up a notch, and we weren't ready. My guys might think they're ready to contend for a title, but they're not."

But it wasn't only the young Celtics. Bird and Parish had played poorly too, and Ford admitted he didn't quite know how to handle the Bird situation. He felt that Bird needed intermittent rest, but he also needed Bird's presence on the floor, no matter how poorly he was shooting. But Bird wanted to play most of the game. He felt that he needed minutes to increase his stamina and that the most difficult thing for his back was sitting out, then going back in the game, sitting out and going back in. The Minnesota Timberwolves were coming to town the following evening, Feb. 27, as opponents in the Celtics' first game at Boston Garden since Feb. 6, and perhaps an expansion team would be the antidote needed.

Shaw was visibly excited as he laced up his sneakers 90 minutes before the game against Minnesota. For weeks he and some of the other younger Celtics had been complaining that it was hard for them to warm up at the Garden, partly because of the cold temperatures but mostly because of the old-fashioned organ offerings that were played during the warmups, which Shaw referred to as "Lawrence Welk music." So Gavitt, ever the diplomat, had consented to let each of the players record an hour-long tape of his own musical selections to be played between 6 and 7 p.m. Then, promptly at 7:00, as the the fans were starting to take their seats for the 7:30 tip-off, Ron Harry would take over at the organ, lest the traditionalists think that the Garden had gone to hell. Shaw had selected mostly rap music by artists like M.C. Hammer and C&C Music Factory for his tape. Speculation centered on whose tape would be the worst. Shaw figured the honor would go to Kleine, who had promised a tape heavy on country music, or Bird, a Kenny Rogers fan.

"Nah, I think it'll be Stojko," said Dee Brown. "He'll choose Julio Iglesias."

When the big moment came, Shaw eagerly went out to warm up. But when the tape started it was barely audible. "Where's the bass?" he said, dribbling in place near the foul line. Actually, the sound was so tinny that even a Garden traditionalist would not have been offended. "I guess the next step is a sound system," said Shaw, disappointed. "Can't win for losin' around here." Gavitt was quietly miffed, his efforts to change and to accommodate the players having been defeated by the resolutely ancient Garden. At precisely 7 p.m., Harry took over, the sound clear and strong as he played The Mexican Hat Dance.

Bird had kept himself out of the music discussion but instantly got himself into the game. His shooting was deadly from the outset, and just before halftime he let loose with a three-point shot right in front of Ford. It went in and beat the buzzer. Ford looked at Casey and Jennings and spread his hands in front of himself, as if to say, "Look where he shot the damn thing from." But despite Bird's brilliance (35 points, seven rebounds, six assists), the Celtics could not pull away, and Ford could not buy Bird much rest. Boston finally prevailed 116-111 to lift its record to 41-15. For all the success of the Western trip, the Celtics were pretty much the same team at the end of the month that they had been at the beginning—one capable of lofty highs and depressing lows, following an aging and wounded warrior into uncertain battle.

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