Bird, Cowens Cleared by Jury

A state jury today unanimously cleared Celtics Larry Bird and Dave Cowens of any wrongdoing or damages in connection with a Jan. 5, 1980, postgame incident outside HemisFair Arena.

The jurors, who deliberated more than three hours over two days, found that Johnny Merla, a member of the San Antonio Spurs' Baseline Bums organization, should receive zero damages for physical pain and humilitition he claimed he suffered in a confrontation with the two players.

The jurors in 37th State District Court found no merit in Merla's $825,000 lawsuit which charged that Cowens and Bird spat on him and that Bird knocked him to the ground with a duffle bag.

Cowens did not spit on Merla and Bird was acting in self defense when he swung the tote bag, the jurors ruled.

Three policemen, a paramedic, a bus driver, two San Antonio fans and the two players all testified that Merla provoked the incident by spitting in Bird's face while a drunken group of fans shouted obscenties at Boston players as they boarded a bus.

Bird left yesterday for Indiana to prepare for the upcoming season and was not on hand for the verdict.

Cowens, now athletic director at Regis Women's College, said he was "gratified and pleased that they came up with the right answer" and that his and Bird's names were cleared.

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