The Celtics' trek west after the all-star game last season was of long-standing tradition, dictated by scheduling conflicts in Boston Garden. Each February, the Celtics (and the Bruins) have to vacate the premises for a couple of weeks because management leases the building to one ice show or another: In February 1991 the show happened to be Disney on Ice. Over the years, the trip has been a downer if the Celtics are playing poorly, but at times it has had its salutary effects, too, if only because it gets the Celtics out of Boston in midwinter and into some warmer weather.
In seasons past, the Celtics, Larry Bird in particular, had played some of their best ball on that trip, and despite the questions about Bird's back injury—a congenital defect compounded by a herniated disk—there was a good feeling in the air when the Celtics departed on their annual journey last season. The players were traveling on their own plane; Dave Gavitt, the Celts' senior executive vice-president, had persuaded the Boston owners early in the winter that the additional cost (about $500,000 over an entire season) of chartering a private 727 from MGM Grand was outweighed by the benefits. There would be no more lost time in out-of-town airports, no more cholesterol-laden airport food, no more early-morning wake-up calls—the plane would leave directly after a game—and no more traffic jams en route to Logan Airport in Boston. The charter departed from the more conveniently located Hanscom Air Force Base in suburban Bedford. There were things to get used to, though. On Jan. 7, the night of a trip to New York for a game against the Knicks, forward Kevin Gamble and swingman Reggie Lewis had parked their cars in a secured lot at Hanscom, and it took them 90 minutes to find the right person to let them out when they returned at one o'clock the morning after the game.
Bird's injury probably made up Gavitt's mind to ask for the plane. There are few things worse than commercial air travel for a person with a bad back, but on the charter Bird had his own queen-sized bed, a medical area where he could get treatment, and the freedom to walk around and stretch without being bothered by fellow passengers. At least a half-dozen teams had begun chartering on a full- or part-time basis before the Celtics, but it was doubtful that Celtics president Red Auerbach would ever have given the O.K. when he was directly running the team. After all, he remembered Celtics road trips back in the late 1950s that consisted of jumping on an all-night train at Rochester, N.Y., getting dropped off near a cornfield at dawn and either hitchhiking or walking the 10 miles into Fort Wayne, Ind., to play the Pistons, who were then based there. And that's when his Celtics were world champs.
The plane and rookie guard Dee Brown's newfound stardom—two days earlier he had won the slam-dunk contest during the All-Star weekend in Charlotte—were the main topics of conversation when the Celtics landed in Seattle on Feb. 11 and immediately were bused to a workout. As Brown and Bird walked in, a local TV crew mobilized. "There he is!" shouted one of the crew members, and Bird winced. But no, they wanted to interview Brown.
"Better git ready, Rook," Bird said, laughing. "It's only jest beginnin'."
Forward Kevin McHale said the only one who didn't like the charter flight to Seattle was former Celtic Tommy Heinsohn, one of the team's broadcasters. "Five hours without a cigarette, and Tom is devastated," McHale said. "His eyes are rolling around in his head by the time we get off the plane. He wanted them to land in, like, Kansas, so he could get a butt." McHale shook his head. "After about the 10th meal on the flight, I turned to a couple guys and said, 'Man, this is really decadent, isn't it?' And they said, 'Why? What's wrong with it?' "
Out on the court, Bird was shooting without visible pain. He claimed to have watched only one quarter of the All-Star Game on TV before losing interest and falling asleep. However, he had seen the Chicago Bulls' Craig Hodges convert 19 straight shots from various spots behind the three-point line to win the Long Distance Shootout. Bird won that event in 1986, '87 and '88 and took pride in calling himself "the three-point king." Bird was asked if he had ever made 19 in a row from three-point range.
"Sheet, you kiddin'?" he said, genuinely offended. "Fifty or 60 maybe. Easy. Although most of 'em, usually, from the corner. What Hodges did under those circumstances was big-time, no doubt about it." He couldn't resist a subtle dig, though. "Kinda tough to shoot like that from the bench, isn't it?" Hodges at the time was getting very little playing time.
After practice, Bird went over to his physical therapist, Dan Dyrek, who had come along on the trip at the Celtics' expense primarily to work with Bird on a daily basis. Dyrek slipped a cumbersome-looking back brace around Bird's shoulders. It had come to this: Boston's hopes for the season were resting on a guy who, when not in uniform, wore a back brace.
