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November 9th, 1981

Larry Bird: Gifts That God Didn't Give

 

Larry Bird was blessed with his height, but lots of work made him the NBA's most complete player since Oscar Robertson

John Papanek

 

 

 

Outside the gym it's a chilly and gray Brookline, Mass. evening. Inside it's steamy and hot and marginally violent. It is the first of October, the last day of a rite known as orientation camp, and eight players, including one promising rookie and one has-been, are scrimmaging for their lives against the home team from Hellenic College. The following morning the veterans would check into camp, and soon afterward, most of the members of the orientation class would be checking out. The veterans, after all, are the real owners of the green jerseys—the World Champion Boston Celtics.

 

It is seven o'clock, and the real Celtics are at once celebrating the official end of summer and dreading the transition from champions to defending champions. No NBA team has successfully defended a title since the 1969 Celtics, so this last night of liberty is to be cherished. But not by Larry Bird, who can't wait until morning.

 

His premature appearance in the Hellenic College gym, calculated, as always, to be as unobtrusive as possible, is, as always, anything but. The pair of worn sweat pants, the navy-blue sweat shirt and the blue baseball cap bearing the inscription WEST BADEN POLICE that is pulled down over his straw-blond hair (but not his blue eyes) fail to mask Bird's true, 6'9", ultra-white identity. There is a palpable skip in the beat of the practice when everyone realizes he is in the gym. All the would-be Celtics nod to him in careful reverence, and what they are thinking shows even more clearly now that he is here. Bird knows what they're thinking, but he wants them all to relax. He recognizes his responsibility to them, even though most will never get to play on his team.

 

"You guys gettin' your asses beat again?" he calls out in his southern-Hoosier twang as he sits down next to some rookies. The tension eases, and the players go even harder as Bird calls out encouragement across the gym from where Coach Bill Fitch has been hollering commands all evening. Bird salts his Herb Shriner Hoosierisms with a dash of Redd Foxx vulgarity and the players love it. Bird is a champion. He has proved it. But more than that, he is what the Creator had in mind when he invented the teammate. For this moment—and for this moment only—all the rookies and free agents and Larry Bird are one. Celtics. Eight minds cry out at once: "Please grant me the chance to play with Larry Bird!"

 

When the court clears and everyone leaves the gym, Bird ventures onto the floor, alone with a basketball and a goal to shoot at—a creature in his natural habitat if ever there was one.

 

He begins his routine by setting the ball down by his feet—lovingly, if that is possible—and then jumping rope vigorously for five minutes to warm up. When he finishes, he bends down to the ball, but instead of picking it up he gives it a hard slap and it springs to life, leaping up to Bird's hand like an eager pet. He never holds it, just begins striding briskly downcourt while the bouncing ball weaves itself intricately in and out of his legs. He quickens his pace from a walk to a jog, from a jog to a run—stopping, starting, darting, spinning. The basketball is his dancing partner, never causing Bird to reach for it or to break stride in any way. When Bird begins to feel loose, he flings the ball against a wall and back it comes, in rhythm. Off a door, off a chair...the ball seems to be at the end of a rubber band attached to his right hand.

 

Now he finds himself making layups, 10 with his right hand, 10 with his left. No misses. Then hooks from eight feet: 10 and 10, no misses. He backs away along the right baseline for 15-foot jump shots. He misses three in a row, and for the first time the ball goes its own way and Bird has to chase it. When he catches up with it, he flings it, a little bit angrily now, off a wall or a section of bleachers. Once, when he has to go way into a corner of the gym for the ball, he spots a small trampoline lying on its side. Thwang—he hurls the ball into the netting and it shoots back to him. A new game. He passes into the trampoline 25 or 30 times, harder each time, until the ball is a blur flying back and forth, powered by nothing but flicks of his wrists.

