Posted Sep 13 2011 8:21AM
• Legends profile: Larry Bird
Imitation is, of course, the sincerest form of flattery and the surest acknowledgement of greatness. It's why so many would-be young athletes of a different era roamed the outfield under fly balls, making basket catches like Willie Mays. Why they tried to throw tight spirals with the sharp, quick release of Dan Marino. Or why they stepped out onto a basketball court and wiped the soles of their hightops with one hand.
Why? Because that's how Larry Bird did it. In an age of high-flyers and sky-walking slam dunkers, it was ironic that one of the best of them all -- Bird -- should have been most concerned about getting good traction with both feet planted firmly on the ground.
But then, that is how Bird always went about playing the game. Not with flash, but substance. Always more concerned with function than form.
Was it the way he always took the extra step back and cocked his arm for the three-pointers or the knack for driving through traffic, changing hands and somehow drawing the foul that was liked most? Was it the offensive rebounds that he tapped back to a teammate or the more basic act of burying every crucial free throw right in the bottom of the net that drew the most respect? Or was it the way Bird managed to blend every aspect of the game, large and small, into a repertoire that was as meticulous as it was grand?
The numbers and achievements were staggering beginning with his debut NBA season in 1979-80, when Bird put a team that had previously gone 29-53 on his wings carried them to a 61-21 finish while averaging 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists to win Rookie of the Year honors.
In his 13-year career, Bird led the Celtics to three championships and won the MVP Award three consecutive seasons (1984-86), joining Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the only ones to accomplish that feat in league history.
At the time he retired in 1992, Bird had become one of only five players to collect 20,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 5,000 assists in a career, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, John Havlicek and Jerry West.
"One thing I know -- I played as hard as I could every time I was out there," Bird said upon his retirement. "I gave my heart, body and soul to the Celtics. I hope that's how they remember me."
What we'll remember is the confident, even cocksure, attitude that made Larry Joe Bird -- the Hick from French Lick (Ind.) -- in whom talent and tenacity raged a daily wire-to-wire battle for supremacy, perhaps the most unique player in NBA history. He had none of those raw, jaw-dropping talents that enabled many of his contemporaries to seemingly walk among the stars. Yet there were plenty of nights when it looked like he could hang the moon.
Bird scored a triple-double of 29 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists in the series-clinching Game 6 of the 1986 Finals against the Houston Rockets. He scored 20 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter shootout with Dominique Wilkins (47 points) in the Celtics' 118-116 Game 7 win over Atlanta in the 1988 Eastern Conference finals. He made that frozen-in-Jurassic-amber steal of Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass and feed to Dennis Johnson for the classic 108-107 win over Detroit in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals.
And though it was only a playful exhibition affair as part of the 1986 All-Star Weekend, there was Bird striding into the locker room in Dallas, sizing up his competition for the inaugural 3-Point Shootout and zinging: "Man, who's comin' in second?" Then he went out and won the event.
"The one thing you have to avoid when you talk about Bird is statistics," said the late Celtics legend Red Auerbach. "It's his presence, the total way he commands attention on the court that counts."
He was never a braggart, but never less than supremely confident in all that he could do on the court.
In Game 5 of the 1985 East semifinals, Bird stared down Thomas, who had just led a powerful Detroit Pistons charge.
"Are you through?" Bird asked.
"No," Thomas replied.
"Well, you're through now, because it's my turn," Bird said. And he proceeded to take over down the stretch to wrap up another Boston win.
All quite heady stuff for a guy about whom many held doubts when he first arrived out of Indiana State for the Celtics training camp in 1979 as a player who couldn't run and couldn't jump.
Bill Fitch, who arrived as the Celtics new coach that same year, used to joke that it took him nearly three weeks to realize what he had in the rookie. It seems Cedric Maxwell and another rookie who's name Fitch couldn't recall, thoroughly outplayed Bird in every practice for weeks.
"They were all thinking, 'A guy this slow is never going to get my job,' Fitch remembered. "Everybody was Peggy Lee, saying, 'Is that all there is?' But after those first few weeks, he had learned not just his assignments, but everybody else's. Then you saw the real Larry Bird."
The "real Larry Bird" spent a dozen years locked in a bi-coastal duel with Magic Johnson for NBA supremacy. The Celtics and Lakers met three times in The Finals. They were perfect foils for each other: white and black, country and city, New England reserve and Hollywood glitz.
"Larry was the only player in the league that I feared and he was the smartest player I ever played against," Johnson said. "I always enjoyed competing against him because he brought out the best in me."
You could study basketball for a year and not learn as much about its intricacies as from watching Bird play in just one game. The eyes that saw every cutting teammates and the hands that made those perfect passes. The way he was quick without possessing great speed, played the angles and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
"One thing that always amazed me about basketball," Bird once said, "is that if you think about it, it's really a stupid game. You're trying to put a ball through a little hoop. I think of the many hours I've done that, and I still can't believe it. But what really amazes me is when I sit on the bench at the Garden and look up and see all those people who have come to see you do that. Not only for one game, but every night."
They came night after night to see Bird's pursuit of perfection and it was those expectations that drove him on. Bird said he was always motivated by fear of failing every time he stepped onto the floor. It was that fear that fueled his legendary two-hour pre-game warm-ups.
"I don't ever want to be in a situation in a game, where my teammates get me the ball and expect me to make a big shot and I can't because I didn't put in enough time on the proper preparation."
That fear of failing, his joy of playing and his passion for winning made for a mixture that was almost combustible.
"It's unbelievable," Bird said. "I wish I could drink it. The feeling out there in a game is like being scared, but you're not. You somehow get real cool and in control at the same time.
That coolness in the face of pressure, the calm in the eye of the storm is what produced the great plays that turned into incredible seasons and continued the tradition of hanging championship banners from the rafters in Boston, turning the Hick from French Lick into Larry Legend.
Yet he always managed to remain singularly unaffected by his fame, eschewing the trappings of superstardom.
"If people want to drive by the house and blow their horns like they do, that's fine," Bird said during the peak of this playing career. "The people in Boston have been great to me and I've paid them back with victories and championships, because that's what they want."
And he gave them a look at a different kind of hero.
The late Bob Woolf, his first agent, liked to tell how when they were next-door neighbors in suburban Boston, a young Bird got a kick out of constantly ringing his doorbell and then hiding in the shrubbery.
"And I am convinced," Woolf said, "that if he scored 99 points in a game and needed a basket to break Wilt Chamberlain's record and he was at the top of the key with five seconds left and headed for a dunk and he saw someone free under the basket, he would make the pass. That's Larry Bird."
Imitated, but never duplicated.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.
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