Grampa Celtic Talks Larry Legend
From the beginning, Larry Bird had to deal with the national media as much as any player in the NBA, and he developed a cordial -- albeit hardly intimate -- relationship with visiting scribes. He viewed these meetings as part of the territory for a player of his stature, and through the years he grew to recognize the various faces in the locker room come playoff time. Some of those same faces now share their remembrances of No. 33:
Jerome Holtzman, Chicago Tribune: "I used to cover basketball years ago. Before the Bulls, Chicago had the Zephyrs and the Packers. I've been watching basketball since I was 14. I saw 'em all. I saw Bird first on television when he was in college. I never saw him in person until he was about a five-year pro. I saw him play against the Bulls at the Stadium. The game meant nothing. The Celtics had already clinched a playoff spot. Well, in this nothing game I never saw a player who did so much for his team as Larry Bird.
"So after the game I went downstairs (to the locker room). I said to him, 'You're the greatest player I've ever seen.' And he just looked at me as if to say, 'Who in the hell is this guy?' And that was it. I just walked away. And I'll tell you something: He is the greatest player. Unfortunately, people will forget him. And these people who think Jordan is the greatest player just don't understand the game. My friends here in Chicago think I'm crazy."
Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press: "The thing I remember most about him was the Isiah thing (when Thomas said that if Bird were black he'd be just another guy). It was such an enormous controversy across the country and a front-page story here. I remember the look on Bird's face. He had that kind of smirk, like, 'What the hell is the big fuss about?' It was like, 'Come on, come back to earth.' I admired him for that. I thought that was one of the few times that athletes had better perspective than we did.
"I'm not sure Isiah ever appreciated how much (Bird) did for Isiah's career. If he had wanted to make it an issue he could have, but he saw it as something that wasn't worth the attention it was getting and he came to Isiah's rescue. He didn't have to do that. And I don't think he even liked Isiah. But it told me the guy stood up when he saw something that was worth doing."
Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times: "The one thing I remember is at Barcelona. I decided one day to go out to watch a baseball game, and it was a long trip. You had to go by train, then bus, then metro. I get there and who do I see standing in line but Larry Bird. And he was way back in line, like the 55th guy, just standing there waiting to get in like everyone else. I thought that was pretty amazing."
Mark Whicker, Orange County Register: "I'll never forget the look in his eye in that baby hook game in the 1987 Finals (Game 4, won by the Lakers on Magic Johnson's baby hook in the closing seconds). He missed the shot (at the buzzer), and he always had made those. I don't think it ever occurred to him that he would miss it. And I think the way he looked at Magic reflected positively on him. And that always made me feel better, because not many guys are like that today."
David Halberstam, author: "There is something about him that not only makes you like him but even makes you like the country. His is a non-fake story. There is such an elemental truth about him. Here is this shy white kid with almost the pathology of a black family, playing in this black world. He played at the best level with a toughness of mind and a toughness of spirit, and it was always about the game.
"I remember encountering him on an elevator in Phoenix his rookie year and congratulating him on having such a sensational season -- even calling him Mister Bird -- and he just turned away from me. He couldn't handle it. But as time went on, he grew into himself. In time, his ability to explain who he was caught up with his talent.
"He worked so hard to get where he was, and yet held on to his inner truths. He was so basic and truthful in an age with such a high density of B.S. We live in a age of hype, but in Larry Bird's case, the reverse was true. It took a long time for the hype to catch up with the reality of how good he was.
"He had a certain fourth-quarter look. He'd come out of a timeout and you knew on his face that he was prepared to do whatever it was going to take, be it score, rebound, pass or whatever. He never got ahead of himself, and he was always true to himself. He is so smart, but he simply applied that intelligence to basketball."
Tom Boswell, Washington Post: "Larry Bird is my all-time favorite athlete in any sport. Of all the athletes I've seen in my life, if I could only watch one, I'd watch Bird. When I watched Magic, I didn't get half the excitement I got watching Bird. I found him more creative with fewer gifts. I never saw any athlete in any sport invent so many things that didn't have names -- things that still don't have names."
Tom Callahan, US News and World Report: "I remember that I told him I was going to go to French Lick. He asked me if I knew Bob Ryan, and I said yes. He said, 'I've known Bob Ryan for six years, and it was just last year I let him go to French Lick.' I said, 'Hey, I'm not applying for a visa.' He laughed. He said, 'If you leave my little brother alone, I'll have my big brother (Mark) pick you up at the airport.' (Younger brother Eddie was a basketball player who saw enough Larry hype at Indiana State.)
"I was completely charmed by Larry. I read him as a guy who wanted to be more learned than he was. When I was talking to him, he was reading Schlesinger's book on Bobby Kennedy. That really impressed me. He was on Page 80 and said, 'It'll take me forever to read this.' The reason he was doing it was that you've got to know about the Kennedys if you live in Boston. A lot of superstar athletes wouldn't try to broaden themselves that way."
Peter Vecsey, USA Today: "What stands out about Larry Bird? Everything stands out. That's the truth. He's my favorite player of all those I covered. There's nobody close. I get choked up talking about him. That's how much I enjoyed being around him. He's the only guy I ever covered who never, ever said 'off the record' to me. He was a gold mine. He tells the best stories. He acts like every one of my friends down at the gym.
"Sport magazine sent me to do a piece on him in '86. I called him quicky and set it up. I had to shoot down to Philadelphia, where we were going to go out after the game. I had just gotten my first BMW that day. It was a brand new 528. So I drive down, put the first miles on the car. I wait. He comes into my car, along with Jerry Sichting. He smells the new leather. He takes out a beer from a six-pack he had in his bag and says, 'Hey, new car, let's break it in.' He made like he was going to start throwing beer around the car, and I'm sick. I'm screaming. He totally had me going. He didn't do it, but he had me going, just like one of my guys at the gym.
"I made one trip with the Celtics in '86, and we played one-on-one at practice. At Sacramento. I started hand-checking him, and he slapped my hand so hard I thought he broke my hand. He looked at me and said, 'Are you here to play basketball or are you here to foul me?' And he proceeded to kick my ass. I had so much respect for him that he wouldn't take it easy on me.
"He's the only guy whose book I wanted to ghostwrite. I would have loved to have hung out with him for a few months."
Frank Deford, formerly of Sports Illustrated: "Everybody's talked about how important he was to the success of recovering the NBA. I do think he and Magic were as important a team as ever existed. Together they added up to Babe Ruth in baseball. I don't think you can divorce Bird from Magic. (Bird's) race was crucial at the time. I don't think it's crucial anymore. He made it so that you'll never need another white guy to be important. That's what's most interesting of all. It's not an issue anymore. I also think that what was so important about Bird was not that he was white, but it was easy to identify with him. He is an everyman character.
"The night he was honored with his statue, I was sitting at a table with Bobby Orr. Bobby had never even met Bird. All of a sudden, Bird starts talking about how he always looked up at Orr's number during the national anthem. It was like the air went out of Bobby Orr. It was really touching."
- #05 (Walton)
- #08 (Wedman)
- #12 (Sichting)
- 1971-72 Lakers
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- Larry & Magic
- NBA Scoreboard
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- Walton Gang (1977)