 

He catches the last pass from the trampoline, spins and shoots from 35 feet—and the ball hits nothing but net. Three points. Not only is the shot true, but the ball hits the floor with perfect spin and, bouncing twice, comes right into his hands at 15-foot range on the left baseline. With his body perfectly squared to the basket, the fingers of his right hand spread behind the ball, the left hand guiding the launch, he makes another jump shot. He moves three steps to his right and the ball is there—as expected—and he swishes another. He continues to move "around the world" all the way back to the right baseline, making 10 15-footers without a miss and without reaching for the ball. It is always there to meet him at the next spot. Then he goes back the other way and never misses. From 20 feet he makes 16 of 20, and then he begins all over again, running up and down, dribbling the ball between and around his legs, heaving it off a wall every now and then, putting it down for the jump rope, then calling it back into action.

 

After two hours of this, Bird shrugs off a suggestion that his performance has been slightly short of incredible. "Nah, I was really rusty," he says. "I've missed it. Being out there all alone...I've always liked it best that way. At midnight, like that, when it's really quiet, or early in the morning when there's nobody else around."

 

If Bill Russell symbolized the Boston Celtic ideal of humility, teamwork and excellence through 11 championship seasons, the torch was passed to John Havlicek, then Dave Cowens and now to 24-year-old Larry Joe Bird. Bird, in fact, carries humility to an extreme. He spurns publicity (and untold thousands of dollars) and doesn't enjoy sharing with strangers his innermost—or, for that matter, outermost—feelings. To some, he is every bit what he calls himself—"Just a hick from French Lick." He went through most of his senior season at Indiana State without talking to print reporters because, he explained, he wanted his teammates to get publicity, too. "When Larry makes up his mind to do something, nothing can change it." a Celtic official says. That intense resolve goes a long way toward explaining Larry Bird. "How do you differentiate the great athletes from the good ones?" asks Cowens, sitting in his athletic director's chair at Regis College in Weston, Mass. "It's a savvy, or something. Larry's got it. Something mental that other players with more physical talent don't have. If I were starting a basketball team, I'd look for a great center, but if I couldn't find a great one, I'd take Larry Bird."

The image of the dummy, the hick, is one more thing that Bird uses to his advantage, like his jump shot or, more to the point, his head-fake. "Like I tell people," he says, "I'm not the smartest guy in life, but on a basketball court I consider myself an A plus. Not that I'm dumb. I can keep up with 90 percent of the people in this world. I just don't explain myself to people. I want to keep 'em guessing. The way they take me is the way they take me."

 

This is the way to take Bird: He is the most complete basketball player to come along since Oscar Robertson. Bird may not be the best player—at least he doesn't think he is—but no one playing the game today can do as many different things on a court as well as Larry Bird. The year before he joined the Celtics, 1978-79, the team won 29 games, lost 53 and finished last in the NBA's Atlantic Division with the second-worst record in the league. In that season, Bird, averaging 28.6 points and 14.9 rebounds, led Indiana State from obscurity to 33 straight victories and the NCAA finals. In 1979-80, his NBA Rookie of the Year season, Bird averaged 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists; led the Celtics to the NBA's best record (61-29); and carried them to the Eastern Conference playoff finals, which they lost to Philadelphia. Last year Bird averaged 21.2 points (he scored four fewer points than in 1979-80 over the 82-game season); upped his rebounding average to 10.9 and his assists to 5.5; led the Celtics to a 62-20 record, tying them with the 76ers for best in the NBA; and then averaged 21.9 points, 14 rebounds and six assists in the playoffs as Boston won its 14th NBA championship. Bird finished second to Philadelphia's Julius Erving in the balloting for the league's most valuable player.

 

When you thumb through basketball history to find the one player who could score, rebound, pass, play defense, lead a team and—this is Bird's greatest gift—see the court better than all others, your finger stops first at Robertson, the great guard for the Cincinnati Royals and later the Milwaukee Bucks. But then it continues, past Havlicek, past Rick Barry, past Erving, past Jerry West, past Earvin (Magic) Johnson even, and comes to rest at Larry Bird.

 

At 6'9", Bird, who plays forward, is four inches taller than Robertson, but height would seem to be Bird's only natural advantage over Robertson or anyone else for that matter. Bird looks like a soft, fleshy adolescent. He is slow as NBA players go, and in the words of an NBA scout—not the only one who thought Bird would be a mediocre pro—he suffers from "white man's disease." That is, he can't jump. How, then, can Bird be so great? "I would say my vision, my court awareness and my height are God-given," Bird says. "Everything else I've worked my ass off for."

