What Ted Williams was to hitting, so is Bird to shooting.
5. Guess who doesn't love the three-point shot. While sitting through the three-point contest year after year at All-Star weekend, it's natural to refer back to Bird. In that regard he was the NBA's Babe Ruth, the player who made the home run popular while winning the three-point shootout in its inaugural three years (1986-88).
"Yeah, it's all they talk about,'' he said of his ability from the three-point line. "Everybody looks at me as a three-point shooter, but I didn't shoot a lot of them.''
Bird attempted a scant 1.9 threes per game in 13 seasons. In 1990-91, the year before he retired, his long-range attempts peaked at 3.3. But that's still a low rate by today's standards: There are 72 players attempting more than 3.3 threes this season alone.
"I felt like the game is won down in the paint,'' Bird said. "I didn't shoot them until the end of the game. If I shot one early, it was probably on the road.'' When he wanted to make a dramatic impact in an opponent's gym, he means to say.
Bird is aware that his views may be seen as contrary to those of his coach, Jim O'Brien, whose Pacers spread the floor to attempt 19.8 threes per game, ranking fifth in the league.
"I believe in the three-point shot at the right time,'' said Bird, who is president of the Pacers. "I got a coach who loves it, and I back him on it with the type of team we have. We have to play different. We don't have a big man who can score down low. But I see this game as if you want to win and win big, the game is won down in the paint until somebody proves me different.''
Bird believes the three-point shot is overrated.
"If somebody hits two or three earlier in the game, it don't bother me at all,'' he said. "But if a team hits a three-pointer with 18 seconds to go to put them up by three, you're sitting there going, Come on. You know the game ain't over, but at the end of the game I think it does something to you mentally.''
It makes him laugh to think that he's so closely associated with a shot he attempted so rarely.
"People [remember] me at the three-point contest, but I didn't practice going into that contest,'' Bird said. "If I was going to waste my time shooting, it was going to be inside that line because that was where I shot from during the game.''
4. Not that the best three-point shooters don't impress him. I mention to Bird something Andrea Bargnani told me while playing in Italy before he became the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft: He felt more comfortable at the three-point line because the distance remained constant, but he had more trouble gauging his mid-range jumpers from 8 to 18 feet.
"See, I was just the opposite,'' Bird said. "The three-point shot is a long shot. That's for guys like [6-1 Pacers guard] Travis Diener. That's what keeps him in the game. My thing on the three-point shot is if someone led me a pass into it, I felt more comfortable because I could get my legs and everything into it. But to just stand there waiting for somebody to throw the ball around the horn and get it and shoot it -- that's a difficult shot for me.
"I think everything's got to be in the flow of the game, no matter where you shoot it from. My whole game was a mid-range type of thing, off-balance shots around the post and coming off picks, fading away. That's the way I was taught to play. But there's a lot of guys in this league who have fallen in love with that three-point line.''
I asked Bird about shooters like Kobe Bryant, who routinely make threes flat-footed off a stagnant dribble.
"It's unbelievable,'' he said. "I don't know how they do it. They must be very powerful in their upper body is all I can say. Because I always tried to get my legs into every shot, even the three-point shot. I didn't jump, but everything came from my legs. People don't realize that. I had a guy the other day tell me, 'You went around there [during the three-point contest] and you could do it without getting tired because you didn't jump.' But every shot came from my legs -- it started once I bent all the way up through.''
It's funny how a few enduring highlights have skewed the reputation of one of the league's great players.
"They might show some [highlights] at the end of the game I hit to win games or tie it up,'' he said. "But I was never really a three-point shooter, and I never wanted to be known as a three-point shooter.''
3. He would rather be remembered for his free-throw shooting. Bird shot 88.6 percent from the line over his career (ranking him No. 10 all time), which was important for someone who thrived on drawing fouls. He improved from 83.6 percent as a rookie to 93 percent in his 11th season.
"You always see guys dribble, bend way down, go up, then start moving their arms back, then shoot,'' Bird said. "I think it all should be one motion. It should be started in the center of your body and go from there up through. Keep it as simple as you possibly can.
"Roy Hibbert,'' Bird said of the Pacers' rookie center, a 64.4 percent foul shooter, "he used to be all arms and he was a flinger. And it was a nice shot but everything would come off flat and hard. Once you got him centered and set and then going up and through -- hell, he could end up shooting 75 percent over his career by doing that, instead of 58-60 percent. He's gotten a lot better already.''
Charles Barkley is starring in a reality golf show in which Tiger Woods' coach, Hank Haney, tries to repair his swing with the driver. Bird believes Barkley could have used similar help from the foul line.
"I used to watch Charles and say, 'What are you doing?' " Bird said. "He'd get to the line, take his dribble and fall back to shoot it. He was going away from the basket instead of to the basket. So I know if he had just changed them little things, he'd have been a much better free-throw shooter [than his career mark of 73.5 percent].
