It was left to Larry Bird to wash away the pain and the fears of this wicked week. Has he ever let you down?
Bird last night passed his first test of 1991-92, playing 33 minutes and scoring 11 points in his fabled, favorite gym against his fabled, favorite opponents, the Los Angeles Lakers.
For four months, we've seen nothing but medical diagrams and hopeful quotes from Bird and Dr. Arnold Scheller. Last night we finally saw No. 33 in motion, and he looked a lot like the Larry Bird of the first dozen years. He ran the pick-and-roll, threw the no-look passes, drained the step-back, yelled at the young players, got beat on the baseline by James Worthy and wiped dust off the bottom of his sneakers. It was just like the old days.
"I feel pretty good right now," Bird said after the game. "I've only been playing for 10 days and I'm just starting to get in shape. I've got some soreness throughout my body, but my back feels pretty good."
The Celtics lost by 14, but it was a pretty good show, especially after we cynics had wondered just how they'd manage to get a game played. Earlier in the day, the Garden ice was used by Boston College and the Bruins. In the afternoon, dozens of man hours were spent assembling the new revolving ad board that lines the perimeter of the parquet (the NBA today is only a little less commercial than Formula I racing; we're looking forward to Kevin McHale wearing a Valvoline sticker across his shorts). NBA Entertainment sent a crew to do a Larry Bird Olympic video. The league also dispatched two photographers to take some official Bird photos. Meanwhile, the gang from "Cheers" cooled their heels waiting for the end of the game. Normie, Cliff and Co. grabbed McHale and started taping at 11 p.m. They booked the Garden until 4 this morning.
It's safe to say that Bird didn't waste his day in front of the tube watching Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. "I saw about five minutes of that, when the girl was on," he said.
He seemed like his old self, attempting to take people's money by shooting 3-pointers for $ 5 during late-afternoon practice.
Bird looked healthy and trim, not bad for a guy who spent three months in a back brace after two-hour surgery for removal of a disc June 7.
Pregame reports from Hellenic College were good, but too many of those practices were behind closed doors and Bird didn't practice with the team Wednesday. Was this a sign of something bad?
Bird was the final player introduced last night. He was cheered with great gusto. Big surprise. You thought he was going to get the Matt Young/Don Zimmer treatment, right?
It didn't take long for Bird to christen the 1991-92 season. The Lakers won the tap and Vlade Divac threw up a brick from 18 feet. Dee Brown grabbed the long rebound, dribbled up the right side and found a trailing Bird in 3-point heaven. Swish. We had the evening's first "Lar-eeee, Lar-eee."
Time elapsed: 23 seconds.
Bird missed his second shot, then hit a back-in, turnaround jumper, the kind of move he couldn't make with the back injury.
With six minutes gone in the quarter, Bird worked a pick-and-roll with Brown, then threw a two-handed, behind-the-head shovel pass to Robert Parish. The Chief did the right thing and slammed it home.
Old friends. Like bookends.
When Bird came off with 1:14 left in the period, an avalanche of polite applause rained down on his blond head and a man in the front row quietly said, "Welcome home, Larry."
He had 9 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks at the half. He played the first six minutes of the third quarter and came out with the Celtics trailing by 12. He came back in the second minute of the final quarter and looked a little stiff. Bird retired for the night with 1:52 left, still standing and not breathing particularly hard. He was 5 for 12 with 5 rebounds, 5 assists and two turnovers.
No harm, no foul.
"It was good to be out there," he said. "But I've still got a lot of work to do. I feel like I'm getting better. I need to get my shot back."
From now on, there will be anxious moments. The 3-point king is old and brittle now, and every time he hits the floor, there's going to be fear that he won't get up.
But the opening night reviews are good. We've been spoiled and come to expect this kind of comeback from Bird. But it's pretty amazing. He's back. His back is back.
"It feels good from the time I get up in the morning until I go to bed," he said.
He drew the curtain on the week that was, and finally, he gave us something to look forward to.