 

Work—at least work on a basketball court—is what Bird loves. It has been that way ever since he was old enough to dribble a basketball up and down the hilly streets to the playgrounds of French Lick. Ind. Because his two older brothers, Mark and Mike, generally dominated the ball and the neighborhood games, Larry had to wait his turn. And when he got the ball—late at night or early in the morning, when no one else wanted to play—he would usually take it to the park by the old high school and work by himself for hours on end, just as he does now. Nothing else mattered to him but mastery of the ball and the game to which it belonged. When Bird gets into a game with four other players, his greatest gift—his court awareness—makes that unit work. He performs as though he not only sees everything as it develops, but also as though he sees everything before it develops.

 

"Larry is the best passing big man I've ever seen," says Celtics President Red Auerbach, who coached nine NBA championship Celtic teams and has been around the NBA since 1946. "Barry was damn good, but he wasn't in a class with Bird. This guy is unique. He's like a Bob Cousy up front, and Cousy, without question, was the greatest passer who ever played the game. Larry will probably go down in history as one of the great forwards of all time, if not the greatest."

 

Says Havlicek, "What Larry does doesn't surprise me because our minds think alike. When I watch a game I know what should be done, but 99 percent of the time it isn't. When Larry's in there, 99 percent of the time it is." Says Bird, "When my teammates get open I hope to God I can get 'em the ball. If you don't get 'em the ball, you'll tell 'em you seen 'em but it was too late. I don't know how many times last year I'd cut right down the middle and [Cedric] Maxwell would pass the ball a second before I was open. And he'd come right to me and say, 'My fault, I missed you.' It just carries over. And I know I might have started that. When you get that going, it means that everybody's always looking for the open man, and that's all they care about. The other teams better watch out."

 

What most impresses the people who know Bird—from his few new friends in Boston, to those in Terre Haute, where Indiana State is located, to the French Lickers who have known him since he was an itty-bitty thing with a basketball under his arm—is that nothing has changed him. Not the celebrity. Not the money—$650,000 per year. Nothing. The quintessential team player in the quintessential team game still wears blue jeans and baseball caps, and he still derives a third of his pleasure from being alone with a basketball and a goal to shoot at. Another third comes from being part of a team. "I've never known another player who is so loyal," says Celtic Kevin McHale. "If you're Larry's teammate, you're one of the most important people in the world to him." The rest of his pleasure comes from winning, mowing his lawn, drinking beer, hunting squirrels, fishing, playing golf, and being with friends and family. Those who know Bird have a saying: "That's Larry." And they always say it smiling.

 

"If I say Larry Bird is the best player," Celtic Guard Tiny Archibald comments, "people say, 'He's on your team, that's why you're saying that.' I still say he's the best all-around player. He does more things for us than any other player does for his team." Other Celtics echo Archibald's sentiments. Chris Ford: "Larry is a living textbook of basketball." Fitch: "I call him 'Kodak' because his mind is constantly taking pictures of the whole court."

 

Bird used to crawl into the nearest corner when people said such things about him. He would look down at his feet and, without thinking, mumble whatever words came first—anything to get these stupid questions over with and let's play ball. But during last year's playoffs Bird was the Celtics' most eloquent spokesman—after Fitch.

 

Bird doesn't receive star treatment on the Celtics—"That's the way I like it, too,"—and always heaps praise upon his teammates: "If it weren't for Tiny, for Max, for Robert Parish...you know, I could be out there but we wouldn't have won anything." They, in turn, heap praise upon Bird. Archibald says, "Guys appreciate his talent and what he sacrifices. We know he's the main focus on the team, but everybody on the team likes him because he's just Larry."

 

There is, however, another side of Larry Bird. When he gets loose, has a few beers and gets himself into comfortable company, he'll sit back, look up rather than down, his blue eyes sparkling and his face shining like a little boy's, and suddenly his Hoosier voice will become musical and full of confidence in his own marvelous talent.

