Larry Bird: Only Moses Should Make More Money

Summer 1983

Larry Bird and incoming co-0wner Alan Cohen of the Celtics are in agreement on one thing: Bird deserves to be the second-highest paid player in the NBA. Last week Bird said, "I feel Moses Malone ($2.2 million per year) should be the only player paid more than I am." Asked yesterday if he agreed with that, Cohen said, "Yes."

If Bird is to reach his goal, he'll be getting anywhere from $1.5 million to$2 million per year, depending on which figures and incentives are applied.Bird's agent/attorney, Bob Woolf, claims that Magic Johnson currently makes$2 million per year from the Lakers. The Celtics maintain that Malone's base salary is around $1.8 million with incentives that can boost it to $2.2million.

"You'd have to be able to compare apples to oranges to figure out who's the second-highest paid player," said Jan Volk, the Celtics' assistant general manager.Cohen, Don Gaston and Paul Dupee have made a deal to purchase the Celtics from Harry Mangurian and are awaiting a league vote of approval. Meanwhile, general manager Red Auerbach and Woolf are trying to hammer out an agreement before Bird's Oct. 1 deadline. Bird is entering the final year of his original contract (five years at $650,000 per year) and has stated he'll become a free agent unless signed before the start of training camp.

Auerbach returned to town last night and Woolf said he would try to arrange an appointment with him this afternoon. They met twice last week. Bird Era to Continue in Boston There were smiles, congratulations and verbal high fives all over the place. Throw in a few cases of the bubbly and the Bo Winiker Band and you would have thought it was a royal wedding or championship team reunion.

It was a marriage of sorts, and there is certainly reason for the Celtics fandom to celebrate. For richer, not poorer, Larry Bird and the Celtics have pledged to be partners for seven more seasons, which means that long-spoiled Boston hoop legions will have the privilege of watching Sir Larry toil in Boston Garden until the end of the 1989-90 season. After a long summer of good, bad and ugly press conferences, the Celtics ended their 1983 offseason on the best and brightest of notes.

In the presence of co-owner Alan Cohen, new coach K. C. Jones, agent Bob Woolf, superstar Bird and the assembled media, venerable general manager Red Auerbach announced that Bird will finish his career with the Celtics. "We're happy, we hope he's happy and all the players are excited," said Auerbach. "I think it's going to be a very interesting season." Sounding like the unaffected French Lick, Ind., hick who first appeared on the Boston scene in 1979, Bird said, "Money has never really bothered me. You still got to go out and produce.

"Just because I got the big contract I'm not gonna lie down and say, OK, guys, go do the work.' This just makes me want to try harder than ever. I hope I don't change. "I wasn't a poor boy before I signed this contract. Just because Igot a few dollars in my pocket doesn't mean I'm better than anyone else." Exactly how many dollars is open to speculation. On Tuesday, Woolf made it sound as if the deal would enable Bird to fund the third harbor tunnel and the depression of the central artery while still comfortably covering his own living expenses.

The buoyant Woolf had announced that the contract was "better than Moses." (Malone has a six-year deal worth $2.3 million a year plus incentives.) Later it was widely reported that Bird would receive $2.1 million a year for seven years. The estimates appear to be somewhat exaggerated. Bird has admitted that the deal calls for him to play seven seasons, but Tuesday night he said the $2.1-million figure was too high. "I have no idea what Bob (Woolf) is doing," one Celtic official said yesterday. "Those figures ($2.1 million) are not even close." Woolf hedged yesterday, saying, "We're not going to get involved with contract numbers. We had a meeting today, and this is the way the Celtics wanted to run things."

"I'm just satisfied with it," said Bird. "You can speculate all you want, but you'll never get it." One source pointed out that although Bird's deal may be less than $2 million a year, none of the money will be deferred and no incentive clauses are included. The formal signing came just two days before Bird's deadline. The star forward had repeatedly stated that he would become a free agent next spring unless his deal was set before the start of training camp. All parties agreed that Monday's negotiating session, in which Bird and Auerbach talked face to face, was the key. "I think Red has started to mellow," said Bird. "It was unbelievable. We were already so close when we started talking."

Auerbach was quick to credit the backing of the new ownership. "We called 'em," said Auerbach, "and as soon as we told 'em what it was about, it was bang-bang, OK." "We weren't buying the Celtics to have the Celtics without Larry Bird," said Cohen, part owner with Don F. Gaston and Paul Dupee. "The Boston Celtic franchise as it existed the last couple of years would not be the same without Larry Bird."

I doubt if there has ever been a so-called "negotiation" like it. You might rightfully suggest the name of Bobby Orr, who in his prime was not exactly unappreciated by the Boston Bruins, but with him there was always the problem of dubious health. There are simply no impediments when we are talking about Larry Bird. What is there to argue about? Bob Woolf doesn't have to pitch Larry Bird to Red Auerbach. They could just as easily reverse their seats at the table. In fact, if Red Auerbach were to enter his second life as a player agent there is no doubt whom he would choose to represent. Red really couldn't say this publicly, given what he and the Celtics owe to the likes of Bob Cousy, Bill Russell and John Havlicek, but I'll say it for him. Larry Bird has become his boy, the unquestioned apple of Poppa Red's eye. Red wants to make Larry Bird as rich as he can.

