Basketball's superstar folk hero -- Larry Bird
BESIDES being talented, he's a worker,'' says K. C. Jones. In fact, Larry Bird is what the Celtics' coach calls a ``hard hat'' basketball player -- Jones's term of admiration for a superstar who has labored mightily to achieve his current preeminence. A first team all-star selection in each of his six professional seasons, Bird, a forward for Boston, is expected to collect the league's Most Valuable Player honor for the second straight year. He is also fiercely motivated to help the Celtics become the National Basketball Association's first repeat champions in 15 years, a task that finds them up 2-0 in their best-of-seven semifinal series with the Philadelphia 76ers.
In describing Larry's straightforward life style, Jones likes to embellish the facts without bending the truth: ``He gets up at 6 in the morning, goes home at 6 in the evening, gets dinner, and goes right to bed . . . .''
If this sounds like sheer fiction, Jim Jones (no relation to K. C.) will tell you it's not. As the Springs Valley High School coach during Bird's formative basketball days in French Lick, Ind., Jones can recall opening the gym at 6:30 in the morning for Larry to shoot free throws. Other times he would leave him to play pickup games until nearly midnight.
And even today, the old habits remain. During the season Bird is usually the first at practice and among the last to leave. He works the late-night shift in the team's locker room, too, letting his coaches and teammates handle reporters' questions before emerging from the showers. The pattern is almost a courtesy to those with adjoining dressing stalls, who might otherwise be crowded out by Bird's interrogators. An army of them converges on him this night, barricading the Celtic captain into a cubicle with a pile of fan mail spilled in one corner. Because so few reporters are within earshot, he must respond to several waves of questions about a 43-point performance, a timely effort that put Boston in position to close out its second-round playoff series with the Detroit Pistons. He does so dutifully and with admirable patience and aplomb.
Some nights Larry scores with seeming ease, gently dropping ``snowflakes'' into the basket from all angles and distances. This has not been one of those nights, however, despite the point total -- his highest ever in the playoffs. ``It was just your old lunch-pail-type 43,'' says teammate M. L. Carr. ``It wasn't a spectacular 43 . . . .''
The towheaded, hard-nosed Hoosier with the chalky complexion seems to relish this sort of occasion for the challenge as much as those games when his offense flows. ``One night you might score 40 points, and the next night you can't hit nothin','' he explains. ``This is a tough game, and I believe that's why I like it so much. You're not only going against the team you're playing, but against the game of basketball. You keep hoping you'll play the perfect game, but I don't think anybody ever does.''
Bird has probably come as close as anyone, especially this season. He scored 40 or more points in 11 regular-season games, including an incredible 60 against the Atlanta Hawks, a team record. Bird has never been interested in puffed-up statistics and feels the number of points is less important than their timing. ``You can go out and score 60 points, but if you don't get 'em when you need 'em, it don't make much difference,'' he says.
Like any other great player, Bird likes to take the big shots, the ones that hold the key to victory. Four years ago, his reputation in this regard was established when he tossed in a daring three-point basket against the Houston Rockets that paved the way to Boston's 14th NBA title. The legend surrounding his clutch play grew even larger this season, when he uncorked game-winning buzzer beaters in back-to-back contests.
``The amount of talk about Bird's exploits has reached its highest intensity this season,'' says David Stern, commissioner of the NBA. ``During that period when he hit those last-second shots, conversation about his ability went to incredulity.''
To judge by such measurable standards as speed and leaping ability, one would never have predicted that Bird would become the hottest player in the NBA. In 1979, when he was College Player of the Year, most experts expected he would be a reasonably good pro but considered him too slow and earthbound for NBA stardom. By excelling, however, he has caused basketball people to reevaluate the way they judge talent. ``Larry has almost obliterated the stopwatch concept of scouting players,'' says Pete Newell, a respected authority in the sport for many years and current director of player personnel for the NBA's Golden State Warriors. ``He's demonstrated the importance of understanding the game.''
Red Auerbach, the Celtics' president, recognized the existence of this artistic genius when he boldy drafted Bird after his junior year at Indiana State. He never expected, however, that the 6-foot, 9-inch All-American would reach such heights of all-around brilliance.
``I didn't think he'd be this good,'' Auerbach says. ``I always knew he could pass and shoot, but he's surprised me with his rebounding and court presence. Of course, he has the mental toughness necessary to be great, and this year his leadership was tremendous.''
Bird has managed to overachieve at every step of the way -- in high school, where he was all-state; at college, where, as a senior, he took a Cinderella-minded group of Indiana State Sycamores all the way to the NCAA championship game; and in the pros, where he has secured every major individual and team honor.
Bird's mere presence on the court tends to elevate everyone else's game. That's partly because of his ingenuity as a passer. His teammates know that Larry will get them the ball whenever they work to get open.
``My feeling about passing is that it don't matter who's doing the scoring as long as it's us,'' he observes. ``I just think when a man is open, he should get the ball, whether it's 30 feet out on the wing, or underneath.''
In all respects, Bird is a model team player, yet in an introspective moment, he lets on that basketball wouldn't be his choice of professional sports if given a second chance: ``If I was ever going to be an athlete again I'd rather play a game that's one on one, like tennis. I'd never want to play a game again where you'd have to depend on so many other people, because everybody's got different attitudes. I'm just fortunate enough to be on a team where guys come to play.''
Of course, he inspires others to give their maximum effort by his example, which is one of the reasons a three-year Celtics' slide was ended the minute the ``hick from French Lick'' laced up his Kelly-green high-tops.
Boston fans, in love with Bird ever since, gobble up tickets. Besides admiring his skill and toughness, they are fascinated by his Middle American country-ness, which makes him as much folk hero as superstar.
Bob Woolf, a leading sports attorney, who is Larry's agent and next-door neighbor in the Boston suburb of Brookline, believes Bird has become more sophisticated than even he realizes. ``If you think he's smart on the court, well, that's the way he is off it,'' Woolf says. ``Only sometimes people don't think so because of his Hoosier twang and his poor grammar.''
At heart Bird remains an Indiana boy. He puts up a steady stream of old friends at his immaculate home, where he mows his own lawn. And each summer he returns to Indiana to fish, play some golf, and mostly just be himself. The street that Springs Valley High School is on carries a large basketball-shaped sign with the words ``Larry Bird Blvd.'' Townsfolk don't really treat him like a celebrity, though, because Larry wouldn't like it. And he definitely doesn't want anybody getting the idea that fame has gone to his head. Consequently, when Woolf once asked him to have his picture taken in front of the sign, Bird admanantly refused, saying, ``I'd rather tear it apart and mail it to you.''