Robert Reid: The Other #33

He inherits the role of Larry Bird's shadow. He becomes a mirror image on the court, No. 33 in white matched against No. 33 in green, moving to the same places at the same time, moving, always moving. Synchronized basketball. Simon Says. Follow the Leader.

Robert Reid is now on the case.

"I'll go wherever Larry goes," the Houston Rockets guard said yesterday. "I'll go out as far as he takes me. If he stands down at this end of the court and everyone else goes to the other end, I'll still be standing with him."

The Rockets are breathing again in this NBA Final series, trailing, 2-1, and the job of Robert Reid is an obvious point of discussion. He is the guy who switched onto Larry Bird for the second half of their 106-104 win on Sunday at the Summit. Larry Bird had 25 points in the game, but only six points in the half.

There can be little doubt that he will be seeing some more of Robert Reid here tonight when the fourth game is played.

"What are you guys doing?" Reid asked yesterday, looking at the crowd of reporters in front of him. "You're just hard up for stories now. You all have left Ralph (Sampson) and come over to me. You're really hard up."

He resembles Larry Bird in a lot of ways. He not only is the same physical size, but he has much of the same versatility. He goes inside or outside, any place on the floor, to play the game. He also has the same temperament, a nice veneer of wit to cover a serious approach to the game. There is some fun going on with Robert Reid. Some serious fun.

"I wouldn't be back here if I weren't having fun," Robert Reid said. "That's why I left. I wasn't having any fun. I'm back because of this. I wanted to be part of team that won a championship. I wanted this."

The story of his one-year sabbatical from professional basketball in the 1982-83 season has been duly recorded many times. In most of the tellings, the fact that he left for religious reasons as a Pentecostal minister has been stressed. There was more to his departure than that.

How to put it? He was fed up with the business of basketball, the life of basketball. The team was lousy. His friends were being traded or cut. He felt as if he were living inside some kind of cage for hamsters, running along and spinning wheels and going nowhere. There seemed to be no enjoyment to what he was doing, so he simply stopped doing it.

"I wanted to learn some things about myself," he said. "I went home to Miami with my family and forgot about basketball. There isn't much talk about basketball in Miami, anyway -- the papers are all Dolphins blue, nothing else -- so I never even paid attention. I honestly thought I'd never play again."

He spent some time at the beach. He picked up a basketball now and then on a playground with some 14-year-old kids, simply for exercise. He was bored, so he took a job. A regular job. He managed an Eagle store, something like a Walgreen's without a prescription department.

Here was the man who had guarded Larry Bird the last time these two teams met in the playoffs in 1981, now ringing the cash register and sweeping the floors and working a regular job. Not so much for money, but for the experience. Regular living. The pay scale definitely meant the job wasn't for money.

"It was one of those jobs, you'd be paid for a 40-hour week, but end up working 60," Robert Reid said. "What's the old saying? You never got to sing the song, but you listened to all the noise."

Somewhere in the middle of the experience, he found what he wanted. He matured, grew up. What had former Rockets coach Del Harris called him in his first Rockets life? "A prancer and a dancer?" He was a showtime guy, at first with an Afro the size of a rosebush, then with a collection of hair-gel curls. He settled into his life here. Robert Reid, shopkeeper.

By the time the Rockets called again -- and they called him, not the other way around -- two weeks before the 1983-84 season, he was ready to return. He could handle what had to be handled. He had gone from kid to elder statesman. Leader.

"I'm the oldest guy on the team," he said. "Look at my hair now. I cut it short. That's the way I am. That's my position here."

There is a memory that in the 1981 playoffs he did a very good defensive job on Larry Bird. He was greeted with the usual disdain that Bird has for defenders -- "It's good that Robert Reid is getting this kind of publicity now because a lot of guys never have the chance before I score 40 on 'em," Bird said yesterday about Sunday's game -- but the numbers looked good at the end of that series.

"Larry Bird can't be held down," Robert Reid said, "but if you'll look it up he held himself to eight points in two of those games. Must have been self-restraint."

The wondering early in this present series was when Houston coach Bill Fitch would move to Reid to stop Bird. The Celtics' star controlled the first two games against Houston's Rodney McCray and still was flying in the first half on Sunday. Now the switch has been made once. Even though Rodney McCray probably will start with the assignment tonight, there can be little doubt that Reid will be back again very soon.

"You wear the same number on your uniform as Larry," a reporter said. "Have you always been a No. 33?"

"No," Robert Reid said. "That's a funny thing. When I was here the first time I was number 50. When I came back, though, Ralph already had it and I knew I wasn't going to take it from him.

"I figured I'd probably take 5 or something, half of 50. Bill Fitch asked me if I'd take 33. No. 33 has been a very lucky number for him. I think he just wanted to see a 33 running around the floor."

Tonight -- of course -- will be a Bill Fitch bonanza. What could be better? He will see two No. 33s. One after the other.

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