When the Celtics walked into The Coliseum the following morning at 10, they found that the SuperSonics had just taken the court for their own shootaround and wouldn't be finished until after 11. Boston assistant coach Don Casey had already sent the bus driver to a 7-Eleven store to get coffee, so the Celtics could do nothing but stand around the hallway and bust Wayne Lebeaux, the equipment manager/traveling secretary who was responsible for their scheduling.
"Actually, I think Wayne's pullin' a smart one, Doc," Bird said to head coach Chris Ford. "See, each time you give him a little crap and you think he's just takin' it, he gits back at you in all these little ways." (Ford, a journeyman at best, picked up his nickname when he was playing for the Celtics from 1978 through '82; he executed a finger roll one night that loosely resembled one of Julius Erving's moves. Thus, with apologies to Dr. J, Cornbread Maxwell gave the nickname "Doc" to Ford.)
After a few phone calls, Lebeaux found out that the Celtics could shoot around at a nearby mental health facility.
"Mental health facility," said Casey, who had spent 1½ seasons as the coach of the hapless Los Angeles Clippers. "Thought I was through with this when I left the Clippers."
Ford wanted to get the subject away from Lebeaux and bad scheduling. He wasn't above bustin' him from time to time, but it was still early on the trip and much more could go wrong.
"You know who started shootarounds?" asked Ford. "Bill Sharman, with that '72 Laker team that won 33 straight."
"A dark day in the NBA," said McHale. "A very dark day."
The facility at the Northwest Center for the Retarded was adequate, though the side walls were extremely close to the court. During the postpractice shootaround, forward Michael Smith and Gamble glanced at Ford to make sure he wasn't watching, and then they immediately began trying to bank shots off the wall and into a side basket. Smith, the team's No. 1 draft choice in 1989, took pride in his ability to convert trick shots; it was about all he had left to distinguish himself as a Celtic. The players were still bustin' Lebeaux when they boarded the bus to return to the hotel.
"It's all right, guys," said Ford, trying to smooth things over. "We're right about on schedule."
"I tell you what, Doc," twanged Bird from the back. "You're gittin' awful mellow in half a year. Bill Fitch [the volatile Celtics coach from 1979-80 to '82-83] woulda' chewed his ass out good."
McHale was in a reflective mood as he sat down on the Celtics' bench an hour before the game against the Sonics. He asked a reporter for his impressions of Bird's physical condition based upon the previous night's practice session.
"Thought he looked O.K.," said the reporter.
"I think he looked a little stiff," said McHale. "But you know what? He'll be all right. He knows all these people are here to see him. He has a sense of that, even if he'd never admit it. It motivates him. I think we look at the road the same way—as a chance to come into somebody else's building and bust 'em. I know I still feel that way. And when you do it, it's the greatest feeling."
McHale's view of Bird was, as usual, right on the money. At home, under the constant mental burden of being Larry Bird, he tended to shun off-court commitments and quite frequently ducked out on the press at Boston Garden, but the road seemed to liberate him. There would be new faces, new routines, new hotel coffee shops, maybe a Tony Roma's rib house around the corner. Bird would frequently stiff the press at home but then talk for an hour to a reporter from a remote newspaper in the state of Washington during a road trip.
"Something's really going to go out of this franchise when Larry leaves," continued McHale, bouncing a ball at his feet. "And, I guess, to a lesser extent, Robert [Parish] and me, too. But mostly Larry. They're really going to lack a guy like that, somebody who's got that something special, you know? Every good team has to have one. Magic [Johnson] in L.A., Larry here, Charles [Barkley] in Philly. I really believe Reggie, Brian [Shaw] and Dee are going to be good. Real good. But they're going to need that other element, that element of toughness, something special."
McHale looked over and saw Shaw and Brown schmoozing with Seattle rookie Gary Payton, a point guard against whom they would both soon be testing their skills. "We never used to talk to guys before the game," said McHale. "Yeah, I'm known for being friendly and all that, and I do some talking, but not when I was young and never to a guy I was going against. You kind of went by and maybe said 'How ya doin'?' to kind of psych him out."
He pointed at Brown. "That dunk contest will be great for that kid because the one thing he lacked was confidence. I know Dee looks confident on the outside, but you can tell the way he hangs his head out there once in a while that he isn't completely confident. He talks it, but he doesn't walk it. I don't know what it was with guys like Larry and me—maybe we were sick or something—but we didn't go through that. I know Larry didn't, and I know I didn't. I felt every single night I was out there I was better than the other guy. Even when I was a rookie."
