Hick from French Lick Adjusts to Superstardom
1981-82 Boston Celtics
When Larry Bird speaks, many people prefer not to listen. Alistair Cooke he ain't.
The double negatives and the "ain'ts" that infiltrate his speech create the misleading impression that he is . . . well, a little slow. What the 24- year-old savior of the Celtics happens to be is willfully uneducated.
"You'd have to go down to French Lick and that general area to know the grammar," Bird explains. "If you're going to be around people all the time, it's only natural that you pick up their way of talking. It's a very limited, small town. You don't need a lot of grammar. Half the time you can communicate with hand signals.
"I'm not knocking the English teachers or anything," Bird continues. "It's just the way the area is. I didn't take school seriously until my junior year in high school. I didn't take it very seriously again until I was halfway through college. My grammar isn't very good, but you know what? I think a lot more people can understand me around here than they can many other people."
One thing people have no difficulty understanding is Bird's athletic ability. Many basketball observers believe he's the single best player in the NBA. That's fuel for a lively barroom debate, but here is one further unassailable fact to ponder: Larry Bird lives to be on a basketball team, with the accent on the word "team."
The Larry Bird the paying customer does not see is the one who dwells in the locker room, on the practice floor and aboard the buses. It's the Larry Bird who, upon hearing Chris Ford jokingly singing a few bars of Sister Sledge's famed "We Are Family," yells out, "If we're a family, Ford, you're the grandfather." It's the Larry Bird who tells Rick Robey after practice that if Robey ever guarded him for a full game, he'd break every scoring record known to man. It's a toss-up whether Bird has more fun throwing a perfect give-and-go pass to Cedric Maxwell during a playoff game or playing one-on-one with Terry Duerod at practice.
Being a star player is no more important to Bird than being an accepted member of the group. "This is the same atmosphere I knew in college," Bird claims. "Everybody is always razzing everybody else. After practice, guys are telling each other what they'll do to them tomorrow. I love it.
"When I came out of college, I thought that was the end of it. I figured the pros would be all business. I just can't believe some of the things these guys come up with. It's really important, too, because it keeps the team loose. When you see a 33-year-old guy acting like he was 21, it makes you feel at ease. We're all grown men, and it's great that we can have a lot of fun doing what we're doing."
Even though he likes to play golf and tennis, it is very difficult to imagine Bird playing an individual sport for a living. "If I had to play a one-on-one sport every night I wouldn't like it," Bird says. "In basketball you must depend on other people. You may need different things each night. Take that Atlanta game the week before last. I wasn't shooting or passing well, so I decided to concentrate on rebounding. When the game got to a certain point (tied at 88 apiece with 1:30 left), I said to myself, If I'm ever going to get into it, this is the time.' They carried me when I wasn't shooting or passing well most of the game, and I helped out by rebounding. I had to depend on them for things I usually do over the entire game."
Bird is acutely aware of his special place in the Boston community. With his face adorning the cover of half a dozen magazines, with his countenance beaming down at people from promotional ads and with so many Celtic games on television, Bird has become a highly visible public figure. Few players have been more ill-equipped, by temperament or background, to live with the ramifications of public visibility. There is more than a little Garbo in this guy, and guarding his privacy is a fulltime occupation.
"It's tougher this year than ever to get around without being recognized," Bird confides. "I'm moody. Some days I can handle it; some days I can't. Some days I can relate to people, and some days I don't want to. It was hectic the first year because I was new. It wasn't so bad last year. But now it's picked up again. Overall, I can deal with it, but I need my summers back home. That's something I look forward to."
Consider that Bird grew up in French Lick, Ind., and stayed only a month at Indiana University because it was "too big," and then consider the adjustment Bird had to make after coming to Boston. "I came from a town of between 1800 and 2000 people to an area with millions of people," Bird points out. "It took me a while to get used to it, but I now like Boston. I think about what John Havlicek told me, that this place grows on you. I'm not saying I'll spend the rest of my life here, but I feel better about it than I ever thought I would. Just as long as I can live the simple type of life I want, I'll be all right."
Say this, too, for Larry Bird. Sudden affluence hasn't changed his perspective or caused the growth of pretentious bones in a body that never housed any before. Bird remains the type of guy who would scan the newspaper ads to see if CVS had a sale on toothpaste. It's almost as if his wealth is an abstract, something he can no more envision than could a cab driver from Roslindale. "I have no idea how much money I have," Bird admits.
