You can argue centers. You can argue guards. You can argue sixth men. But when it comes to naming the forwards on the all-time team, Bird's name is put down, and then the argument begins.
Was he the greatest Celtic? Well, Red Auerbach himself bit the bullet on that one at a dinner in Bird's honor in 1988. Red said yes. (Somehow you can't quite picture Red repeating that to Bill Russell.)
What Larry Bird was - and this is beyond dispute - was the greatest total Celtic of them all. Russell, Havlicek, Cousy, Heinsohn, and the rest of that bunch all won more NBA titles. Bird had to settle for three. But none of them combined unquestioned ability and obvious achievement with the personal charisma of Larry Bird, who comes in at No. 4 on the Globe's list of the top 100 New England sports figures of the century.
He was the true People's Choice, the one Celtic who really bonded with the fans. Of all the great Celtics, none stirred the soul as much as Larry Bird.
Surely, none so overtly worked the crowd the way Bird did. Can you imagine Russell coming down off his throne to speak to the fans through the media? Not hardly likely. But Bird did it all the time.
Sample: "Just put it in the paper that one player wondered whether the fans, who have been a zero for us in the playoffs, will come through. All you've gotta say is that everybody's got a sixth man but us. We've got an eighth man winning the Sixth Man award in (Bill) Walton, but we haven't got a sixth man in the crowd." That was in 1986.
Or this: "Tell the fans that the players are a bit concerned the fans may not appreciate how important a game this is for us. They should look at it this way. If we win the game, that's more games they'll get to see us play at the Garden this year." That was before a 1988 playoff game against Atlanta.
Bird spoke that way because he loved the crowd and he knew the crowd loved him. Only he could chide them that way and not come off as a jerk because he knew that they knew he would respond the way they'd like him to. He even gave them a set of instructions, as follows: "All I ask of the fans is to be vocal, to keep it loud, to pick it up if they see we're getting a little fatigued and to get us over the hump."
What a package. Tall, rawboned, and slow of foot, he looked to the naked eye as just another BWS (Big White Stiff), such as populate the NBA in perplexing numbers. But a funny thing happened when the game started. He used his 6 feet 9 inches to their fullest advantage. He used angles and a reasonably quick first step to get where he needed to go. He proved to be far stronger than he looked. He had such advanced brainpower for the game that Bill Fitch almost immediately nicknamed him "Kodak" for his ability to take an instant look at the floor and know where all nine men were. Oh, and he was awesomely competitive.
Did anyone mention that he was a milky-complexioned star in an otherwise ebony-hued league? That fact did come up once in a while.
With the passage of time, the memories of the unique Bird moments are sharper and the sorrow is deeper that he was forced to retire before the time on his meter should have expired. For what Bird brought to the game of basketball in general, let alone to the Celtics in particular, was a special flair that is unlikely to be duplicated for decades to come. No forward who shoots anyway remotely the way Bird did rebounds the way he did. No forward who rebounds even remotely the way Bird did shoots the way he did. And as for passing? Please. Bird had 140 double-figure assist games. He is the greatest passing forward of all-time, and everyone else is tied for second place.
You could throw more numbers around (e.g. 67 career triple-doubles and 58 more games in which he missed a T-D by one in a category), but Bird was never about the numbers. Great ones seldom are. He often said they were meaningless - a media contrivance and nothing more: "I could get a triple-double every night if I wanted to, but it doesn't always help the team win."
He once tossed away a chance for a quadruple-double. There was a night in Salt Lake City when he reached the three-quarter mark with 30 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, and 9 steals. Coach K.C. Jones offered him a chance to reenter the game, in which the Celtics were far ahead. Bird said uh-uh. "I already did enough damage," he reasoned.
For the record, Bird once hit Washington with a triple-double in the first half.
What the triple-doubles and the near triple-doubles do reflect is a rare all-around ability to play the game of basketball. Bird was a truly great player because he had many ways to beat you. Like a pitcher who knows early on that he doesn't have a key pitch in his repertoire, Bird could adjust his game accordingly. On nights when his shot wouldn't drop, he concentrated on passing. And he really hit the boards hard when he felt he wasn't able to make his normal offensive contribution.
While not noted for his defense, he was, in fact, one of the great team defenders ever. By the end of his second season he was determined to be so menacing as an off-the-ball lane-lurker that the entire illegal defense rule was rewritten with him in mind. Take it from one who was there.
The pro career began in 1979, and what's funny is that while his performance was impressive enough to make him a first-team All-Star and Rookie of the Year, he was barely half the all-around player he would become. For one thing, he was extremely deferential toward the veterans, almost refusing to take any end-of-the-game shot as long as Dave Cowens and Tiny Archibald were around. But all that would change, of course. He finished his career with 11 game-winning shots (i.e. in the last five seconds) and nine game-tying shots. On two occasions he had both an overtime-forcing shot and a winning shot.
What is incalculable without complete perusal of every available video tape is the number of games in which his fourth-quarter heroics made certain there would be no last-second worries.
Bird put his personal stamp on the 3-point shot despite the fact that he opposed it on philosophical grounds, believing that a team leading by 2 should be protected from defeat by one shot and that referees routinely called twos threes and threes two. But as long as it was available to him, he was willing to exploit it. Hence the greatest display of 3-point shooting ever seen: a 25-for-34 stretch (from the old, longer distance) in 1986. Bird made his first 3-point impact during his very first All-Star Game and he was a 3-point menace until the end.
Bird died a slow athletic death. Back. Elbow. Double heel surgery. Finally, the back again. He spent the final four or five years of his career always worrying that he might not be able to practice or play, and if you knew Bird you were aware that the former was an equally aggravating experience. As much as any superstar in basketball history, Bird loved to practice. To him, that was an integral part of being a basketball player.
Bird was a soap opera all by himself. He had the ritual of the shoe wipe. He stared up at the Garden ceiling during the national anthem for years before revealing that he was looking at Bobby Orr's No. 4 in order to draw inspiration. There was the trash talking. There was the entire family pathology. There was the fact that in some eyes he was the quintessential Hoosier, on loan to the city slickers. There was the intense rivalry, and legitimate friendship, with Magic Johnson, his on-court alter ego, who wrote in the foreword to Bird's autobiography, "Larry is the only one I really fear."
If you'd like to see what it was all about, find a tape of Game 6 against Houston on June 8, 1986. The numbers weren't gaudy by Bird standards (29 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists), but what you will see is a man playing an astonishingly full game of basketball. He is in the middle of everything, at both ends of the floor, and he is playing a sport the others are simply not acquainted with. "I saw him take on five guys by himself," marveled Houston's Jim Peterson.
Bird says it's his favorite game. "That was the only game I thought I was totally prepared for," he explains. "As far as focus was concerned, none better. I should have quit right there."
Larry Bird is 43. If he makes it to 93, he will know that no one will come along to match that performance. There is no need for Larry Bird to be envious of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, or anyone else. He brought his own special something to basketball. Don't ever expect to see it again.
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