The game was entertaining if not well played, though the Celtics took control in the second half. Late in the third period McHale suddenly emerged from a pack of players, hobbling across the court toward the Boston bench, having turned his left ankle badly. Trainer Ed Lacerte led him into the dressing room—"Oh no, not again" was Ford's initial reaction—and McHale's absence in the fourth period stalled the Celtics' attack. Seattle led by two points with 5:12 left when Bird took a typically nervy three-point shot that went in and put the Celtics up by one. But Seattle forward Eddie Johnson, who can put points on the board rapidly, hit two improbable three-point shots in the final minutes, and the Celtics led by just 112-111 with 14.6 seconds left. Boston inbounded to Bird, who was immediately fouled. The noise level was close to unbearable. As Bird settled in at the free throw line, Johnson stood behind him and waved to the fans, imploring them to yell even louder, which they did. They were wasting their breath. Bird swished the first shot, then the second, and the Celts held on for a 114-111 win.
"I learned a long time ago to drain out crowd noise," said Bird after the game. "I don't hear it. I didn't feel that comfortable at the line because I hadn't shot many free throws recently. But I'd rather have me at that line than anybody else." He smiled, but he meant it, too.
Lewis and Shaw were talking about an awe-inspiring dunk by Sonics forward Shawn Kemp. Kemp took off from just in front of the free throw line, soared over several players and jammed the ball into the hoop.
"Never saw anything like it," said Shaw. "Absolutely big-time."
"Yeah," said Brown slyly, "about three days too late, though." (Kemp had been the runner-up in the slam-dunk contest.)
Spirits were high as the Celtics boarded a bus on Feb. 13, the day before Game 2 of the trip, against the Golden State Warriors, for a workout at the University of San Francisco. The $20,000 Brown earned for winning the slam-dunk contest had become the hottest subject of conversation.
"Dee, you get that money yet?" Parish shouted at him as Brown made his way down the aisle. Whether the Celtics were bound for practices or games, Chief, as Parish is known, was customarily in his seat, all the way in the back, at least 10 minutes before anyone else. Generally, he sat quietly, but if he saw someone he wanted to rib, he was in prime position to do so.
"No, not yet," said Dee. "I think they might have sent the check back home."
"Sheet," Bird said. "I always made sure I got mine. Pick it up right there, so they don't go sendin' it someplace else."
"Well, I'm gonna call home today, see if it got there," said Brown.
"Uh-oh," said Chief. "Check went home. Check went to the crib. Call off that party, boys, check went to the crib. It's over. Done. Spent."
Up in the front of the bus, meanwhile, Lebeaux was in trouble again—the driver was having a hard time finding his way through the confusing streets of San Francisco.
"Wayne, oh, Wayne," shouted Bird. "I think I've seen every part of San Francisco. Is this a guided tour we're on, or we goin' to practice?"
Finally, Shaw, a native of nearby Oakland, went up and directed the driver to the gym. Lebeaux's face was red.
"Uh-oh" said Bird. "Wayne's losin' his power."
A little later, Lebeaux brought coffee to the coaching staff, and Bird spotted him. "Wayne, we could use some orange juice," Bird said. " 'Course we're only players."
"Orange juice?" said Lebeaux. "That's why they have a coffee shop back at the hotel."
"Listen, better wipe that stuff off your nose, Wayne," said Bird.
"Just don't answer him," interrupted Casey. "That's what those country hicks want you to do."
"Hey, watch it now, Case," said backup center Joe Kleine. "We got a couple country hicks here." Kleine hails from Slater, Mo., which Kleine has described as a "Last Picture Show type of town."
After practice, the two hicks adjourned to the coffee shop of the Celtics' Fisherman's Wharf hotel for lunch. The weather was warm and sunny, and Bird's back felt terrific. He ate Mexican food and talked about his disappointment with the Celtics' play in a home game against Golden State four weeks earlier. "Won't happen agin," he said. He glanced outside and spotted Shaw, who had played in Italy the year before. Shaw had his equipment bag slung over his shoulder, and he was heading to his parents' house in Oakland for a visit.
"Hey, Brian!" shouted Bird out an open window. "Goin' back to Italy?"