 

"There are a lot of good players in the league," he'll say. "And on any given night any player can get hot and do anything he wants to. Some guys are very consistent and some guys are just great, but there are probably about 20 guys up there all the time. Now, I figure three out of four nights I'm going to play better than anybody else in the game. If you want to know who the best player in the league is, I'll put my money night after night on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He's the best. After him I'd probably take Julius Erving. And then, when it comes to a player who can do everything consistently, you'd have to say Elvin Hayes. There are just so many good players."

 

Bird is reminded of a stretch in the middle of last season when the Celtics won 25 of 26 games. "O.K.," he says. "I was playing great basketball for about a month. I reached my potential. For one stretch there, I was averaging about 28 points, 14 or 15 rebounds and seven assists. I felt like I had control of every game I played." But then came a nasty injury—one of Darryl Dawkins' massive knees caught one of Bird's comparatively delicate pink thighs just before the All-Star Game, and Bird's thigh turned ugly purple for two weeks.

 

"I've been hurt before, but I never had pain through my leg and back like that," Bird says. "It felt like my hip came out through my ear. And Darryl didn't even know he hit me! A while later I see him and he says, 'I'm sorry, Larry. I thought I felt something against my leg that night. I read in the paper the next morning that I hit you.' I never did get it back until the playoffs."

 

Bird didn't miss a game, though. Never has, college or pro. And when he "got it back," it was just in time to beat Dawkins and archrival Philadelphia in the regular season's final game. That win gave Boston a bye in the first round of the playoffs and Bird a week to let his bruised thigh heal.

 

Boston's first playoff opponent was red-hot Chicago—which had won 15 of 17, including a two-game sweep of the Knicks in a mini-series—and the Celtics dispatched the Bulls in four straight. "I made the best shot of my life in that series," Bird says. "Fourth game, tied up, their place, time out just before the fourth quarter and they got about 20,000 fans just going nuts. Coach Fitch says, 'Let's do something to quiet this crowd down.' We threw the ball in, messed around with it for a while, I made a three-pointer, then stole the ball, went back, laid it in.... We went up five within 40 seconds. I mean, that crowd just went 'Whoooo!' Stopped. From then on it was over."

 

After that it was Philadelphia again, and Boston's miracle comeback: Down three games to one, the Celtics rallied from six points behind with 1:51 to play to win Game 5; rallied from 17 points behind to win Game 6 at the Spectrum; then rallied from seven points behind in the closing minutes to outscore the 76ers 9-1 and win Game 7—and the series—91-90. In the final moments of that Game 7 Bird made two key steals, a couple of free throws, a crucial rebound, swatted a layup into Erving's face, then canned the winning basket on a 12-foot bank shot. "I wanted the ball in my hands for that last shot," Bird said after the game. "Not in anybody else's hands in the world."

 

The championship series against Houston was supposed to be a formality, but the Rockets extended the Celtics to six games. In Game 1, Bird executed a play that Auerbach called "the greatest I've ever seen." He grabbed the rebound after his own missed 18-footer from the right wing, shifted the ball from his right hand to his left in midair and banked it in as he went sprawling across the baseline. In Game 6 the Rockets came from 17 points down in the fourth period to pull within three with 1:51 left. Bird caught a pass from Archibald and, just as calmly as if he were all alone in a gym at midnight on the first of October, hurled in a three-pointer that put away the championship. "I didn't even know it was a three-pointer," Bird says now. "I caught the ball in shooting position; nobody was around, I just released it. Heck, when I'm open like that for a shot I usually feel like I can't miss it. And when I have a shot like that to get us a game [in this case, a championship], I got to take it because I know I have an excellent chance of making it."

 

Can Bird feel when a shot is going to go' in? And when it's not? "I used to in college, not anymore," he says. "For one thing, I don't like the basketball they use in the NBA [the seams on the pro ball are wider than those on the college ball]. In college I never had to worry about anybody blocking my shot. I could take my time. The defense is so much better in the pros. I always have somebody like Bobby Jones to worry about. You can never fake them out. You just have to make your move and shoot it quick. In college I followed my shot a lot. In the pros you can't afford to. If you follow your shot, you get burned at the other end. And there's one other thing...."

