Let's start with an easy one.
Larry Bird was the greatest forward ever to play basketball.
They argue centers. They argue guards. They argue sixth men. But when it comes to starting 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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.