The NBA is about to lock out its players, and you'll be hearing a lot about the so-called "Larry Bird Exception." It has to do with money, and therein lies the irony: Larry Bird was never about the money.
Oh, Larry liked money as much as the next guy -- ask anyone who has
ever uttered those fateful words Larry, I'll bet you can't (fill in the
blank) -- but once the contract was signed, you never heard another word
from Larry Bird about the money. With Larry Bird, the game came first, second, and always.
"The more money you paid him," Red Auerbach says, "the more he wanted to prove he deserved it."
You look back at it now, more than six years after his final NBA
game, and he really does seem more like a legend than one of the two
greatest players ever to play in a Boston Celtics uniform (no way I'm
going to get bogged down in a Bird-Russell
debate today). The stuff Larry did, the things he said, and the impact
he had on both the franchise and the city itself from 1979-92 could not
have been scripted. When it comes to Truth vs. Fiction, I'll take Truth,
plus the points, every time. And Larry Bird was the simple, unvarnished truth.
To me, Larry Bird
was, and always will be, the personification of the sport, the one
whose game was a microcosm of all the sport has to offer. He could
shoot, he could pass, he could rebound, he could disrupt the other
team's offense, and he could think three steps ahead of the mortal
players (pull out the tape of Houston Game 6 in '86 if you want to see a
man dominating every aspect of a basketball game).
The only other person who has ever seen what Larry saw and knew deep inside what Larry knew was, of course, Magic
Johnson, his great friend and rival. Michael? No, Michael is an
entirely different matter, as Larry was first in the NBA to identify and
then articulate. Michael Jordan plays a different game. But don't ever
think it's a better one.
Michael Jordan is great, superb, the Man From Another Planet, and just generally beyond compare. That's a given, right?
Well, uh, no. Give the '92 Michael and a completely healthy '86 Bird four comparable teammates, and I'll happily take my chances with Larry Bird and his guys. One on one, no contest. Five on five, bring 'em on.
Has Michael Jordan ever dominated entire huge chunks of basketball games without taking a shot? No, never. Larry Bird did. Shooting was part of Larry's game, and not the best part.
Return with me to Saturday, May 17, 1986. It is Game 3 of the Eastern
Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks. In the first period
Larry Bird, a forward, has seven assists. Six are layups, real assists, old-fashioned assists, Tricky Dick McGuire assists.
"He was a dealer in Three-Card Monte as Bucks came to surround him,"
wrote the great Leigh Montville, "and he neatly zipped the ball through
their arms, legs, whatever for easy baskets for someone else. He was magic."
No forward has ever played the game this way. "He gave me at least
five baskets where I didn't have to do a thing," said Kevin McHale
(speaking of quasi-fictional characters). "All I had to do was stand
there. Didn't do a thing."
"He had one thing on his mind at all times," says Auerbach, "and that was to win. He made everyone around him play better."
When I think of Larry Bird,
I don't think first of the huge scoring outputs such as the 60-point
game against the Hawks that March night in New Orleans or the 9-for-10,
20-point fourth quarter against Atlanta in '88.
I think of the
Boston Garden Heat Game against LA in '84, when Kareem & Co. were
sucking on oxygen and Larry was frolicking his way to 15 for 20 and 17
rebounds in 97-degree heat. I think of K.C. Jones saying practice would
be called if anyone could sink a shot from midcourt and Larry
immediately grabbing the ball and preventing practice with one shot. I
think of him sitting in the visiting locker room in Milwaukee's Mecca
after being swept by the Bucks and vowing to go home and come back a
better ballplayer. I think about him diving for the ball in Game 4 of
the '87 Milwaukee series and firing an amazing pass to McHale for a dunk
from a sitting position. I think of an inexplicable and completely
unnecessary 15-foot, lefthanded banker in the middle of a great
fourth-quarter Game 7 run against Detroit in '87.
about him spurning Jones's invitation to go for a quadruple-double in
Salt Lake City ("I've already done enough damage"). I think about him
calling a banked 3-pointer to New York trainer Mike Sauders in the
middle of a game. I think about him standing in front of 20,000 people
at City Hall Plaza and describing the eating habits of Moses Malone. I
think about him taking $160 of Dan Shaughnessy's money by sinking 86 of
100 free throws with his right hand taped shut. I think about him
returning to Game 5 against Indiana in '91 like the cavalry after
landing on his head in the second quarter. I think of the way he used
the media to get to the crowd before big games. I think about him
looking up at Bobby Orr's number 4 during the anthem, because "when I
retire, I want people to look at me the way they do at him." I think
about him saying, "Tell Dudley Bradley to cut his damn fingernails."
More legend: Every year somebody or other sinks some threes and sets a
new record of some sort, but don't ever be fooled. I am here to say
that Larry Bird
remains the King of the Three-Pointers because no one has ever better
understood the psychological effect of the three better than Larry Bird.
And I doubt if anyone will ever match his 1986 25-for-34 3-point run
from the real 3-point distance, either. There are guys today who can
shoot threes, but only Larry Bird ever made it an art form.
He always understood what real leadership was, and he never ran from
it. He knew he was different and better than everybody else, and he knew
what responsibilities went with the territory. "There's no question I'm
the leader of this team," he once said. "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."
Healthy or injured -- and when injured he simply refused to discuss the
matter -- he made plays when they were most needed. He was the
superstar with the 12th man mentality. No millionaire player ever went
after more loose balls. "I don't ever want to be sitting in a locker
room after losing a game by 2 points thinking back to a time when I
could have gone to the floor and made the play for those points, but
didn't," he explained. "That's never happened to me once. And I don't
want it ever to happen."
It never did. The only thing left now is for Larry Bird to solve the mystery. Once upon a time, he said, "There's a secret to playin' basketball. But I ain't tellin' what it is."
On Oct. 2, Larry Bird will enter the Basketball Hall of Fame. Maybe that's when we'll find out.