November 28th, 1988
Larry Bird: The Bird Is Grounded
The struggling Celtics have lost Larry Bird to bone spurs until at least March
Larry Joe Bird emerged from the Boston Celtics' locker room at their practice site, Hellenic College in Brookline, Mass., last Friday afternoon, wearing jeans, an LSU Tigers cap (a gift from a fan) and a resigned expression. A pair of soft brown shoes covered the most-analyzed feet in the NBA since those of Bird's former teammate Bill Walton. "Right now, as we're standing here, I have pain," said Bird, shaking his head. Surgery awaited him in the next 24 hours, but to Bird that wasn't the bad part. The bad part was that he faced between three and four months of rigorous rehabilitation.
"I've always said the main advantage of playing basketball was you only had to put in two hours a day to get your work done," said Bird, who, in fact, has always spent countless hours honing his skills. "Now, with what I've got to do in rehab [swimming, riding a stationary bike] it's going to take six hours to accomplish the same thing." Nonetheless, Bird will have a lot of hours to fill: no pregame shooting rites, no backgammon and card games on airplanes, no trying to slip unnoticed past autograph hounds in a hotel.
On the bright side, he may have the time to get his dark-blue Lincoln Continental inspected (it's five months overdue). Or he may be able to monitor more closely the path of his contract with the Celtics. Bird negotiated an extension but hasn't signed it because of salary-cap technicalities. The contract will pay him $1.8 million in 1988-89 and the same amount next season, and about $4.2 million in each of the '90-91 and '91-92 seasons. Regardless of how well he recovers from last week's surgery, Bird will earn those sums.
But outside of those things, what will Bird do with his free time? He thought for a moment and then said, "Well, maybe I'll take up roofing."
By 4:30 on Saturday afternoon, Bird's sense of humor was presumably intact, but he was missing one small bone spur in the Achilles tendon of each foot. The spurs had been the source of much misery over the past two years. Just as he is on the court, Bird was double-teamed during the 90-minute operation at Boston's New England Baptist Hospital. Team doctor Arnold Scheller cut a spur that was one fifth of an inch long and one sixth of an inch wide from one of Bird's ankles, and Roger Mann, an eminent foot surgeon from San Francisco, cut an identical-sized spur from the other. Both doctors pronounced the surgery "very successful." Still, no one can say for sure whether Bird, who turns 32 on Dec. 7 and has 862 NBA regular-season and playoff games behind him, will ever again be the player he was before the surgery.
Ditto for his team. Already an unbalanced mixture of very old, very young and very little in between, Boston suddenly finds itself adrift in the Atlantic Division without the rudder that has kept it on course since 1979. Bird could miss as many as 57 games. Consider leprechaun-hunting season officially open in the NBA.
One of the league's truly horrible teams, the Washington Bullets, took two shots last weekend, grazing the Celtics in Boston on Friday night before losing 114-108 and then gunning them down 108-104 in Landover, Md., on Saturday. That defeat dropped Boston's record to 4-5. While the Celtics aren't likely to fall apart without Bird—"Let's see, they're down to only four All-Stars now," says Brendan Suhr, the Atlanta Hawks' director of scouting—the idea of Boston settling into, say, the sixth, seventh or even eighth playoff spot in the East isn't unthinkable.
In the six games that Bird played this season, Boston wasn't even that good. He tried to play through the pain that had been bothering him since the Celtics' trip to Madrid for the McDonald's Open in mid-October, but all he got for his efforts was soreness and frustration, and all the Celtics got was a 2-4 start, their worst since 1978-79, the season before Bird roosted in Boston. When he finally called it quits after a game against the Miami Heat on Nov. 15, Bird's numbers weren't that bad—19.3 points per game on .471 shooting, 6.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists—but he was hardly playing like a future Hall of Famer.
He shot only one free throw against the 76ers in a 129-115 loss at Philadelphia on Nov. 5 and didn't get to the line at all in a 108-100 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 12. The king of the three-point shot had not even attempted one this season. Of his 37 rebounds, only one was offensive. Whenever Bird would feed the ball inside to Kevin McHale or Robert Parish, he was done for that possession; he would drift back on defense instead of moving to get open on the perimeter of the offense or following a teammate's shot in hopes of getting a rebound. And the real bad news was that his offense shone in comparison with his inconsistent defensive play.
"My teammates used to look to me for 30 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, something like that," said Bird on Friday. "Now they wanted to say, Hey, get off the court!" He laughed mirthlessly, because it was true. His pride hurt more than his ankles, and his ankles hurt real bad. So he finally decided, after two weeks of indecision and media speculation, to have the operation.
"Everything I did hurt," said Bird. "Running, sliding on defense. My shooting wasn't as affected as other areas—maybe I couldn't jump as high as I normally do to get my shot off, but that isn't very high anyway—but when I'd plant and shoot, there would be a lot of pain."
Bird might have had the surgery earlier had it not been for the influence of two people—Walton, who still isn't officially retired from basketball, and Dan Dyrek, a physical therapist in Boston and a close friend of Bird's. Two weeks ago Bird called Walton, who's recuperating in San Diego from—what else?—foot surgery, which he had in September. Walton, who once defined minor surgery as "something they do to someone else," urged caution. Of more significance to Bird was the counsel of Dyrek, who advocated manual manipulation of the ankle area.
