Walton: Bird Better Rookie than Magic (1980)

February 1, 1980

Larry Bird is barely two-thirds of the way through his first regular season in the NBA and already he is being taken for granted.

People have a hard time admitting the obvious. Out-of-towners are pretending that other rookies are his equal as a ballplayer when they are not. What's even more amazing is tha tmany people locally are so casually accepting his greatness.

It has become, for example, a favorite pastime of some media folk to speculate on who is the Celtics Most Valuable Player. The popular favorite in some circles is Tiny Archibald, and that's all right, as long as you re-define the concept to read "Most Indispensable." Until Pete Maravich proves he can do the job, Tiny remains the only legitimate floor leader on this club. But he is not the best player.

Likewise, the Celtics need Dave Cowens to be a great team. While Dave is not the player of four years ago, he is still the team's best defensive player, and he is a true captain and leader. His prolonged absence would severely hamper this team. I have certainly not come here to knock Dave Cowens, who remains my all-time favorite player, and who is one of my favorite people as well.

But I wonder exactly what game people have been watching if they haven't noticed what Larry Bird has been doing. Hey, people, wake up. Larry Bird is the reason for the passing madness which has engulfed the Celtics. Larry Bird has given this team, which is neither very strong nor very swift, a dimension of full-court basketball it couldn't have otherwise. Without Larry Bird the Celtics would be much easier to defense. You must realize this.

Maybe the reason Bird has sort of slid out of the public consciousness is the low key reaction of the coach. Bill Fitch is a trained professional who sees both the good and bad in everyone. In this sense, he is the perfect coach for Bird at this stage of his career, for Fitch will make him work hard to overcome his weaknesses. Fitch points out that he is getting paid, in part, to find the things a Larry Bird can't do and thus find a way to eliminate or overcome those deficiencies. Therefore, Fitch has done anything but gush over Bird.

Well, somebody's got to, and I'm gonna. I know there are areas in which Bird can improve, but that's what is so exciting to me. All I can think of is what he is going to be, once he has a year's experience, once he ceases to become a media event and becomes merely a great athlete and once his damaged right index finger is fixed. Meanwhile, Larry Bird has scored 19 points a game (while often shooting far too little), has led the team in rebounds and has posed enormous defensive problems for every opponent.

I hate to mention the stats because their fraudulence is legendary. There is, for example, no category for what I call the "pass-before-the-pass." That's the pass which opens up the floor and which creates the assist. Not since Bill Bradley retired has anyone so consistently made this pass in a half court offense as has Larry Bird. And that's before mentioning his great outlet passes. How many times have you seen this? Bird rebounds and flings a pass some 50 feet to spring the Celtics for a two-on-one fast break. I submit that any two professionals, be they 7 feet 4or 5 feet 11, ought to be able to finish off a two-on-one nine out of 10 times. So one of them gets the basket and the other gets the assist. Bird gets nothing - officially.

What must be remembered is that Bird, though he can go one-on-one (did you see him take Sidney Wicks and throw that running lefty hook in his face?), is like John Havlicek, a team player. He is totally wired into the other four men, the result being that some of his achievements are subtle ones. Another factor is that people become so worried about what Bird might do that they leave themselves open to something else.

It's no accident that the smart opponents are the ones who appreciate him the most. Jamaal Wilkes was lavish in praise of Bird, and just the other day San Diego Clipper Bill Walton declared that Bird had done a lot more for the Celtics than Earvin Johnson had done for the Lakers because Bird had turned around a team while Magic had essentially augmented Kareem, and that Bird's approach to the game reminded him of Havlicek's. The flip side, of course, is that a moron like Joe Bryant declares that Bird is "too slow."

Bird is a prodigy who is just learning how to use his powers. In many ways he had been holding back, not wishing to dominate play, for whatever reason. But he has earned the respect of his peers (among other reasons, because he is so damn tough, in a football-hockey sense) and they would welcome a show of ego.

Lord, how lucky we hoop freaks have been in this town. From Russell to Cowens in one year, and now from Havlicek to Bird. We are truly the Hoop God's Chosen People.

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