He was in the same dressing room. Not only that, he was in the same seat. This was where he had the low point in a basketball career that has not had very many low points.
Three years ago. Larry Bird remembered.
"Even losing the championship in college -- the NCAA final -- didn't feel as bad as that," the Celtics star said after he and his team had dropped the Milwaukee Bucks, 111-107, yesterday afternoon to take an overpowering 3-0 lead in these best-of-seven NBA Eastern Conference playoff finals. "There was no way we should have allowed something like that to happen. No way."
The word of three years ago in the Milwaukee Arena was the same word that was being used yesterday. "Sweep." That time, though, it was being sung and chanted by the local populace. Everyone in the entire city seemed to be carrying a kitchen broom and waving it in the faces of Larry Bird and the rest of the Celtics.
That time, the Bucks were the sweepers in four straight games and the Celtics were the swept. That time.
"I'm taking this very personally," Larry Bird said at that time, seriousness across his face in the quiet room. "I'm going home and work harder than I ever have before."
The rest of the story has been chronicled many times. The basketball court -- glass backboards and all -- that he built in the yard next to his mother's house in French Lick, Ind. The hours he worked during the summer. The no- nonsense return and the no-nonsense tramp to the world championship.
Starting in this same room -- this same same seat -- Larry Bird began his domination of the sport he plays. He was the Most Valuable Player in the league for the past two years and is an overwhelming favorite to win the award again this year for an unprecedented third straight time. His team has been or is going to the finals in each of the seasons. He is -- or will be -- the MVP each time.
Larry Bird was not fooling.
"There's no question that I'm the leader of this team," Larry Bird said yesterday in a matter-of-fact way that was far from a boast. "Guys look at me and how I play and it determines how they play. I know that. I recognize that. I don't mean running around and everything on the floor. I might have done that my first few years, trying to lead. I mean making the plays."
He will lead and everyone else will follow, and there will be some good singing of songs at the end. That was the thought Larry Bird took away from this place three years ago, and that is the way he has played, and that is the way it has happened. That was the way it happened yesterday.
On a list of, say, 10 memorable Larry Bird games, this one deserves a place. Somewhere in the middle, perhaps, but definitely somewhere. This was his passing game, his passing extravaganza.
"I noticed right away the Bucks were double-teaming me," he said. "They hadn't done that this year, but they decided to do it this time. That's OK with me. If they want to stop me from shooting, they can double-team me every night. I'll just look for some who's open. That's the way our team works. I'll find someone."
He put together 13 assists in this grinder game and at least half of them seemed to be snipped from one of those black-and-white Bob Cousy highlight films. He was a dealer in Three-Card Monte as Bucks came to surround him, and he neatly zipped the ball through their arms, legs, whatever for easy baskets for someone else. He was magic.
"He gave me at least five baskets where I didn't have to do a thing," Kevin McHale said. "All I had to do was stand there. Didn't do a thing."
There was a two-handed, over-the-shoulder pass to Robert Parish. (How did he ever see Parish?) There was a slap pass to McHale, Bird caught in traffic and simply slapping a long rebound with his left hand to the waiting McHale. (How did he control the ball? One-handed? Lefthanded?) There were a number of those bing-bing, give-and-go passes on the fast break. (How does he always choose the right pass for the right moment?)
The best of them all was the pass from the painted yellow floor. He dove to the floor, where the Bucks' Paul Mokeski was lying with the basketball. He slapped the ball from Mokeski's hands. He picked it up and fired it upward to McHale for the basket. Lying on the floor, on his back, Larry Bird picked up an assist.
"I don't like to go to the floor," Larry Bird said. "Nobody does. You can get hurt going to the floor. Sometimes I go to the floor too much. That's a problem with me . . . but I will go to the floor. There are guys who won't do it, but I will.
"I don't ever want to be sitting in a locker room after losing a game by two points and thinking back to a time when I could have gone to the floor and made the play for those points but didn't. That's never happened to me once. And I don't want it ever to happen."
He had 16 rebounds to go with the 13 assists. He had 19 points. He had the killer three-pointer with 2:11 left to give the Celts a 10-point lead and send a message to the Arena crowd to start buttoning those windbreakers against the rain. He led. Everyone else followed. Songs were sung again at the end.
"He's just the best," McHale said. "How many times can you say it? The best. He just does everything."
Five feet away, Bird still was taking locker room questions. He still was trying to explain the unexplainable, about how he saw what he saw and made those passes. He still was talking about sweeps, this time the Celtics' chance to finish one this afternoon at the Arena. He still was talking about three years ago.
"I was sitting in this same chair after that game," he said again. "Right here. The lowest I've ever felt."
"Why are you sitting there again?" a reporter asked. "Aren't you superstitious?"
"Not about basketball," Larry Bird said.
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