Grampa Celtic: A Virtuoso Performance by Bird

If timing is everything, as some say, then to be a Houston Rocket on the afternoon of Sunday, June 8, 1986, was surely The Worst Timing Ever to the 10th power.

These unfortunate men were the opponents on a day when Larry Bird had reached the apex of his career. Men have compiled far gaudier stats, but there has never been a display of basketball virtuosity better than this one. Larry Bird was wounded (in the spirit, that is). Larry Bird was angry. Larry Bird was healthy. Larry Bird was ready. The 1986 Finals were going to end on this day, in this arena, and that was the end of the story. This was the day when everything Larry Bird knew about the game and felt about the game was going to be combined with the highest level of technical proficiency. Larry Bird was going to go as far as anyone possibly could go in this game, involving himself in every aspect at both ends of the floor.

The background was ugly. Game 4 had been a sensational, tense, artful struggle. The Celtics had beaten the Rockets to go up, 3-1, thanks to a killer 3-pointer by Bird and a vital follow-up 3-point play by Bill Walton. It had been the best-played Final game in more than 10 years.

But Game 5 was an aberration. It was a gang warfare. There had been a fight involving 7-foot-4-inch Ralph Sampson and 6-1 Jerry Sichting. The Celtics had been annihilated on the boards. When the teams arrived back in Boston, the papers were filled with stories about The Horror of It All and how the young, tough Rockets were just too much for the Celtics to contend with.

Larry Bird smirked.

"I'm going to have a good game," he said the day before the game. "I know that. Rebounding's a problem, so I'm gonna rebound. I don't have to score a bunch of points, 'cause everyone's got to get involved . . . I don't guarantee victory, but I know we're gonna play well . . . We'll have the fans behind us . . . I think everything's gonna be just fine."

That was the backdrop for Game 6.

They threw the ball up, and suddenly Larry Bird was ubiquitous. On offense, he was a command post. You go here. You go there. I'll go where I want and shoot when I must. On defense, he was a one-man guerrilla campaign. He read the minds of the Houston players before they even had a thought. They couldn't throw a pass without him knowing. He got into a jump ball with Akeem Olajuwon, who could out-jump him by 2 feet, and Bird got the tap. There was nowhere he wasn't, and nothing he couldn't do.

By the half he had 16 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals and the dirtiest, sweatiest, grimiest uniform since Pepper Martin hung 'em up. The Celtics were up by 17. He would finish with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. He's had better numbers. He's never had a bigger impact.

"My goal has always been control," he explains. "By control I mean doing a little bit of everything. Start at the defensive end. Rebound. Dribble the ball up. Hit a three. Get back on defense and help double-team somebody to make him throw the ball away. Come back to the offensive end and make a great pass. Rebound again. Throw a baseball pass for a score. Just one thing after the other."

Larry Bird was in full control on that June afternoon. He even had time to be frivolous, as he applied an exclam,ation point to his historic performance by tricky-dribbling around a startled Bill Walton ("He was in my way") into the deep left corner in order to swish a garbage-time three-pointer.

"I saw him take on five guys by himself," marveled Houston's Jim Petersen. "He's the best. At times, he doesn't even need teammates."

"Larry Bird is where he wants to be," said coach K.C. Jones. "He has reached the pinnacle of basketball."

It was true. He would never win another title. He would never play on a better team. He would never be so blissfully happy playing the game he loved. That game on June 8, 1986, was indeed the top of the Larry Bird mountaintop. Everything he stood for as an athlete was on display that June afternoon. He showed how a man with singular skill can utilize his physical and mental gifts to extract the utmost from four teammates, many of them skilled but none as skilled -- or as driven -- as he. He could not, as Petersen suggested, beat the Rockets by himself. (This, a Michael Jordan can, in fact, do.) What Larry Bird could do was organize a basketball team into a frighteningly efficient unit, and he could do it better than any man ever. He most surely did it that afternoon in Boston Garden.

He had known other triumphs, of course, and he would also enjoy many other spectacular afternoons and evenings. Basketball does not get any more dramatic, for example, than it did during The Great Shootout with Dominique Wilkins two years later. The Seventh Game of the Detroit series in 1987 wasn't bad, either.

But Larry Bird knows that something was going on that day that never had happened before. And never happened again. He played in 897 regular-season and 164 playoff games, but he was never as possessed of a certain indescribable spirit as he was that day. It was almost a transcendental state.

