Ten minutes to six, Sunday night. The doors had not yet opened to the general public at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, and already Larry Bird was shooting baskets. Around the floor he went. Feet in front of the three-point circle. Feet in back of the three-point circle. Around and around. Drive to the hoop. Lefthanded layup. Back to the circle. Around and around.
"Where's Dominique?" a man in a suit worried out loud in the walkway to the locker rooms at the east end of the building. "Has anyone seen Dominique? Is Dominique going to be here?"
The other familiar basketball names were arriving at a casual summertime pace. Isiah Thomas, still reeling from winning the NBA championship and from the parades and the parties. Michael Jordan, straight from the golf course where he had shot an "easy" 78. Dominique Wilkins. Hey, here's Dominique.
Larry Bird was already shooting.
Everyone else was still wearing pastel deck shoes and talking about Batman while Bird, 32, was in full uniform and tossing long jumpers. Two young ball-boys who stood no taller than Bird's waist took turns collecting the ball each time it swished through the net and sending it back to him. A photographer seemed to take a picture of every shot, the pop of his strobe light timed exactly with the release of the ball, an instant of glare freezing the action.
There was no talk about Jack Nicholson's performance as the Joker here. There were no easy laughs. The look on Bird's face was all business. He had not played basketball in public for 221 days.
"Are you scared?" a reporter had asked him earlier.
"If I were scared, I wouldn't be here," Bird had replied.
"We would have had a sellout if we had been sure Larry was going to play," said David Shane, one of the organizers for the second annual Larry's Game, a summer exhibition to raise scholarship money for students in Indiana. The arena has a capacity of 16,912, and a crowd of 13,951 arrived. "We didn't know, though, until Wednesday. This is a smart basketball state. You can't put anything over on a Hoosier. People held back because they weren't sure about Larry."
Larry wasn't sure about Larry. He had circled the date in his mind months ago—O.K., June 25, a good test, good competition—but there had been so many setbacks during his long stretch of basketball exile that he was afraid to make promises.
"How do I know?" he said. "They told me it would take four months when I first had the operation."
His last game had been on Nov. 15, when he left with 5:08 remaining in the third quarter against the expansion Heat in Miami. He never returned. His goodbye quote was, "Right now I'm just trying not to hurt the team when I'm out there." Four days later, he had bone spurs removed from the backs of both heels. Everything since has been rehabilitation and misery.
He disappeared. In the public clamor for the up-to-date, he somehow became as forgotten as George Mikan. Larry Bird? Oh, yeah, I remember Larry Bird. He was something. The focus of the NBA moved to Detroit and Los Angeles and Chicago. The Boston Celtics fell through the floor in the standings, qualifying as the final playoff team before being eliminated in four straight by the Pistons. Bird became a one-line item. A medical bulletin. An update.
When will Larry be back? Will he ever be back? He spent a lot of time at the end of the Celtics bench in a succession of cardigan sweaters. He tried to come back in March, as the original four-month prognosis would have had it. He practiced for three straight days, and the pain returned to his right heel on the fourth. He tried again at the end of the season, when his name was placed on the playoff roster. He thought he might be able to play if the Celtics escaped the first round. No escape. No comeback. He fidgeted. He went home to Indiana.
"He's been terrific to work with, as good as anyone, because he asks a lot of questions," said Celtics trainer Ed Lacerte. "He wants to know what he is doing and why he is doing it, and that's good. We've been able to set up a program for him and he follows it."
Bird has always considered the summer a time for improvement. One year he ran more. Another summer he began to work with weights. In another he laid out a regulation court, glass backboards and all, on his mother's front lawn in West Baden, Ind., to "learn some new moves."
He jumped into the full package this time. Running. Lifting. Riding a bike. Once again he returned to his solitary games in the Springs Valley High School gym, playing the seventh game of the NBA Finals in his imagination. "I can really shoot in that gym," he said. "I always win the seventh game. I make the winning shot.
"If I miss the shot, I just say I was fouled. Then I make the free throws."
For a while, he had felt confident that he would be able to play the exhibition and play pretty well, but he held back from a public announcement because of past disappointments. There was still some pain in the right heel, but the stiffness was gone. He could not only run, he could run again the next day.
He finally intimated on the first day of June that he might play if nothing stopped his progress. The Celtics, through general manager Jan Volk, immediately intimated that this might not be a good idea. Bird intimated that it was his body and he knew what was best. "I called two people from the Celtics, and they both said that I should do what I felt was right," he said with a smile. "Of course, I did call the two people I knew would say that."
The Celtics dispatched trainer Lacerte to the game. Just in case. Lacerte examined Bird the day before the game, feeling the tissue around Bird's heels, testing his feet for strength and flexibility. He found the patient had made "significant strides in the past six weeks." He said Bird was ready to play.
"There's nothing that he can't do," Lacerte said as the introductions were made Sunday. "There's nothing that we tell him not to do. What we tell him is not to overdo."
His first rebound came on the first missed shot of the game. His first blind pass came on the following trip down the floor, the ball bouncing off the hands of surprised San Antonio Spur forward Frank Brickowski. The first three-pointer...on the first shot Bird took. Dead on.
Piece by piece, he seemed to reassemble his game. Took it out of the closet. He played 29 minutes. He scored 33 points. His White team beat the Red team 182-168.
"I thought I'd be all right," he said. "The last couple of weeks the workouts have been going really well. I wanted to use this as a test. I just wanted to get on the floor, make the passes, make the cuts. I wanted to see where my conditioning was."
He looked fine. The pace of the game was free and light, a typical all-star exhibition with no defense and with spectacular offense, and he fit. He more than fit. His teammate was Jordan, and they worked on some telepathic other-level of basketball. Michael to Larry. Larry back to Michael. Michael back to Larry! Fine.
"It's like men among boys," Brickowski lamented. "They're out there playing their game. We're back playing the other game."
In the Celtics practices at the end of the season, running still seemed to be a problem for Bird. There was no problem here. He could run with the runners. He could keep up. More than keep up. One minute he was befuddling Isiah with a sleight-of-hand fake to leave an open route to the hoop. The next minute he was standing at the edge of the three-point circle yelling for someone to guard him, then throwing in the jumper when someone moved. The next minute he was clanging off Jerome Kersey in the lane, falling to the floor and landing with a smile. This was the best basketball he had played since the 1987-88 season.
"I saw just what I expected of him," Isiah said. "I think he's ready to go. Give him three more months before the regular season begins, and he'll be back. The Celtics will win the Atlantic Division, and we'll win our division, and we'll play them again for the Eastern title."
"I was glad to see him back like this," Jordan said. "I know how it is to come back from an injury."
Bird downplayed the night. He took his performance as encouragement, nothing more. He said he wished all of this had been quieter, on a court removed from media eyes, but he knew that he had to take his tests as they came. "Every day's a big test for me now," he said. "How will I feel tomorrow? How will I feel if I play three games in a row and then have to practice the next day? I don't know. I'm not 100 percent now. If I were, I'd tell you. I've got some way to go."
The rest of the players were gone from the locker room. They had taken their souvenir jackets and shirts and uniforms from Larry's Game and headed to a Larry's Game party. Twenty minutes to 11. Bird unwrapped the ice bags from around his feet. He finally was able to get dressed.
"Is this the start of your comeback?" a man asked.
Bird slipped his feet into a pair of white summer loafers. "Start?" he said. "I've been coming back for nine months."
He was going to be late for his own party.