6.19.2008

Bird Wins Finals MVP

He was supposed to save the franchise, and he did.

He came to Boston after taking a mediocre collection of college players to the NCAA championship final - in retrospect, perhaps the single greatest individual achievement in the history of college basketball - and he was paid what was then thought to be a staggering sum of money to resurrect a club that had won 59 of 162 games in the two previous seasons. The team immediately won 61, which clearly fit under the heading of cause and effect.

At the conclusion of his second season, the Celtics won the championship, and his majestic three-point shot from the left corner late in the fourth quarter was the exclamation point.

By his third season, obtaining tickets - even to see the Celtics play the Cavaliers on a dreary Wednesday night in January - had become a difficult feat. There was no doubt that while the team as a whole was attractive and filled with many outstanding players, Larry Bird was responsible for the Celtics' mania that had gripped greater Boston.

Now he has completed five years of play, and there is another championship to celebrate. He fell one vote shy of being named a unanimous first team All- Star (perhaps Bird's high school team knocked the disgruntled voter out of the states, or something). He is sure to be named as the league's Most Valuable Player. At age 27, he is indisputably at the peak of his career.

Yet he has two physical assets - two. He stands 6 feet 9, and he is blessed with excellent peripheral vision. That's it.

He has neither good straight-ahead running speed nor above-average lateral movement. He is an average Caucasian jumper, although he is aided in his rebounding by a relatively quick takeoff. He is sturdily built, but there are many physically stronger forwards. In strict physical terms, the computer would not identify Larry Bird as anything other than a marginal professional basketball player.

How, therefore, has he transformed himself into the best? First, he has a mind for the game. His basketball aptitude is in the upper 1/100 of one percentile. No less an authority than one Earvin Johnson labels Bird as "the smartest player in the game." There are only two basic reactions to any conceivable basketball situation: Bird's way and the wrong way.

Secondly, he inherently understands the dynamics of team life, on and off the court. He appreciates as much as any superstar ever has the fundamental reality of the sport, which is that there are five people and only one ball. Away from the action, he is as well attuned to the barracks-style camaraderie of athletic life as any player, let alone great player, could possibly be. Argue 'til the 29th century over the relative Celtics' contributions of messrs. Cousy, Russell, Havlicek, Cowens and other mystic figures in Celtic lore if you choose, but be totally assured about this point: Larry Bird is the best teammate any Celtic player has ever had.

If it can be argued that Red Auerbach is the embodiment of the Celtics' mystique, then so, too, is Larry Bird, the consummate team player, the embodiment of the Celtics' on-court basketball philosophy. All he asks before every game is "What can I do to help us win?" Red couldn't have found a better Celtic if he requisitioned one from Santa Claus' workshop.

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