"That was the only game I thought I was totally prepared for," he now admits. "As far as focus was concerned, none better. Never. I should have quit right there."

You want to know the essence of Larry Bird? Watch that tape. Hands and feet in constant motion, eyes shifting -- he was what Hubie Brown once called a "total menace," and he did it on an afternoon when he was a mundane 8-for-17 shooter.

Larry Bird prided himself on his individual offense, of course. He took All Those Jump Shots during all those lonely hours in the gym for a purpose. But he never thought of himself as just a scorer. He thought of himself as someone who had the capacity to help a team wherever there was need. It didn't bother him to shoot 4 for 16 if he had some rebounds and assists and played some good defense, and if, of course, his team won. As much as he worked on his shooting, he knew there would be nights when the ball's will to bounce out was greater than his will to have it fly straight in. "I won't lose no sleep over it," he said after a 10-for-30 night in Washington. The next night he went 18 for 33 in Dallas and scored 50 points.

That's why he remembers the Houston game more than The Dominique Game. The former encompassed the full range of his basketball expertise. The latter's renown derived from shooting the basketball, and only that.

Coaches have always known the difference. Tom Heinsohn, still a coach at heart had studied Bird at Rookie Camp and came away declaring, "The drought is over." Coaches saw something in Bird the casual fan could not appreciate. Why else would Mike Fratello begin his post-game soliloquy at the 1988 All-Star Game with a tribute to Larry Bird? Hadn't Michael Jordan just scored 42 points to win the MVP? Yet here was Mike Fratello actually beginning his remarks by saying what an honor it had been to coach a man who had just compiled a stat line of 6 points, 7 rebounds and 2-for-8 shooting.

"Michael played well," Fratello said, "and Dominique played well, but the thing that really impressed me was the way Larry Bird subjugated himself. From the standpoint of a coach, you've got to love seeing a man do all he did -- come up with a couple of key steals, get back on defense continually and break up about five fast-break opportunities. To me, he was like an overseer of the game. He saw what we needed, and he acted accordingly."

That could pretty much sum up the viewpoint of the folks back at Indiana State, where Larry Bird had taken the school from basketball obscurity in 1976 to an undefeated 1978-79 regular season and a berth in the 1979 NCAA championship game. Bird had arrived at the Terre Haute institution after beginning his collegiate career at Indiana. Bird was unhappy there almost from the start. The Bloomington campus was a small city of some 30,000 people, and hustle and bustle was too much for his shy, rural sensibilities. He felt socially displaced, and he hitch-hiked home after 24 days, never once having spoken with coach Bob Knight.

Bird had been a figure of some minor controversy during his senior year at Springs Valley High School in his home town of French Lick. As a 6-3 junior he had begun to blossom, spending most of his playing time passing the ball to seniors. He shot up to 6-7 by the start of his senior year, however, and presented coach Gary Holland with a complete basketball package. Holland knew what he had, even if no one else did. When the coach informed athletic director Larry Pritchett in the fall that "We have an All-Stater on our hands," Pritchett's reply was, "Larry's that good, huh?" Holland saw that Bird was now a scorer and rebounder, in adddition to being a superior passer. Despite the inferences of some haughty Indianapolis types that he hadn't played against quality competition, Bird was indeed voted to the All-State team, a stature second only to canonization in the state of Indiana.

Bird's basketball mentality was set in place. His vision of the game was completely pure. For reasons unknown to this day, all the team concepts, things every high school coach in America preaches to every one of his players, became rooted in Larry Bird's mind. Most players nod politely to the coach and wind up doing what they please. Larry Bird absorbed every coaching homily as Gospel and set out to play a game coaches would revere.

Larry Bird's only goal was to win. That was primary. Winners paid the price. That was elementary. If the high school coach says you shoot free throws at 6:30 a.m., you shoot free throws at 6:30 a.m., maybe 6:15. If by getting this one loose ball you obtain a possession that might ultimately decide the outcome of a 1-point game, you go for the loose ball. No superstar in the history of the sport ever sacrificed his body in the pursuit of victory more than Larry Bird. If he hadn't, he'd still be out there today. Then again, if he hadn't, he wouldn't have been Larry Bird. We always had to take him on his terms, which is only right and proper when the terms involve the highest athletic standards.

