October 9, 1991
"When Larry's feeling good, he chirps more," said Celtics coach Chris Ford. " 'In your face' and all that stuff. The on-the-court banter surfaces when he's healthy."
Gauging Larry Bird's health has become a national pastime. We as a nation monitored his mangled finger in the early '80s, then graduated to the more sophisticated tracking of his cranky elbow as the decade wore on. During the 1988-89 season, we studied his bone spurs and sensitive heel tendons, and last season we followed the riveting story (coming soon in a made-for-TV movie) of facets, congenitally small openings and bulging discs.
Back trouble. Back surgery. Will Bird return?
Yes, he will. In fact, Bird has participated in each of the team's two-a-day practice sessions since camp opened last Friday. The franchise forward reports no problems other than the usual preseason soreness that accompanies the opening of every camp, not just ones after back surgery.
Bird looks so good that his coaches and teammates have to remind themselves that he is still in that ever-delicate stage of rehabilitation.
"I could not say this guy had back surgery from what I've seen,' said Ford. "He has not shied away from anything. He's even going up against Steve (Hulk) Scheffler."
"I never expected to see him out there this early," said Reggie Lewis.
Bird expected nothing else. After undergoing his second major operation in three years, he pointed toward opening night as his return. Any other target date would have been counterproductive, he reasoned. And so he learned to walk, not run, through the summer. He cozied up with a cumbersome back brace and fought the urge to push beyond the regimen the team's medical staff designed for him. The restrained diligence has reaped early rewards, yet Bird remains cautious.
"I have no idea how things are going to go," he said, "but so far, so good."
If there is one thing Bird detests nearly as much as being injured, it's talking about injuries. When he is hurt, he shuns the media and stops chirping. He was clearly uncomfortable with providing a progress report, which he did grudgingly.
"It takes a while for me to get going," he said. "I want to get to the point where this is not an everyday thing, and you won't have to keep asking me how my back will be.
"I know I've got a long season ahead, and the pounding is going to take its toll. We'll see."
Those who were Bird watching yesterday could not detect any discomfort. Players on the floor can instinctively detect tentativeness, and while teammates said there was some, they stressed it was only in tiny increments.
"You can tell he's favoring it a little bit," reported Lewis, "but overall he's doing really well."
"He seems to be feeling pretty good," concurred Joe Kleine, who spent most of the morning session guarding Bird. "You've got to remember, he hasn't really practiced in a long time.
"And the times he did practice last year, he just wasn't himself. He didn't seem able to enjoy it as much. Now he's back to normal, talking trash again."
That's chirping, Joe, a pastime Bird is scheduled to engage in Friday in exhibition action against the Lakers.
Full speed ahead, Larry?
"I don't know," said Bird. "I have to get myself ready for the regular season. I don't think I'll be diving around for too many balls."
In truth, you can't alter Bird's instincts, and if floor burns are in his near future, the brass will have to sweat them out.
"It's very difficult to monitor how another human being feels," said Ford. "We do our best to follow Larry's status, but he's a stubborn guy."
Watch Larry run. Watch Larry jump. Watch Larry dive? If you hear him chirping, relax. Then you know he's back.