Unlike Magic, Bird is Carrying his Team

February 25, 1980

It is becoming difficult to exaggerate the effect that Larry Bird has had on the Celtics. As the club travels around the country, rivals are becoming more explicit in their praise. And just this week Utah Jazz coach Tom Nissalke uttered the most powerful endorsement yet of the Celtics' rookie.

"Larry Bird," said Nissalke, "is the best rookie to come into the league since Bill Walton. I really believe that if he had gone to Los Angeles they would only have two or three losses this season, and that if Magic Johnson had gone to Boston, they'd have no more than 36 wins. Magic is very good, but he is a spear carrier on that club. Bird is carrying the Celtics."

I was among many, incidentally, who had the incorrect impression that coach Bill Fitch had gone to Bird after the injury to Dave Cowens and explained that the team would need more out of him in the scoring department. It never happened. What did happen was that the team began to call his number more. The rest has been the result of Bird's own initiative.

"Larry has done more than his share (averaging 25 points a game since the Cowens injury)," explains Fitch, "because he is smart enough to realize what has to be done with Dave out. Sure, we've gone to him more, but it's basically been a case of Larry taking charge."

Fitch has low-keyed Bird so much this season that it's often been difficult to determine his true feelings regarding the ability of his prize rookie. Lately, however, his defense mechanism has begun to break down. The fan, the artist as it were, in him is taking over, and he has become more willing to praise Bird. For example, Fitch now believes that Bird should be a first team all-star forward, along with Julius Erving. I honestly don't think Fitch would have admitted that a month ago. But, then, a month ago Bird had  only given us hints of his latent capacity to control ballgames.

The "National Basketball Express" is en route to Massachusetts, and the Commonwealth may never be the same. NBX is a two-man caravan consisting of free-lance writer Ted Rubenstein and photographer Robert (Moon) Goldstein, two basketball whackos who are putting together the ultimate book for hoop junkies, a treatise based on a season in the NBA. Traveling in a 1970 Mustang ("Airplanes are for wimps," Rubenstein explains), they will have covered 29 states and over 8000 miles before winding up the season in exotic Piscataway, N.J., on March 30. Their aim is to capture the essence of NBA life, which means the locker rooms, the bars, the fans, the towns and not just the game being played on the floor. Not all the public relations men, coaches and players know what to make of them - imagination being in short supply in these perilous times - but nothing has deterred them, not even the lack of a publisher for the book once they get it done. So as not to lose all their perspective, the hoop-crazed pair will also take in the Final Four in
Indianapolis the weekend of March 24.

How You Know You're Far, Far From Home Dept: The afternoon disc jockey on KSL, a big Salt Lake City radio station, spent several minutes discussing the high school basketball ratings appearing that day in the two Salt Lake papers. I can't quite imagine Bruce Bradley debating the merits of Cambridge Rindge and Latin and Quincy over the air, can you? . . . Utah's Allan Bristow could play for my team any time he wants. He can make open shots and he may be the most creative passing forward this side of Bird.

He's another in the long line of quality players the scouts said was "too slow" when he came out of college . . . And how about a belated tribute to referees Jake O'Donnell and Bill Saar for their expert handling of the epic Celtic-Sonic game of a week ago? O'Donnell was especially impressive with his decisive, professional handling of the 24-second violation incurred by the Celtics in the final minute . . . Paul Silas, on the difference between the Sonics of 1980 and the Celtic championship teams he played on: "We're not at their level yet. We  need more mental toughness on a nightly basis. We let too many teams who don't belong on the floor with us stay in the game, assuming that we can turn it on down the stretch and pull it out. Well, sometimes we can't. We need to develop a killer instinct so that we annihilate people the way we should." Hardly had these words escaped his mouth than the Sonics went to Chicago and lost to the Bulls . . . John Johnson describes the Sonics as "not pretty to watch, but we know how to win." Johnson also worries about playing the Celtics once Dave Cowens is back. "He's the type of player that can make a difference in those close games," Johnson pointed out.

Pete Maravich says that what has impressed him most about the Celtics is their "attitude and atmosphere." Maravich explains, "This is the only team I've ever played on where guys got on the bus in the morning and talked about basketball. It's always, How did Philly do last night? What did Seattle do?' I'm impressed by that, and by how badly the guys want to win." . . . Carl Scheer, Denver's president and general manager, is ecstatic over the deal that rid him and the organization of George McGinnis and that brought in an excellent small forward named Alex English, as well as a draft pick (Boston's 1980 choice, which the Pacers obtained originally for Earl Tatum). "You really don't know how much damage McGinnis does to your team until he's gone," Scheer says. "He has a bad effect on a team, even when he's having a good game. He'll be doing his thing, and the rest of them will be standing around watching. There's no such thing as running an offense. Worst of all are McGinnis' practice habits, which are non-existent.

You'd be surprised at the number of people around the league who feel that Gus Williams should stay put in Seattle. "They give him the green light out there," said one Celtic. "He might find it a lot different somewhere else." Williams can be a free agent at the end of the year, and agent Howard Slusher is eyeing a whopper of a contract for the Sonic guard.

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