Not only that, but Red may only be vice president of the Larry Bird Fan Club. If Red ever forgets a positive aspect of Bird's game, K. C. Jones will be there to remind him. In all my years of covering sports, I have never heard a respected professional offer such unqualified praise of an athlete as I've heard K. C. Jones bestow upon Larry Bird. (Possible exception: Jim Palmer talking about himself).

Bird's edge in this matter is very simple. He has become bigger than the team in the public eye. It would be foolish for anyone even remotely connected with the Boston Celtics to think that the ongoing string of Boston Garden sellouts would have been accomplished without the presence of Larry Bird. The combination of his skill and his style has put the Celtics over the top in this town. Were he to leave, the Big Honeymoon would be over. Moreover, given the resurgence of the Bruins, the latent hockey interest in greater Boston would again be evident. The Bruins could regain their former No. 1 winter status, and the Celtics could again be scuffling, hoping to pull 12,000 a night.

Can it be doubted that Larry Bird represents the difference between a 60- win Celtic team drawing a basic 12,000 to 13,000 a night, and selling out the big ones (Philly, LA, Milwaukee, etc.), and having what they have now, which are nightly SRO crowds? There are very few individual athletes with legitimate box office credentials among team sport performers, but Larry Bird is surely one of them. I trust that Donald Gaston, Paul Dupee and Alan Cohen had a firm grasp of this before they invested their $15 million in this venture. If not, I assume that Red has outlined the facts of Boston athletic life to them. Without Larry Bird, their investment is doomed. Period.

Naturally, in this world of salary caps, there is a limit to what any team can do for any one individual. Philadelphia has chosen to pay Moses Malone something in the neighborhood of $2 million a year, and we draw the obvious inference via Mr. Woolf that Larry would like something comparable - well, you know - just because. I can't fault Larry's thinking. I think he should be paid more than anyone else. But, hey, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale (already flirting with the $1- million mark himself), Cedric Maxwell and Dennis Johnson aren't exactly four cups of cold coffee themselves, if you get my drift. Auerbach has got to think in terms of a sane salary structure (sanity in sports economics being quite relative) while properly rewarding someone he recognizes to be unique in the history of the activity Auerbach knows better than anyone on earth.

Keep in mind that when Larry Bird says he will not negotiate past Oct. 1, that he would become a free agent instead, you can take his word. That would place a permanent invisible aura of dread over the entire season. Sure, the Celtics could eventually retain him by matching whatever offer Bird were to receive in 1984, but who needs the headache? Why place a cloud over this coming season? Why risk the possibility that some nutcake would make Bird the proverbial offer he couldn't refuse, one that even the Celtics, appreciating Bird as they do, would be unwilling to equal? Unfortunately, anything is possible in sports these days.

In any event, Larry Bird will become rich, no matter who signs him. If we assume that he will have a difficult time figuring out how to spend that kind of money to start with, then we can say that it's in the best interests of all concerned that Bird permanently re-up with the Celtics, with players he knows in a city where he has become comfortable. I know it's in my best interest. He's the microcosm of all the beauty inherent in the sport and I can't stomach the thought of him playing anywhere else.


Moses Eats What? Malone gets the Last Laugh

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1981-82 Boston Celtics

"I don't care what the fans do," Moses Malone said. "They pay their money. They can come here buck naked if they want. I don't care."

For two hours he had been on public display, subjected to public ridicule. He had been treated as if he were some great beast that had been brought home by conquering Roman legions. He had been a captured grizzly to be taunted, the paying customers running to yell things at him last night at Boston Garden, signs being unfurled to mock him, the whole show seemingly designed to get his attention, to make him notice, to make him snarl.

The basis to the night had been some things he had said during the National Basketball Assn. playoffs last spring, followed by a thing the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird had said in reply. Moses Malone consistently had demeaned the Celtics during the playoffs, saying "I could find four guys in my hometown who could come up here and beat the Boston Celtics." Bird had spoken the comeback word after the Celts had won the title, four games to two, by agreeing with a sign at the City Hall victory celebration that Moses eats - well, something that is not very nice.

Since this game last night was the first meeting between Malone and the Rockets and Bird and the Celtics since all that happened, the entire thing had been dragged onto the stage again. Bigger now. Uglier. A group of young guys unfurled a banner behind the West basket that read "Moses Eats . . . " with a picture of a dog going to the bathroom, leaving a product. The Garden crowd of 15,320 periodically went into a chant about what Moses eats. T shirts had been on sale outside the Garden saying - in Celtic green, of course - what Moses eats.

There was some humor involved, or attempted humor, but there also was ugliness. This was the joke carried one step too far. The joke was not funny anymore.

"What'd you think about the shirts?" Moses Malone was asked.

"I think some smart man made some money off some ignorant people," Moses replied. "That's what I think."

"What'd you think about the crowd?"

"They love me here, don't they?" Moses said, a little grin on his face. "They should love me, anyway. They love Jesus, so why don't they love Moses?"

"What'd you think about the game?"

Here Moses smiled a little more. That was the kicker, wasn't it?

"I think we got together in the second half," he said. "I think we played some solid defense and got working."

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