"It's completely different than a jump shot. When you're in a game, you might be shooting this way [to the side], you might be shooting back, you might be shooting forward -- and it all comes from your legs. Whereas in a free throw, it's get yourself set up and through.''
2. NBA players should resurrect Rick Barry's free-throw style. Barry is the No. 3 free-throw shooter of all time at 90 percent. He shot them underhanded -- granny style -- spinning the ball with his fingertips to land it softly on the rim.
"If you ever got a kid to start [practicing underhanded] at a young age, he could really learn to shoot it because you get the backspin on the ball,'' Bird said. "If you ever notice Rick or anybody who ever did that, when it hits the basket it kills the momentum of the shot and it's got a chance to roll in. Because of the backspin.''
It drops like a putt that dies at the hole.
"It gives you a better opportunity to get the ones that you're probably going to miss if you shoot it upright,'' he said.
But kids today would take too much abuse if they grew up shooting granny style, I say.
"I don't understand that,'' Bird answered. "I remember Rick Barry saying everybody should do it. I've shot them like that, and you can get in a groove where you can make 20 or 30 in a row.
"I don't know what Rick aimed at, but when I shot upright I'd aim almost to the back of the rim. When I went underhand, I threw it just to get over the rim. It's a different mind-set, but Rick is right -- a lot of these guys who can't shoot them, if they'd get into the underhand they would shoot the ball a lot better. I'm sure of that.''
1. He doesn't believe in changing an NBA player's field-goal-shooting mechanics. "No, that's one thing I never do,'' Bird said. "If they ask me about free-throw shooting, that's different.
"There are guys who have got the funniest [shooting] forms you would ever see, but they're good at it. I can remember my coaches saying [to teammates], 'Well, if that's the way you're going to do it, you might just need 300 shots, when Larry shoots 100 to perfect it.' That's what always stuck with me. At this stage you don't want to change too much. But free-throw shooting is completely different from all the other shooting.''
4. Allen Iverson leaves the Nuggets and they are so much better with Chauncey Billups. With the Pistons, Iverson sits out with a back injury and they beat Boston and Orlando. Iverson's value is being exposed. Keep up the great work.-- Peter Allen, Philadelphia
What are Detroit's chances without AI? They look a lot more cohesive without him. Do you think it would be smarter for the Pistons to just waive him for team chemistry reasons?-- Jakob Oakley, Flint, Mich.
Let's put it this way: Iverson isn't all things to all people. He was excellent for the East-winning 76ers in 2000-01 because they surrounded him with the equivalent of a big offensive line and he gained all of the yardage behind them. But that approach -- as I wrote about this week -- doesn't work on this Pistons team.
The best example of what I'm talking about is Kevin Garnett. When he was in Minnesota, how many times did you hear former players on TV criticizing him for not taking over at the end of the game? He didn't come through in that way because that wasn't his strength. Now that he's on a Celtics team surrounded by two of the league's best scorers, Garnett doesn't need to finish the plays. He is being recognized for his strengths because he is on a team that plays to those strengths.
Iverson, 33, doesn't have his old quickness, and it's been a long time since he was successful in the playoffs. But he can score -- he averaged 26.4 points without missing a game for Denver last season -- and you can't ignore what he accomplished as league MVP with that Philadelphia team. He was a 165-pound scorer who willed his team to an NBA Finals, and it's not fair to forget about the good he accomplished while focusing on the troubles he's having now.
The Pistons do look more cohesive without him, but they can't afford to simply waive him. That would be an act of disrespect that would hurt the reputation of their franchise, as Iverson remains one of the league's most popular players among his peers and fans.
3. I found your interview with Tracy McGrady to be particularly amusing, especially his final comments about how he's always had average teams and what would have happened if he had been paired with another superstar like Shaq. The fact is that he was paired with a superstar when he was in Toronto. Imagine both McGrady and Vince Carter in their primes! I'm sure they would have gotten deep in the playoffs (maybe even have won a championship). However, he decided that he didn't want it so he has only himself to blame now. Ironic but deserved.-- Marcus, Toronto
It's a good point you're making, Marcus. But I don't think they would have come close to winning a Finals for Toronto, as neither has the kind of aggressive, Type-A personality you often find in championship leaders. I'd also point out that McGrady left Toronto to return home to Florida and play alongside Grant Hill, a star who was at least as talented as Carter.
2. Can the Jazz win the championship this year?-- Bill H., Salt Lake City
I've rated them as a second-tier contender behind the Lakers and Spurs in the West, but maybe this year they're big enough up front thanks to Paul Millsap's improvement. You know you have a deep frontcourt when you're bringing Millsap and Andrei Kirilenko off the bench.
