Larry Bird Didn't Deserve his MVPs
Les Payne, Newsday
LARRY BIRD retired from professional basketball Tuesday, and so for the absolute last time I will attempt to demonstrate that the wings he has sprouted for his Ascent into the Heavens have been fashioned mainly out of press clippings.
Let me state up front that Larry Bird is a superstar. He doesn't need, nor would he probably accept, my qualified rating of his achievements as opposed to his reputation. Sportswriters who embrace him as an icon for their children will forever ensure that the good that Bird has done - and only the good - will never be interred with his bones.
"The greatest basketball player ever" already lights up the jock-talk about Bird's retirement on the airwaves and in the barrooms. Others claim that his 12-year dream career with the Boston Celtics was unblemished. Still others speak of his "work ethic," his "intelligence," his "classic moves," his "intangibles."
Before number 33 is retired to the Hall of Fame, Larry Bird's name is being associated with those other Gibraltars of the sports world such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Red Grange and Rocky Marciano. Most of their "immortal" records have been broken. But these superstars at least had records.
Larry Bird has none. Bird owns not a single individual achievement record, not offense and certainly not defense. Didn't need any. In a career of a dozen years, he did not lead the league in a significant category for a single season, or even a single game. With sportswriters keeping the books, who needs statistics?
All athletes do, I submit, and certainly the best superstars. Without statistics, an athlete, unlike, say, a politician, a surgeon or an artist, is nothing. The quality of his performance is left entirely up to the subjective judgment of those who witnessed - and sometimes exaggerated - his play.
Bird's three Most Valuable awards fall into that category. They were subjective calls by superheated judges with one eye on Bird's newspaper clippings and the other on his intangibles. But without leading the league in a single significant category for at least one year, no player - Bird included - can be considered "the best."
One of the most interesting media comments about Bird this week was that he "saved basketball in America." It is never clearly stated from what this blond athlete saved this uniquely American game. This salvation myth, of course, has to do with TV network executives' demands for a white star before they were willing to sign professional basketball to lucrative broadcasting contracts in the late 1970s.
This peculiar corporate outlook said more about America than about Bird. He was simply an Indiana country boy who lived to play basketball, and who just happened to be white.
It is one thing to say that Bird attracted big TV money to basketball broadcasting; it is quite another to argue that he saved the game itself.
It was the media, not Bird, that elevated him to the godhead, a distinction usually reserved for whites. Some athletes mock this tribal exuberance of white American sportswriters. Touted as the world's greatest sprinter years after winning the 100-meter dash at the 1972 Olympics, Russian Valery Borzov referred to himself as "the world's best white sprinter."
The tendency extends to most American professional endeavors, especially music. Elvis Presley, despite strong competition from Chuck Berry, ends up the King of Rock 'n' Roll, and Paul Whiteman the King of Jazz. When Dave Brubeck's picture graced the cover of Time magazine as the first jazz man to be so honored, he was reportedly so embarrassed that he apologized to Duke Ellington.
Bird has not been so gracious, although it must be said that the former Hoosier has not been one to portray himself as the Second Coming. There is no record, however, of any attempts by him to dispel the media's promotion of the nonsense about his unsurpassed greatness.
Bird is not only not the greatest basketball player of all time, he is not even the best of his generation. Magic Johnson and several other current players are better; Michael Jordan is immeasurably better.
But Bird has the best press clips.
- #05 (Walton)
- #08 (Wedman)
- #12 (Sichting)
- 1971-72 Lakers
- 2007-08 Scores
- Banner 17
- Grassy Knoll Network
- Green Mile
- Larry & Magic
- NBA Scoreboard
- Russell v. Chamberlain
- Walton Gang (1977)