Larry Bird didn't care about a lot of things. MVPs, for example. OK, he wanted one, just because he knew deep down he deserved it. But one was plenty, and even that didn't change him much. They flew him from French Lick, Ind., to Salt Lake City to pick up his first MVP in 1984, but only after he finished cutting the grass. His mother didn't even know why he was leaving town. A year later that trophy was sitting atop a refrigerator in the basement.

He would get two more, and the truth is he played well enough to re

ceive five or six. He could have won the prize every year from 1979-80 through '87-88. He was really jobbed at least twice before he finally won the damn thing.

Everyone will have his or her private memories of Larry Bird, but it will be hard not to think of him in terms of passing. As great a shooter and scorer as he was -- and 21,791 points attest to that reality -- his ultimate calling card was the pass. When you watch the celebrated NBA Entertainment video, what really brings you up off the sofa are the passes: bounce passes, touchdown passes, behind-the-back passes, outlet passes, over-the-shoulder passes, lob passes, backhand passes, sidearm passes, lefthand passes, slap passes, basic redirection passes and even a punch pass or two. And who can forget him bouncing the ball to Kevin McHale through Jack Sikma's legs? (Surely, not Jack Sikma.)

Perhaps the most phenomenal pass he ever threw in a Celtic uniform came during a Rookke Camp scrimmage at Marshfield High School in August of '79. Spying a teammate ahead of the field, he threw a 50-foot underhand pass ahead of the man which bounced on the tartan surface and bounced backward into the astonished mate's hands as if it were a ROBIN, IT'S ALL YOURS approach shot. Bird had learned the technique back at Indiana State's Hullman Center, which had an artificial surface. There being being no tartan floors in the NBA, this unique outlet pass was never seen again.

He came in with the reputation as a passer, but he just kept getting better and better, the way the ever-prescient Bill Fitch said he would. "When a guy's in a learning stage," Fitch said in September of '79, "his passing doesn't come to the fore. He's worried about 'Where do I go?' and 'What am I supposed to do next?' instead of playing his normal game. He's not concerned with passing, as he will be later on."

Fitch's foresight was truly eerie. For Larry Bird kept exploring The Passing Game in an increasingly deep manner as his career went on. From one double-figures-assist game in his rookie year he expanded it to 17 in both '89-90 and '90-91. It is truly laughable to compare any other forward in history to Larry Bird as a passer. He finished with 140 career double-figures-assist games.

A passer can make a team, as Bird discovered in adolescence. Once Bird had the ball out front on a fast break, looked dead on at Dennis Johnson on his left and then flipped a no-look, alley-oop to a not-especially-surprised Robert Parish for a dunk.

"I didn't know if he saw me," explained The Chief, "but I figured I'd better get going."

In that same game Bird threw a knee-high Nolan Ryan job past three bewildered Knicks to McHale, who admitted he thought the ball would be going to DJ. This genius, sadly, Bird has taken with him, and we shall not be so thrilled ever again.

Nor are we likely to encounter anyone wearing a basketball uniform who will rival Larry Bird for sheer toughness. Red Auerbach drafted him on the basis of shooting, passing and rebounding skills. The Cigar Smoker had no idea he was also getting a player who would have been equally at home slipping on shoulder pads or lacing up skates.

It sometimes seemed as if nothing could get Larry Bird out of a ballgame. When he took that vicious elbow in the face from Harvey Catchings, he came back to finish the game. When he took the Dell Curry shot in the face, the one which resulted in his wearing goggles for the next four games, he came back in the game though suffering from double vision, and actually scored more points (18) while looking at two baskets than he had while looking at one (13).

His actions in the 1991 playoff series with Indiana actually defied common sense. His back pain was so excruciating that after compiling a triple-double in Game 1, he checked into New England Baptist Hospital for the evening. When he smashed his face on the Garden floor while diving for a loose ball in the Fifth Game, he came back into the game and wound up being the central figure as the Celtics rallied to victory.

This mind-over-matter toughness extended to arcane playing conditions. Who, for example, will ever forget Bird's dominance in the 97-degree heat of the famed 1984 Heat Game against LA? While the Lakers gagged for air and referee Hugh Evans collapsed due to dehydration, Bird fired in 34 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, shot 15-for-20 and said it reminded him of a typical summer night back in French Lick and 'tweren't really no big deal.