Ultimately, though, the pain caused by the spurs' rubbing against the Achilles tendons and the nerves in the heels—Bird likened the sensation to "running with little knives in my shoes"—became too great, so Bird agreed to follow the recommendation of Scheller and at least half a dozen other specialists and have the spurs removed. "I've been living on the edge for two years," said Bird. "It was time to get it done."
The procedure was fairly straightforward—the spurs were cut away with scalpel and chisel. The tricky part was to get at them without damaging the tendons in which they lay. Scheller and Mann had to separate the fibers of the tendons before removing the spurs. Indeed, the length of Bird's recovery will depend on how much damage was done to the tendons. In a postsurgery press conference, Scheller said that "30 percent of the surface area of the tendon was involved," which is about what he had expected.
"I think he'll come back," continued Scheller. "There were no degenerative changes in the tendon."
If Bird tries to come back too soon, he could risk tendon damage and other complications. Scheller has revised his original three-month rehab estimates to 3� to four months. That means Bird could be back in uniform in mid-March, with nearly a month left in the regular season—plenty of time to get ready for the playoffs. Says Dr. Anthony Daly, a noted orthopedic surgeon who examined Bird last year, "If he comes back too soon, [the injuries] could recalcify." Meanwhile the rest of the Celtics will try to hang in there. As of Sunday the team had not made a roster change to replace Bird, and apparently it was in no hurry to do so, believing that this is the time to allow its young players to emerge. Besides, say the Celts, trying to find someone of Bird's versatile talents would be futile. "We lost a great scorer, rebounder, passer and presence," says coach Jimmy Rodgers. "Outside of that, he's just an average guy."
At the moment, Boston's small forward is a three-headed player who can shoot ( Jim Paxson, though he lacks Bird's three-point range), post up and score inside ( Reggie Lewis, but he's not the passer Bird is) and take a head of blond hair onto the floor (Brad Lohaus). None of the three, however, including the 7-foot Lohaus, can rebound like Bird, and certainly none of them will be double-teamed. That means even more defensive pressure will be put on Parish and McHale.
In fact, as odd as it may seem given Bird's deserved reputation as a mediocre one-on-one defender, the Celtics might miss his defense most of all. His savvy and size (6'9") enable him to guard any of the opposition's frontcourt players. Against the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks, for example, Bird frequently stuck with the center, which left the pesky, long-armed McHale to harass the smaller, point-conscious forwards Adrian Dantley and Dominique Wilkins. Now, because neither the 6'6" Paxson nor the 6'7" Lewis (who are, after all, really shooting guards) has the size to check big people, McHale will have to perform that task, and point guard Dennis Johnson, a man of formidable defensive credentials, will sometimes come down and try to stop the hot forward. D.J. doesn't need the extra responsibility. At 34, he's playing at a steady but hardly spectacular little-engine-that-could pace.
Even for those six games they had Bird, the Celtics were out of sync. "They don't seem as sure of things," said Milwaukee forward Terry Cummings after the Bucks' Nov. 12 win over Boston. A Celtics team that isn't "sure of things"?
For one thing, Bird isn't the only player who's injured. Johnson is battling recurring tendinitis in his right Achilles tendon, and shooting guard Danny Ainge has missed four games with a strained medial collateral ligament in his right knee. Ainge says he's now "about 90 percent." If his injury flares up again, rookie Brian Shaw will go to point guard, and Johnson will move to shooting guard, a position with which he's unfamiliar.
Boston has no backup center for Parish, unless one counts 6'10", 260-pound rookie Ramon Rivas, who at this point is nothing but six fouls in an extra-extra-large uniform, or Mark Acres, who had 11 minutes of playing time in the three games last week in which Bird wasn't in the lineup.
The Celtics are having difficulty adjusting to Rodgers's offense, too. He wants the Celtics to run more, albeit in a controlled fashion, even after opposition baskets, and to play a more aggressive half-court offense with slashing cuts to the basket But old habits die hard. Although a three-pointer by Johnson with one second left gave Boston a 107-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 16, the shot was symbolic of the Celtics inability to attack the Warriors' trapping defense. Instead, Boston had depended on individual heroics.
Believe it or not, the Celtics may face their biggest problems when Bird rejoins them. "There are always adjustments when a guy comes back," said Bird on Friday. "And I'm going to have to work my way back in slowly." In 1980-81 knee surgery sidelined another franchise player, Magic Johnson of the Lakers, for three months. The Lakers responded to his return to the lineup by self-destructing in the first round of the playoffs.
Adjustments or not, Bird's rehab won't end soon enough for Celtics fans. As he stood in street clothes on the periphery of a team huddle near the end of the game against Washington on Friday night, a spontaneous but familiar cheer swept through the Boston Garden: Larrr-EE! Larrr-EE! Bird waved his hand, and waved it again after the cheer grew into a standing ovation. He must have felt good, but he must have felt a little sad as well.
Which is how the rest of the Celtics feel. Amid all the talk of bone spurs and tendons and rehabilitation, a sense of hope and anticipation permeates the team. The veterans, particularly Parish and Johnson, neither of whom has been fully appreciated in Boston, now have a Birdless spotlight in which to perform, and the young players have their chance. That's the good part.
The sad part was expressed by McHale on Friday. "Let's face it, we can't win a championship without Larry," he said. "And we all know it."