Bird Goes Quietly

May 9, 1997

The end was unceremonious, flat, such a contrast to everything else about Larry Bird's Celtic career.

Approxmately 5:30 p.m. yesterday, four hours after the anointment of Rick Pitino as Celtic czar deep into the next millennium, the Indiana Pacers announced that Bird had accepted an offer to coach them and join the front office.

There. Done. Pitino In, Bird Out. Film at 11.

How could it end this way? How could Larry Bird leave the most fabled franchise in pro basketball and join a ragtag team that goes back no further than George McGinnis? If the Celtics are the New York Yankees of basketball, then the Pacers are the San Diego Padres. And now Larry Bird is going to coach in a building in which the sound of race cars is played over the PA.

The arrival of Pitino brings joy to Boston sports fans, but the departure of Bird cuts a small piece out of the Celtic soul.

It's not as if Bird is the first revered member of the Celtic family to work for another team. Mercenary Bill Russell coached the Seattle SuperSonics and Sacramento Kings after winning 11 championships for Boston. Bill Sharman went to Los Angeles to build a Laker dynasty in the front office. Bob Cousy coached the Kansas City Kings, and today Kevin McHale runs the Timberwolves while Danny Ainge coaches the Suns. Dave Cowens is in Charlotte, Don Nelson in Dallas. Red Auerbach has always taken pride in spawning new generations of coaches.

But Bird was special. Like no local athlete since Ted Williams, he owned this town every day of his career. The Hick From French Lick, Ind., came to be associated with Boston and only Boston. He was a walking, talking, championship banner, a chip off the old parquet. Certainly, he would be Forever Green.

Bird retired after the 1992 season, and on Feb. 4, 1993, the Celtics had the farewell of all farewells for Old Larry in the Old Garden. The joint was filled for a two-hour ceremony that inspired more local pride and passion than any nongame since the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.

In the years since his retirement, Bird's been seen too few times around Boston. He'd show up at Brandeis for an occasional practice, or sit with Red in the high-roller seats at the New Garden. He'd make some suggestions at draft time, then return to Naples, Fla., to golf, watch the kids grow, and make an occasional appearance in a major motion picture.

But that wasn't enough. Bird got bored. He wanted to get back in the game. And when it came time for Larry to throw off the gold watch and wipe his hands on the bottom of his sneakers again, the Celtics didn't have enough to interest him. Pitino is the new kid in town, and there's no room for Larry Legend.

Bird is done with the Celtics. It's not the same as Robert Parish going to play for the Hornets and Bulls, or McHale making decisions for the T-Wolves. It's not the same as Ainge in Phoenix or Cowens in Charlotte. It's not even the same as Roger Clemens pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Larry Bird is going to coach the Indiana Pacers. He's going to come into the New Garden, wearing a lame suit (a freebie, no doubt), coaching a team that wears hideous blue-and-gold uniforms. He's going to be coaching Reggie Miller, for gosh sakes.

Bird is not supposed to coach Reggie Miller. He's supposed to emerge from the Celtic locker room, head banged and bloodied, and destroy the Pacers with a hail of 3-pointers, taunting Miller every step of the way.

He's supposed to work with Antoine Walker and Eric Williams, telling them stats don't mean anything if you lose games. He's supposed to represent the Celtics at the May 18 Ping-Pong Ball Festival, bringing luck that will deliver Tim Duncan.

But now it's over. There will be no more Larry hiding out at the Chestnut Hill cinema, winning bets from sportswriters at Brandeis, or comforting Celtic fans with his presence at the New Garden.

He will not be around to do "Sports Final" with Ted and Bobby Orr. He will not raise a glass of beer at The Fours on Canal Street while he's making fun of Bill Walton. He won't be around to listen to Cedric Maxwell broadcast games, or to go to dinner with Red and avoid picking up the check.

It's great to have Pitino on board, but yesterday's euphoria should be respectfully doused by the departure of Bird. Something was lost when Larry took his game home to Indiana.

We were graced with his talent and unique persona for 18 NBA seasons. He won championships and MVPs and 3-point contests. He filled the Garden and he filled the hearts of Celtic fans. But now it's over.

Cruelly, sometimes an aging relative dies the same week a child is born into a family. It's the circle of life, and it can happen in sports. That's what this feels like. Yesterday was an important, triumphant day for the Boston Celtics. A new leader was introduced and Celtic Nation has complete confidence that Rick Pitino is absolutely the best man to restore the team to greatness.

But something was lost later in the day when Larry Bird announced he was joining the Indiana Pacers. Bob Cousy was Mr. Basketball, Bill Russell delivered the most championships, and John Havlicek was the most tireless, best all-around Celtic player . . . but Larry Bird owned this town like no athlete since Teddy Ballgame.

And now Bird works for the Indiana Pacers. This is why Thursday, May 8, 1997, turns out to be not such a great day for the Boston Celtics.


FLCeltsFan said...

Like Red, Bird is a very smart man and he knows his basketball. He was very smart to get out when Pitino took over. He's done well with the Pacers as coach and as GM.

Lex said...

I wonder how much of the departure was a perceived snub and how much was "ain't know way I'm working under him"?

FLCeltsFan said...

I read something in one of Bird's books that he didn't like Pitino and had wanted someone else hired as coach. I think it was a little of both. They hired Pitino against his wishes and once they did and Pitino made himself all powerful no way Bird was going to work under him.

Lex said...

bird and pitino would not have worked


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