But the world at large will most remember his offensive exploits, so let's talk about scoring for a spell. Larry Bird could score. How 'bout that 60-point night in New Orleans? How about those Hawk subs just about falling off the bench when Larry hits an outrageous three? How 'bout 32 points coming in one combined playing stretch of 14 minutes? "The amazing thing," reflected Jimmy Rodgers, "was that those points were coming out of the offense. That wasn't a lopsided game. He was scoring points that we needed."

Scoring Points That We Needed. Now that was a Bird specialty. Start with the 11 game-winning shots in the final five seconds of games, or the nine game-tyers in the same circumstance. Think of the other fabled big shots just outside that time boundary. The game-deciding pull-up banker against Philly in 1981 . . . The clever reverse follow-up to win Houston 1 in '81 . . . The icy fallaway with 16 seconds left to win LA 4 in '84 . . . And we are discussing only the tip of the iceberg, for sure.

How many times did Bird take over the fourth quarter to make sure it would never get to the final shot? Fifty? Seventy-five? At least. The Dominique Shootout is Exhibit A. Thanks to Larry's 9-for-10 fourth quarter, the game didn't come down to the final possession. And how about the little show he put on in the seventh game against Detroit in '87? Remember nailing those five in a row in the fourth as the score was going back and forth, including that you've-gotta-be-kidding-me lefty banker from 15 feet, the one Magic Johnson said had the Lakers howling in disbelief as theywatched on TV in Santa Barbara, some 3,000 miles away?

He lived for fourth quarters, and he lived to take big shots. "Lots of guys will take the shot if the score is tied or if they're up by 1," he said, "but not so many want it if you're down 1 or 2." Bird always wanted it. Always. He always wanted the ball in his hands, anyway. If someone would be foolish enough to double-team, Larry would simply deliver the ball to the right person.

Larry's offense was up there with anyone's. He once scored 15 points against the Knicks in a shade over four minutes on four official field goal attempts. Even he doesn't believe it, but it's true. Ready? Illegal defense technical, 3-pointer, 3-pointer, two free throws, inside 3-point play, inside 3-point play. He was 4 for 4 from the floor, five free throws, 15 points. Thank you very much. And speaking of the Knicks, how about the time he was scoreless at the half and wound up with a 26-10-10 stat line? Have we mentioned the 11-for-11 first half in San Antonio? Or the 25-for-34 3-point run in 1986?

Those damnable injuries made his last five years a constant struggle. He may never have been better than during the exhibition season and first six games of the '87-88 season. In the second game he had 47 in Washington, including a game-tying 3 and a game-winning basket in OT. Two games later, he put up the first and only 40-point, 20-rebound game in Celtic history. (It was a reminder of his early youthful greatness on the boards. Forgotten now is the fact that he once had five offensive rebounds in four consecutive games). But three games after the Washington masterpiece, he ruined both Achilles' tendons while making a behind-the-back move in Cleveland, and that led to the double heel surgery the following year. As for the back, you are already distressingly familiar with that scenario.

There were subsequent thunderstorms of Bird virtuosity here and there, the last of which came last March 15, when he reached back from God-knows-where with that 49-point, 14-rebound, 12-assist Rembrandt against Portland. There was the 14-assist Garden farewell Picasso against Cleveland in Game 6. There was even the absolute, positive and ultimate Last Hurrah, a turn-back-the-clock display of shooting and passing wizardry against Germany over in Barcelona.

By then, Bird knew it was over. He was playing only for the medal.

Given his druthers, he would have charted those last five years differently, but he's a pragmatist, and Larry Bird knows that all you can do in life is work hard and take what you get. He retires knowing things other players will never know, having an inner satisfaction a billion dollars couldn't buy. He'll actually know, for example, what it felt like to change the course of a human event. He'll know what it was like to be Larry Bird on June 8, 1986.


FLCeltsFan said...

This Grampa Celtic marathon is fun. Having to read them in between getting work done, though.

he applied an exclam,ation point to his historic performance by tricky-dribbling around a startled Bill Walton ("He was in my way") into the deep left corner in order to swish a garbage-time three-pointer.

Tee hee. I can just see that. And hear Big Bill going on about it afterwards. :)

Lex said...

Reminds me of the three in game 6.

Sports illustrated noted

Bird started dribbling AWAY from the basket, only to move behind the 3 point line and hoist the most arrogant shot in NBA history.

Something like that anyway.

FLCeltsFan said...

Bird could talk trash and back it up.

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