McHale's ankle sprain was a lot worse than was originally believed. "The Lord giveth," said Ford, glancing at Bird and then at McHale, "and the Lord taketh away." McHale had spent almost all of his time in San Francisco getting treatment from Lacerte. "Quigley Down Under, with Tom Selleck, on the in-room movie service has been the highlight of my trip so far," said McHale, lying on the training table in the visitors' locker room at the Oakland Coliseum Arena before the game. Dyrek manipulated the ankle, literally trying to massage the blood out of it, and McHale winced. Dyrek called the process tissue mobilization. "Well, I call it pain," said McHale.
Tim Hardaway, the Warrior point guard, gave Shaw fits early in the game, and Ford really went after Shaw. "You're backing down!" Ford shouted. "You're being a pussy!"
Shaw came back at him during a timeout: "I'm not backing down. I'm no pussy!" Shaw's normal coolness was gone, and Ford loved it. Shaw played better from then on, getting key relief help on Hardaway from Brown. Even reserve forward Eddie Pinckney lent a hand, with a hellacious brand of defense on high-scoring Mitch Richmond. In shredding the Warriors' half-court trap, the Celtics moved the ball better than at any time since their 1985-86 championship season, zipping it from one player to another without even a dribble, and at one point Bird shook his fist in the air, shouting, "Attaway, Pinckney!" It was meaningful, for Bird rarely directed praise at Pinckney. A big three-pointer by Bird with 6:15 left gave Boston a 106-93 lead, and the Celtics coasted to a 128-112 victory from there. Ford still hadn't cleared his bench late in the game, and the Warriors' All-Star forward, Chris Mullin, mildly irritated, asked Casey, as he took the ball out of bounds near the Celtics bench, "How many you guys want to win by?"
"Sorry, Chris," said Casey. "We have a clause in our contract for margin of victory."
After the game, Parish just couldn't let the Ford-Shaw exchange go by. The Celtics' veterans had taken to calling Shaw and Brown "Chris's sons," for they believed, halfheartedly anyway, that Ford was easy on Shaw and Brown. "One of your sons is talking back, Doc," said Parish, his deep bass cutting through the locker room noise. "Either take his car keys or ground him."
Shaw smiled. Ford smiled. The Celtics were 2-0 on the trip and 37-12 overall, the second-best record in the NBA, behind the Portland Trail Blazers' 40-9. McHale was hurt, but Bird was healthy and happy. It was easy to smile.
Schedules, schedules, schedules. The Celtics bus bound for The Forum and the Feb. 15 game—the third on the trip—with the Lakers sat in front of the Marriott, idling, while everyone waited for Pinckney.
"All right, who was supposed to bring Eddie down?" Ford said.
Actually, Pinckney was usually the least of Ford's worries. It was standard operating procedure on the road for Pinckney and Kleine to cab it over to the arena a couple of hours before their teammates to get in some extra work. But Pinckney had decided to take a nap before this game and had overslept.
"One-fifty, Pinckney," said Bird, when Pinckney sheepishly ambled onto the bus 10 minutes late. "Cash."
Ford was trying to be angry, although his heart really wasn't in it. "Did you hear me this morning in the meeting when I said 5:30?" he asked.
Before Pinckney could respond, Bird yelled from the back of the bus, "I'm sorry, what was that, Doc? We couldn't hear you back here."
"I said, 'Did you hear me in the meeting when I said 5:30?' "
"Yes sir," said Bird in a schoolboy tone. "We all heard you. I don't know about Eddie, but we all heard you."
With the trading deadline fast approaching, NBA news was a hot topic during the 15-minute bus ride to the arena.
"I was talking to my agent, and he heard a deal on his speakerphone," said Michael Smith. "Milwaukee sent Ricky Pierce to Seattle for Dale Ellis."
"I can't believe that," said Bird.
"What? The trade?" said Smith. "I can't believe it, either."
"No," said Bird, "I can't believe your agent has a speakerphone."
Though they were in enemy territory, the Celtics were obviously more prepared for the Lakers than they had been without Bird two weeks earlier in Boston Garden, where they lost 104-87. McHale was still out of action, but Bird took such a real joy in playing the Lakers that the feeling seemed to be contagious. Everyone was up. Steve Bulpett, the Celtics reporter for The Boston Herald, recalled a moment a few years earlier when Bird, dressing alone in The Forum locker room, suddenly sang, almost to himself, "We're playin' the Lakers, we're playin' the Lakers."