The important thing to Bird is to earn the money. His respect for manual labor is enormous, and his application of the Protestant work ethic is unsurpassed on the ballclub. "We go out and work hard for our money," he contends. "There are a lot of days at practice I feel like quitting and going home. Then I go home and look at the things I have, and think about the fact that I can buy my mother a new house, and it blows my mind. Then I tell myself they'll have to rip the uniform off me."
The house is Bird's latest financial expenditure, and the story illustrates the Bird outlook. "I've been wanting to get a house for my mother," Bird explains, "but I wanted to wait until I was sure I was financially stable. I know a lot of guys go off the first year they come into money and buy everything in sight. Then they find out they don't have as much money as they thought they did."
Another reason Bird waited to take care of the housing matter was the, shall we say, social climate of French Lick. He was hesitant to do something showy that would place his mother in a bad light back home. He felt building the house would cause friends to infer that the Birds were striving for a new social status.
"Finally," Larry continues, "I realized that thinking was ridiculous. My mom deserves that house, and so do my younger brothers. I grew up in a house where seven kids shared two bedrooms. Why should she have to wait any longer?"
Bird is forever concerned with image, whether or not he cares to articulate that feeling. The worst thing anyone could ever say about him would be to accuse him of being self-seeking. Indeed, the genesis of his remarkable feeling for the game of basketball is closely bound to a desire to be accepted and appreciated as one of the guys. Nothing more.
Until Bird was 15 years old, his view of basketball was much the same as anyone else's. That is to say, he defined himself in terms of scoring points. "Then I broke my ankle and had to sit out almost the entire season when I was a sophomore. When I came back, I began throwing these fantastic passes I had never thrown before. I have no idea where it came from, but there I was, throwing all kinds of passes. I remember being in the locker room after the first day back and guys saying, God, Larry, where did you learn to pass like that?' Suddenly, I had a whole new way to play.
"It was great, because when you pass the ball like that everybody likes you, and it was also great because when you pass the ball well it also makes it easier to shoot. It just gave me a whole new dimension to my game."
The result was that Bird's concept of basketball expanded to include everybody else on the team, on and off the floor. By the time he was 15, playing basketball and hanging out with the guys became extensions of the same activity. So it remains today. Go ahead, ask Larry Bird if he can imagine playing on a team where guys don't get along.
"No," he replies, "absolutely not. Lots of teams in this league are bad to play with, and I would never want to play on a team where guys didn't like each other. You can tell about what type of people some teams have just by the way they act on the floor."
Getting along, playing ball the right way and winning are the ABCs of Larry Bird's professional life. Taking home the 1981 championship was, without question, the culmination of his career, the vindication of his philosophy. "I savored every bit of it," Bird submits. "But right now there are times when it's almost hard to imagine that you won it. But every time I walk into the Garden, I look up and see the 1981 flag and it makes me feel good because I know that thing will be hanging there until the building falls. What I want to do now is win another, no matter how long it takes."
But Bird does tap dance neatly on the subject of career length. Before he ever played a game for the Celtics, he did say that he would only play out his original contract and then be gone. Now he says he isn't sure about anything, that such discussion is premature. One very safe contention is that Bird will not stay around on the basis of setting a record or establishing a standard.
"If I wanted to break records," he reasons, "I wouldn't be the all-around player I am. How many championships you've won . . . how many games you've won . . . those are the important things. Individual records don't really excite me. Anyway, this franchise is so old that in order to break some of the records you'd have to play forever. What (John) Papanek said about me in Sports Illustrated, that I was the best all-around player in the game, that's what I like."
Larry Bird surely isn't interested in baring his soul to the public, but it might interest people to know that a person he admires very much is teammate Eric Fernsten. "I'd rather have the ability to fix things and work with my hands than any brainwork in the world," Bird contends, "and Eric is not only smart, but he can fix anything and has common knowledge about all types of things. If I could do anything in the world, it would be to play basketball, but if I couldn't do that, I'd want to be able to fix or grow things."
Larry Bird is good at fixing things. What he mends are the sagging spirits of any fan who enters an arena after a hard day's work and who needs to be reminded that the pursuit of human excellence does indeed exist. He does it no matter what his own mood is, no matter whether he has had a day in which he has related to people or a day in which he has ignored them.
"It doesn't matter what mood I'm in when I get to the arena," Bird explains. "I can always get ready to play. In fact, I'd rather be pissed off when I come in, because then I know I'll be ready to bang and do some work, rather than if I were in a jolly good mood."
Jolly good mood?
Yes, Bird did say that.
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