Utah's injured stars have been reunited, and Deron Williams has been terrific recently. The Jazz have the necessary playoff experience with three series victories over the last two years, and no franchise has a better coach. The one issue -- and it's a big one -- is defense, as they rank No. 18 in opponents' shooting at 46 percent. Phoenix and Portland are the only winning teams that are rated worse defensively than Utah.
1. What do you make of the latest suspension for Carmelo Anthony? How can the Nuggets expect to win with such an unreliable player who always seems to be getting in trouble?-- Rich, Chesterton, Ind.
The good thing about this incident is that it happened on the court. Anthony didn't want to come out of the game, which is not all bad. But the bottom line is that the best player and the coach need to be on the same page. NBA teams don't win championships without a stable relationship between the coach and the star.
The 34-year-old Lakers point guard relates last year's loss in the Finals to this year's challenge -- taking Andrew Bynum's knee injury into account.
3. On his young teammates. "With Andrew we're one of those teams that arguably doesn't have to lose a game; without him it makes everybody's job a little more difficult. We're now in a position with basically the same team that made it to the NBA Finals last year, with a year more experience, a year more of understanding of how to play with each other and how to complement each other. And also a healthy Trevor Ariza, who was out last year in the Finals [playing just 35 minutes in the five games], and Josh Powell, who does some good things for us in terms of physically being present and rebounding.
"Even though it looks like the same game, until you're out there it's hard to understand the differences in terms of the physicality and the intensity, the focus that it requires every possession to try to win a playoff game. Particularly as you escalate round to round and get to an NBA Finals. It's so important to remain composed and poised and in control of your emotions. Those are things that you have to learn how to do, and we do have a number of guys who learned how to do it last year and will be much better this year. I think back to Kobe and I in our younger years and having the experience of what it means to suffer defeating losses in the playoffs or go through times where you have bad games and you have to bounce back. You grow from it, and I think a lot of our guys will do that.''
2. On All-Star Pau Gasol, the Western Conference Player of the Month for February. "Even though he's been in the playoffs before with Memphis, this was a different experience. So he's another guy who I think learned a lot about what it actually takes to be champions. Having that knowledge now is what's driving him and what's pushing him, because I think he really feels now that it's attainable. I don't know if at any other point in his career he really felt like it was an attainable goal. I think last year he smelled it and kind of touched it but couldn't grab it; now he wants to grab it. He had a great summer for the Spanish national team [while winning an Olympic silver medal], so I just think he's built upon the success that we finished with last season, and now he wants it badly.''
1. On the Celtics' defensive style. "It looks physical, and obviously it's a physical game. But playing Detroit in [the 2004 Finals] was physically challenging. In 2001 against the Sixers, even though we won the series 4-1, they played a physical, tough, defensive brand of basketball with Eric Snow and Tyrone Hill and those guys. The Celtics had an energy and an air about them that they were physical, but it wasn't overly physical, it wasn't like you couldn't handle it. I just think they had an ability to sustain it in ways that arguably the league hasn't seen since '04, since that good Pistons team.''
2. Danilo Gallinari, Knicks. The No. 6 pick in the 2008 draft is averaging 6.2 points in 14.4 minutes, but two attributes have emerged since his January return from a bulging disk in his back. First is that he's a fighter, unafraid as a rookie to play at less than full strength on the New York stage; nor did he back down when confronted recently by Dwyane Wade after elbowing Wade in the mouth. Second is that he looks like Mike D'Antoni's kind of player -- a 6-10 deep shooter with so strong a feel for the game that D'Antoni experimented with him at shooting guard before the trade for Larry Hughes. Gallinari had a season-best 17 points (4-of-5 from three-point range) in the Knicks' 109-105 victory against Atlanta on Wednesday. He plays with an edge and it will be no surprise to see him starting next season.
1. Andrea Bargnani, Raptors. The departure of Jermaine O'Neal and arrival of Shawn Marion have settled the 2006 No. 1 pick at center, and he has averaged 19.2 points over his last 30 games. (Dirk Nowitzki -- the comparison by which Bargnani has been cursed -- averaged 21.8 points in his third year.) The 7-foot Bargnani has bulked up to 260 pounds, and though he still doesn't have a post-up game, he has developed an upfake-and-drive move that earns layups and free throws. His perimeter shooting (45.2 percent from the three-point line in games he has started at center) complements nicely with the inside game of power forward Chris Bosh, giving the Raptors a promising frontcourt -- provided Bosh re-signs as a free agent in 2010.
1. Shaquille O'Neal's criticism of Stan Van Gundy. Just when the center position seemed irrelevant in the era of Kobe vs. LeBron, Shaq started a nice little war with Dwight Howard. Everything Shaq has done since the All-Star break (22.1 points on 69.8 percent shooting in 10 games) has increased the likelihood of a trade to a contender this summer and the extension of his career in 2010. He is turning the league into his own farewell reality show. It's a long season and we need the laughs.