June 3, 1985
CELTICS' MISSING PERSON LOOKING TO FIND HIMSELF
He stood at the same plywood locker stall a year ago and ripped his teammates. He said they were not playing hard enough or tough enough. He said they were "a bunch of sissies."
There was none of that talk this time from Larry Bird.
"I can't say that," the Celtics star said with quiet disgust yesterday afternoon in the visitors' concrete-gray locker room in the basement of the Fabulous Forum. "Because I'm about the only one playing like a sissy."
The man is struggling. The Los Angeles Lakers' afternoon dance, their 136-111 romp to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven NBA finals was one story. The continued out-of-synch performace of Larry Bird was another story.
Then, again, maybe it was the same story. Maybe it was the only story.
His game is the basic component of the Celtics' game. The Larry Bird jump shot, free and perfect, is the point where the entire Celtics' offense begins. That one shot is the hum in the background that other teams have to stop first, a night light that the Celtics always can use to ward off the dark, a reason for all the Celtics' success. That one shot. The Larry Bird jump shot.
The shot that is not working.
"I can't play any worse than I did today," he said quietly. "You - pointing toward a sportswriter - could play better than I did today."
"I know," the sportswriter said.
The box score will show that Larry Bird scored 20 points and that he hit eight of 21 shots in the process, but the 13 shots he missed were more important than any he made. They were easy Larry Bird shots, perfect Larry Bird shots. Fifteen feet. Ten feet. No one guarding him.
"I started out wanting to get the ball inside," Larry Bird said. "But I'd come off a pick and there'd be no one there. Those were shots I had to take."
Each miss was an absolute surprise. No matter that he has been struggling with his shot since the end of the Cleveland series, 14 playoff games ago. Each time Larry Bird missed it was as if Norman Mailer no longer could write a simple declarative sentence, Stevie Wonder couldn't hit a high note, Richard Pryor couldn't remember the punch line to a joke.
"Have you ever seen him go through a stretch as bad as this?" Celtics coach K.C. Jones was asked.
"No," the coach replied.
If this were any other player on the floor, either team, the list of knocks already would have begun to arrive. He would be called a gagger, a choker, unable to respond to the biggest moments. His ability and stability would be questioned as if he were on a witness stand.
There can be none of this with Larry Bird. Gag? Choke? Not care? His list of references is far too long. His eyes alone would refute the argument. He works too hard, does too much. He is the strangest of characters on any athletic floor. He almost is above criticism. Too strong to say? No.
His troubles seem almost medical in nature. Not the creaky elbow, not the swollen index finger. It is as if he has contracted some strange disease. Some shooter's flu or a sort of amnesia. Something new that hasn't even been discussed at the Harvard Medical School.
"I don't know what it is," he said. "I shoot well in practice and then . . . I don't know what to do. Shoot more? Maybe I should run 20 miles and then start shooting. Maybe that will do it."
Wanting to play defense or to grab more rebounds can be a mental choice. A commitment. The commitment does not matter in wanting to shoot a basketball well. The mind really does not count. This is almost an instinctive skill, determined by feel and touch and a whole lot of stuff that is usually discussed by gypsy women who read the lines on the palm of a stranger's hand. Rhythm.
"When I'm shooting good, I can tell whether the ball's going in or not," Larry Bird said. "Today? Some went in that I thought were going to miss. The ones that missed, I thought were going to go in."
He felt good about this game before it began. He didn't think the Celtics were going to beat the Lakers. He thought the Celtics were going to kill the Lakers.
Even at the half, the Celtics trailing, 65-59, the shot missing, he felt good. The third and fourth quarters, the Lakers rolling down the floor in waves and more waves, the increasing humiliation in the noisy building, were surprises again. Personal surprises. Team surprises.
"The bottom fell out," Larry Bird said. "Those are the two quarters that usually belong to us. That was what hurt."
He seemed to carry this loss as if it were a personal weight. His fault. He has become an increasingly patient and candid interview in his Boston years but now another quality surfaced. He seemed almost humble.
"Thank you," a television reporter said from the microphone jumble in front after Larry Bird answered one question.
"Thank you," Larry Bird replied.
"The man's tired," teammate Robert Parish said. "He gets a lot of attention in these games. He's played a lot of minutes on the floor. He hasn't had much time off. He had very little summer. That's the way it is when you're world champs. The season gets longer and longer and this one here is going to be the longest yet."
"He'll work it out," Celtics president Red Auerbach said.
"He'll be all right," K.C. Jones said. "What am I going to tell him? He knows things about shooting a basketball that I've never heard of. Those same shots will be there and he'll take 'em and he'll hit 'em the next time."
At the end of his day, Larry Bird tied his pair of gray Hush-Puppies with purpose. He was the last player left in the locker room, and the trainers and assistant coaches were yelling for him to hurry to make the bus.
"I gotta start setting the tone," he said, almost to himself as much as to anyone else as he tied his shoes. "I know how it is. If I play better, the team plays better. I gotta be angry. Mad."
He will attend a news conference this morning at 11:30, where he will be announced as the NBA's Most Valuable Player. He will answer more questions, talk to more cameras, one more time.
Then he will go to practice to see he can figure out what is wrong.