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."
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
"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
"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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.