Return with me to Saturday, May 17, 1986. It is Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks. In the first period Larry Bird, a forward, has seven assists. Six are layups, real assists, old-fashioned assists, Tricky Dick McGuire assists.
"He was a dealer in Three-Card Monte as Bucks came to surround him," wrote the great Leigh Montville, "and he neatly zipped the ball through their arms, legs, whatever for easy baskets for someone else. He was magic."
No forward has ever played the game this way. "He gave me at least five baskets where I didn't have to do a thing," said Kevin McHale (speaking of quasi-fictional characters). "All I had to do was stand there. Didn't do a thing."
"He had one thing on his mind at all times," says Auerbach, "and that was to win. He made everyone around him play better."
When I think of Larry Bird, I don't think first of the huge scoring outputs such as the 60-point game against the Hawks that March night in New Orleans or the 9-for-10, 20-point fourth quarter against Atlanta in '88.
I think of the Boston Garden Heat Game against LA in '84, when Kareem & Co. were sucking on oxygen and Larry was frolicking his way to 15 for 20 and 17 rebounds in 97-degree heat. I think of K.C. Jones saying practice would be called if anyone could sink a shot from midcourt and Larry immediately grabbing the ball and preventing practice with one shot. I think of him sitting in the visiting locker room in Milwaukee's Mecca after being swept by the Bucks and vowing to go home and come back a better ballplayer. I think about him diving for the ball in Game 4 of the '87 Milwaukee series and firing an amazing pass to McHale for a dunk from a sitting position. I think of an inexplicable and completely unnecessary 15-foot, lefthanded banker in the middle of a great fourth-quarter Game 7 run against Detroit in '87.
I think about him spurning Jones's invitation to go for a quadruple-double in Salt Lake City ("I've already done enough damage"). I think about him calling a banked 3-pointer to New York trainer Mike Sauders in the middle of a game. I think about him standing in front of 20,000 people at City Hall Plaza and describing the eating habits of Moses Malone. I think about him taking $160 of Dan Shaughnessy's money by sinking 86 of 100 free throws with his right hand taped shut. I think about him returning to Game 5 against Indiana in '91 like the cavalry after landing on his head in the second quarter. I think of the way he used the media to get to the crowd before big games. I think about him looking up at Bobby Orr's number 4 during the anthem, because "when I retire, I want people to look at me the way they do at him." I think about him saying, "Tell Dudley Bradley to cut his damn fingernails."
More legend: Every year somebody or other sinks some threes and sets a new record of some sort, but don't ever be fooled. I am here to say that Larry Bird remains the King of the Three-Pointers because no one has ever better understood the psychological effect of the three better than Larry Bird. And I doubt if anyone will ever match his 1986 25-for-34 3-point run from the real 3-point distance, either. There are guys today who can shoot threes, but only Larry Bird ever made it an art form.
He always understood what real leadership was, and he never ran from it. He knew he was different and better than everybody else, and he knew what responsibilities went with the territory. "There's no question I'm the leader of this team," he once said. "Guys look at me and how I play and it determines how they play. I know that. I recognize that. I don't mean running around and everything on the floor. I might have done that my first few years, trying to lead. I mean making the plays."
Healthy or injured -- and when injured he simply refused to discuss the matter -- he made plays when they were most needed. He was the superstar with the 12th man mentality. No millionaire player ever went after more loose balls. "I don't ever want to be sitting in a locker room after losing a game by 2 points thinking back to a time when I could have gone to the floor and made the play for those points, but didn't," he explained. "That's never happened to me once. And I don't want it ever to happen."
It never did. The only thing left now is for Larry Bird to solve the mystery. Once upon a time, he said, "There's a secret to playin' basketball. But I ain't tellin' what it is."
To me, Larry Bird was, and always will be, the personification of the sport, the one whose game was a microcosm of all the sport has to offer. He could shoot, he could pass, he could rebound, he could disrupt the other team's offense, and he could think three steps ahead of the mortal players (pull out the tape of Houston Game 6 in '86 if you want to see a man dominating every aspect of a basketball game).
The only other person who has ever seen what Larry saw and knew deep inside what Larry knew was, of course, Magic Johnson, his great friend and rival. Michael? No, Michael is an entirely different matter, as Larry was first in the NBA to identify and then articulate. Michael Jordan plays a different game. But don't ever think it's a better one.