 

Bird laughs a little bit and holds up his right index finger. "This," he says. The finger is shaped much like a boomerang, permanently bent toward his thumb at a 45-degree angle. Two operations have failed to straighten it; he can bend it only halfway to his palm. "I didn't have this in college," he says. He broke it playing softball the summer before his rookie year, trying to catch a wicked line drive off the bat of his brother Mike. "Mike hit a shot that knuckled like nothing I ever seen and that sucker hit my finger and I dropped it. So I picked it up and threw to second base, only the ball tailed up and away and clear over the second baseman, and Mike went all the way to third base laughing like anything. I had to laugh, too, because I didn't know why the ball did that until I looked down at my hand and saw my finger broken at about a 90-degree angle."

 

How great a baseball player would Mickey Mantle have been if he hadn't torn up his knee early in his career? One wonders what kind of shooter Bird would be now if he had a straight finger.

 

"That's what Red was telling me when I was trying to sign," Bird says.

 

Larry Bird was born in French Lick on Pearl Harbor Day, 1956, and he'd just as soon let the personal stuff go at that. The folks in the beautiful old hillside resort town honored their favorite son by renaming Monon Street as Larry Bird Boulevard, and they acknowledge the fact that Georgia Bird had to work all her life to raise her daughter Linda, 26, and five sons, Mike, 29; Mark, 28; Larry; Jeff, 17; and Eddie, 14. (Larry's father and mother were divorced in Larry's junior year in high school; his father committed suicide about a year later.) But they don't say much else. Close friends have been conditioned to say nothing more. Larry is a town treasure, and even though the townspeople would love to use his fame for their own fortune, as their elders once used the famous mineral springs to attract the cream of American society, they refrain. "I could tell some stories about some real nice things Larry has done but I wouldn't unless Larry said it was O.K.," says one close family friend. Another, a restaurateur, has thought of how his business would improve if he renamed his place "The Bird's Nest," but he knows Larry wouldn't go for it. "I'll say this much," the man says, "you won't find a finer person than Larry. He hasn't changed one little bit. He comes back here in the summer every year and doesn't want anyone to know he's around except his closest friends."

 

Mrs. Bird isn't working at the moment, and has been troubled with blood clots in her legs. She has worked in just about every restaurant in town and several of the factories. Her most recent job was as a dietary supervisor at a local nursing home. If you think the mother of a basketball millionaire shouldn't have to work, you don't think the way the Birds do.

 

"Larry thinks I should work," she says. "He believes everyone should work. That's how he got to be such a good player. My kids were made fun of for the way they dressed. Neighbor boys had basketballs or bikes. My kids had to share a basketball. A friend of Larry's would say, if you can outrun me down to the post office, you can ride my bike for 10 minutes.' Larry used to run his tail-end off."

 

Now that Larry has made it, Mrs. Bird says she has never had it so good. The only thing she'd like is a new home. "Just once I'd like to have one without scratches in the wall or a warped door," she says. But that's easier said than done. There was a house she would like to have had—which a friend had passed up for $55,000. Mrs. Bird called a broker to inquire about it, and said her son Larry would be home soon to look it over. Suddenly the price jumped to $80,000. When Larry heard about it, he told his mother, "If that's the way it's gonna be, Mom, forget it. We ain't gonna pay more just because I'm a ballplayer."

 

"That's Larry," Mrs. Bird says with equal measures of parental pride and puzzlement.

 

For Bird, the pain of public exposure has been great from the beginning, when all he wanted to do was play ball. He didn't know what to make of the college recruiters who came to town. No sooner had he checked into Indiana University in 1974 than he checked right out. Same thing at Northwood Institute in West Baden, Ind., a few months later. In his first 18 years Bird never was farther than 40 miles away from French Lick for more than a weekend.

