Words fail where Larry Bird didn't. Basketball can be no better than this, nor a seventh game, nor a fourth quarter, nor Dominique Wilkins and most nor of all, Larry Bird. It all was sublime and Larry Bird was beyond even the sublime. He was in a world whose inhabitants number one and only one.
There can be no perspective for this because where is the benchmark for comparison? There can be only description, but words failed all who tried to describe Bird's fourth quarter. And so it was left to Bird to describe himself and he did it so perfectly when asked by an Edmonton hockey writer his feelings on sharing the same bill with Wayne Gretzky.
"Hell," said Bird, scoffing off the question, Lord Stanley and all who might dare enter his world of one, "this is my building."
So perfect. "Hell, this is my building." Boston Garden. Fourth quarter. Seventh game. "Hell, this is my building," and this is his time and this is his moment and this is his shot, all 999 variations of the clutch shot, and this is his sublime. You know he's been so great, but on this day Larry Bird was his greatest.
Men tried to describe what they had seen and they could only punch at superlatives. "That was the greatest performance I've ever witnessed," said the Celtics' Dirk Minniefield. "It was like he was playing on Mt. Olympus and we were all down on the Greek islands."
"I've seen so many of his fourth quarters," said assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers, "but I don't ever remember him ever having a fourth quarter like that. And you know . . . it was absolutely necessary. Everything he did was so significant."
And that is why it was so sublime. Bird's 20 points in that fourth quarter are only numbers, empty and bare and dry as sawdust without their context. Within their context -- the Hawks doing no wrong, 'Nique soaring to his highest level, a quarter where long minutes went by with neither team missing a shot, a season ending for that team that finally missed that shot -- Bird came through. In so many ways.
"It was like two gunfighters waiting to blink," said Kevin McHale of the Bird-and-Magni-'Nique shootout. "It was boom . . . boom . . . Larry would make one and Dominique would make one. Larry would make one and Dominique would make one. Larry would make one and Dominique would make one. It was unbelievable . . . I tell you there was one four-minute stretch there that was as pure a form of basketball as you're ever going to see."
Yet, it was the Celtics who won, it was the Celtics who finished with 2 more points than Atlanta, and it was Bird who crunched 20 in crunch time to Magni-'Nique's 16. It was a Bird that McHale had not seen in a while.
"Larry took that game over himself," said McHale. "It's been a while since I've seen that look in his eye, like, 'Get the hell out my way, boys, because I'm going to go to work.' I tell you, it was good to see that look in Larry's eye. That look today was like, 'I want the ball,' and when he gets the look like that, Katie bar the door."
Of how many parts did Larry Bird consist in this finest of fourth quarters. Larry Bird The Shooter, ah, there are points and points and points to be made about that Larry Bird. But how about Larry Bird The Defender, making two key defensive plays, and Larry Bird The Lefthanded Touchdown Passer, feeding Danny Ainge with a Boomer Esiason off-balance toss for a breakaway with 17 seconds left and a 116-111 lead and Larry Bird The Coach waving Minniefield off the court in those final 20 seconds and back to the bench. No substitutions needed now; Bird knew that.
"I really felt good going into that fourth quarter," Bird would say, modestly. "It was one of them games where you felt whoever made the first mistake or whoever missed the first shot was going to lose, so every shot I took, I tried to concentrate on it."
Any basket in a fourth quarter of a tight seventh game can be framed and mounted on the mantelpiece and brought up to the grandchildren 30 years from now. So where to begin with Bird, with 8:56 left and that tripping, running, off-balance, falling, leaning lefty hook in the lane that went in with a foul attached?
"That was just lucky," Bird would say. "I was feeling a lot of contact and I knew I had to get the shot off to get to the free throw line. But after I made that one . . . I wanted the ball the next time down to see how hot I really was."
Sublimely hot. For Bird next hit a 14-foot baseline leaner, but it was what had happened before this shot that was most significant. For Bird The Defender had sneaked inside on Kevin Willis and picked off a routine John Battle post-up pass. Five seconds later, Bird The Shooter buried the 14-foot leaner.
On and on and on and on it went, Bird and Wilkins, Wilkins and Bird, neither blinking, neither cracking, basketball as precious as the Mona Lisa. "Things," said Bird, "were just going my way on the offensive end," an understated way of describing 9-of-10 in the crunchiest of crunch time.
"The way I look at it," Bird said, "the team goes to me a lot for the last-second shots throughout the year. And if it comes down to one shot or five shots or whatever, I think my teammates would rather see me have the ball and try to win the game for us."
They did. He did. The running lefty leaner in the lane for a 101-99 lead with 5:42 left, the 20-footer off a pick 36 seconds later, another pop off a pick with 3:34 left for a 107-105 lead and then the play, the two plays, by Larry Bird The Defender followed immediately by Larry Bird The Shooter. It was 109-105, Boston, with 1:48 left, when the Hawks got the ball in low to Antoine Carr and Carr turned and Carr went up and . . .
"Yeah, I slapped the ball -- the ball just went straight up," said Bird. "He tried to turn baseline and he went up and I got a piece of it."
Celtics ball. Now, five seconds later, here was Bird far down the other end of the court, in the left corner, his sneakers well behind the three-point line but only inches from the out-of-bounds line.
"The best way to get your three-pointers is on a semi-break like that," he said, " 'cause guys are sort of scattered and everybody runs to the middle of the court, to the paint."
No hesitation. Nothing. The look in his eye. Dennis Johnson knew enough to get the ball to Bird as soon as possible and so Bird went up with the three-pointer, a Hawk draped on him, and it went in and the big clock above midcourt read, 112-105, Boston.
All that was left was for Bird The Coach to present himself. The Hawks came at the Celtics with three guards with 26 seconds left, Minniefield was sent into the game for Boston but Bird waved him off.
"I didn't know who he was coming in for," said Bird. "I thought he was coming in for Robert (Parish) and they made a substitution and I didn't know if K.C. had seen it. That's all I was doing. I was asking him if he had seen the substitution."
This was it. Everything. The complete package. Sublime and beyond.