 

When Bird finally found himself a home at Indiana State in 1975, it was only through the persistence of Bill Hodges, the assistant basketball coach who would become ISU's head coach in Bird's senior season. "If it wasn't for Coach Hodges, who knows what I'd be doing today?" says Bird.

 

"He'd probably be a bum," says a French Lick friend, "pumping gas or working in the Kimball piano factory like the other boys."

 

Bird never considered that basketball was something he could excel at and make his living from. "I didn't care either," he says. "I was one of those guys that never looked ahead. When I was younger I played for the fun of it, like any other kid. I just don't know what kept me going and going and going. I remember we used to practice in the gym in high school; then, on the way home, we'd stop and play on the playgrounds until eight o'clock. I played when I was cold and my body was aching and I was so tired...and I don't know why, I just kept playing and playing. I didn't know I was going to college until I was there. I never thought about pro basketball until I got there. Now that I am there, I want to make the most out of it that I can. I guess I always wanted to make the most out of it. I just never knew it."

 

Bird takes for granted that one doesn't think he's just talking about money. "The way I live, I'd be happy making ten or twelve thousand a year," he says. But his agent, Bob Woolf, thinks in other terms. In his office on the 45th floor of Boston's Prudential Tower, Woolf has one entire rolling file cabinet filled with Larry Bird business. Woolf, a prominent sports attorney and meticulous keeper of scraps of paper and lists, pulls out the hotel bill from Larry's first visit to Boston. "Look at this," he says. "Three nights. Nothing but room and tax. Not a room service charge. Not a phone call."

 

The chance for Woolf to represent this most prized client came after a bizarre series of meetings set up by a committee of Terre Haute businessmen who "adopted" Bird, and still advise him on his finances. They reduced a list of three final candidates to Woolf after an eight-hour session. When Woolf met Bird over a dinner with the businessmen, he did his best to impress. Woolf wanted everyone to know what he thought Bird was worth, and he shared his insider's knowledge of salaries of basketball, football and baseball players. Woolf mentioned Tommy John of the Yankees, who happens to be a native of Terre Haute. The men on the committee blurted, "Yeah! How much does Tommy make?"

 

Woolf was about to divulge the numbers when Bird piped up for the first time: "Hey, please, Mr. Woolf. Tommy John's a friend of mine. I don't want to know how much he makes."

 

Woolf keeps a list that chronicles hundreds of calls from people who want something from Bird, beyond the usual bank and shopping center openings: Mary Hickey, age 23, wanted to have lunch with Larry; the Boston Herald American wanted him for an article on Boston's most eligible bachelors; Bob Hope's people called; Ted Kennedy's people called; Sesame Street called; the Opera Company of Boston called. No, no, no, Bird said. Then there was the man who stole the hubcaps from Bird's Ford Bronco, found out whose hubcaps they were—and returned them. Bird sent him tickets to a game. He did a tacky TV commercial for Chardon jeans—Why not? Free pants!—and a commercial for McDonald's McChicken sandwich.

 

Woolf, meanwhile, waits for June 1984, when Bird's five-year, $3.25 million contract expires. "The Celtics dare not call one day before then, offering an extension," Woolf says, "because I'm dying to see what kind of money he'll draw on the open market. He could become the highest-paid athlete in the world! Certainly in the NBA."

 

Woolf has served as a surrogate father to Bird. When Bird bought a home in the Boston area, he purchased one right next door to Woolf's in Brookline, just two minutes from the Celtics' practice site at Hellenic College. Last summer Bird bought a place on Cape Cod—right across the street from Woolf s. But now that Bird feels a bit more comfortable in the limelight, he no longer hides behind Woolf. Still, his reverence for home, family and charity hasn't changed. He mostly stays out of Boston, preferring the sanctuary of his house, which he shares with a 3-year-old Doberman named Klinger and a longtime girl friend named Dinah Mattingly. He tends to his lawn and apple trees obsessively. His friends are chosen with caution; sometimes. Bird admits, too much caution.

 

"I'm not really shy, but it depends on what situation I'm in," he says. "I used to be real bad. I'm not the kind of person to go up and shake hands with somebody, because I'm in a situation where everybody wants to be my friend. I guess I miss out sometimes. I'm just accustomed to a small environment. When I was young, I was never around more than five or ten people at once."

 

Almost without exception, those people whom Bird has allowed to get close to him treasure his loyalty. He's great with children; for them, he will indulge himself in situations in which he wouldn't give an adult the time of day. His two summer camps—one in French Lick, the other in the Boston area—are strictly labors of love.

 

Bird's favorite camp was the one he ran at his old high school. Springs Valley, immediately after last season's playoffs. "I had 260 kids and did I have a blast with them," he says. "The kids are like...like you own 'em. I had to baby-sit 'em, put 'em to bed, talk to their parents on the phone. It was the first time most of them were ever away from home." The younger the children were, the more fun Bird had with them. One day he was a sight—going one-on-five against 7-and 8-year-olds whose flailing arms could barely reach Bird's belt-line. Still, somehow the little ones managed to win. "This ain't fair," Bird yelled. "I need help." So he grabbed another tyke, tucked him under his left arm and dribbled around while six small boys squealed in ecstatic laughter.

 

"Larry, you really ought to bring the media in here. Let them see how you play with these kids," said a friend who was looking on.

 

"Never," said Bird. And that was that.

 

He supplied entire teams of French Lick youngsters with clothing and equipment. And he also has—though he would rather not have it known—a compelling affinity for the physically handicapped. "He's got an incredible memory," Woolf says. "If I told him something a year ago and change one word today, he'll catch me. He'll play a golf course once and memorize the location of every tree. I can go to a game and swear that Larry never saw me, and days later he'll tell me in which section I was sitting, who I was talking to, what I was wearing."

 

Woolf recalls that when a Today show crew came to tape a segment on Bird shortly after last May's playoffs, they wanted to show Larry watching a replay of the championship game against Houston. They threw the videotape on at a random point in the game and Woolf asked Bird if he could tell what part of the game was showing.

 

"Fourth quarter, 5:40 left," said Bird.

 

"How can you possibly be that precise?" Woolf asked. There had been no commentary and no score flashed.

 

"The song," Bird said.

 

"The song!" Woolf said.

 

"That fight song. That's the last time they played it. They played it three times during the game. This is the last time because the crowd is going nuts. Houston came from 17 down and there's about 5:40 left."

 

"You mean you were aware of the song?" Woolf asked incredulously.

 

"I was there, wasn't I?" Bird asked.

 

"I was there, too, but I don't remember any song," Woolf said. "And I wasn't playing."

 

Bird chuckled and went on watching the tape. He proceeded to call each play in perfect detail, about five seconds before it appeared on the tape.

 

"Larry's not subject to the normal persuasions," Woolf says. "He doesn't react to things the way normal people do."

 

But he did last spring. Four days after the Celtics won their championship, the financially beleaguered city of Boston turned out en masse to honor its team. Bird told a cheering crowd on City Hall Plaza, "I spent ten minutes in the Mayor's office with all these people going around getting autographs, and now I know why Boston is going bankrupt."

 

There was some nervous laughter, but Bird wasn't finished. Someone in the crowd held up a sign that made a scatological reference to Moses Malone, the Houston center. Bird spotted it and announced to the throng, "I think, after all the hollering and screaming, I look out in the crowd and see one thing that typifies our season. Moses does eat——!"

 

Bird later apologized to those he offended, including Malone, but it never occurred to him that the remark would be offensive. "That's me," he says with an impish grin. "I've said a lot of things I wished I never had, but hey, that's me. I'll do a lot more before I get older. There's nothing I can do about it once I've done it. What people think of me could hurt a little if they think bad. I'm sure there are people in this world who hate me, but there are a lot who love me. I'm just me. I try to be honest.

 

"Like I told this friend of mine in Terre Haute before I came into the pros: 'One of these days I'll be the best basketball player in the NBA.' I was with the guy last June after it was announced that Julius Erving won the MVP. First thing this guy says to me is, 'Well, hell! You lied to me again! You been in the league two years already and you haven't even come close.' I said, 'Well, maybe this year.' "

 

That's Larry.

 

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