Bird's rivalry with Magic Johnson had lost some of its appeal to the fans, but Bird seemed to appreciate it, or at least enjoy it, more than ever. Early in his career, the competition with Magic and the Lakers had been so intense that Bird was never really able to step back and consider what their joint effect had been on the game. He tired of the subject quickly. But time had provided perspective, and when he was asked about Magic before this game, he warmed to the subject.
"I've never seen nobody as good as him," said Bird. "And there'll probably be nobody down the road as good as him. There's other guys who will come along who can score and rebound. But there probably won't be anybody who can control a game like he does.
"It's amazing when you think back to the years when it was always us and them in the Finals. We kind of took it for granted. I don't think it's that way anymore. I think we appreciate what we had. The Finals is what we're working for. It would be a big accomplishment for us, no matter who we got in against. But it'd be sort of nice to get to play the Lakers agin. That'd be fun, me and Magic agin."
Bird and Magic sensed that they were the only two members of a very, very special NBA club—those players who had won championships and MVP awards throughout the 1980s and were still active and starting. Julius Erving was gone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was gone, Moses Malone was on Atlanta's bench and Michael Jordan still hadn't won the big one. Membership in that club mandated praise from the other member. It was part of the ritual. Their mutual-admiration society wasn't focused on the past, because Bird and Magic could still play the game, but it was not without its nostalgic element, either. The best player in the NBA was clearly Jordan, not Magic, but Bird would not admit it. Magic was his choice, he said. And why not? Together they had forged an identity for themselves and for the NBA and it bound them together for eternity. Bird and Magic, Magic and Bird.
A few weeks before, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was working on a story about the NBA stars who would be playing for the U.S. in the 1992 Olympics. Magic would not consent to pose for the cover photo unless Bird was included. Informed that Bird had said at the time that he had no interest in playing in the Olympics, Magic still insisted on a few dozen rounds of phone calls to determine that Bird would not be offended if he, Magic, appeared in the photo. Bird, who has since changed his mind and has been named to the Olympic team, could have cared less—and Magic probably knew that—but club ties were strong, the ritual inviolate.
The story of this Celtic-Laker game was not Bird or Magic, however. It was Parish. He was unusually fired up. Los Angeles center Vlade Divac had been quoted a couple of days earlier as saying the game against Boston was "an exhibition," and he made a few other comments suggesting that the Celtics did not present the stiffest opposition. Jon Jennings, one of Boston's assistant coaches, made sure that the Celtics, and Parish in particular, were aware of the story. Such motivational gimmicks are usually pooh-poohed by Bird, McHale and the other veterans, but they are, in fact, quite common in the NBA. Teams that are in need of energizing often turn the most innocent comments into fierce challenges, altering the context and scope of mildly negative articles so drastically that by game day, no one has any idea what actually was said, but they know it was real bad. And in this case, Divac was a great target. He was young, unproved, foreign, and he had his own razor commercial to boot. Parish had a terse response when Jennings told him about Divac. "Well, screw Vlade Divac," said the Chief.
And then he went out and did just that. Parish scored an incredible 21 points in the first period, forcing Laker coach Mike Dunleavy to remove Divac halfway though the period in favor of Mychal Thompson, who fared no better. Considering Parish's age and disinclination to carry the scoring load, the performance defied belief. It was like Bird scoring, say, 35 in one period, or McHale getting 30. It did, in fact, take something out of Parish for the next two periods, but he returned with a vengeance in the fourth, grabbing key rebounds and shutting down Divac, who, apart from a spectacular reverse dunk off a fast-break pass from Magic, had just an average game.
"Vlade got his reverse dunk," said McHale after the game, "and Robert got 29." Bird had trouble scoring against James Worthy, an underrated defensive player, and took at least a half dozen of the worst shots known to man, off-balance lefthanders, leaning half hooks from 18 feet, trash that even Bird couldn't convert into points. Yet with 4:54 left, he came down on the left wing, stopped at least 1½ feet behind the three-point line and launched a rainbow set shot that swished. It gave the Celtics an 11-point lead, and in typical Los Angeles fashion, the crowd began to leave.
The star of the 98-85 Boston victory was Lewis, who had 26 points and zero turnovers, but after the game all he could talk about was Bird. "How about that three-pointer Lahr-ree took?" said Lewis, employing his rather strange pronunciation of Bird's name. "Like all great ballplayers, he always does something. No matter how bad he's been shooting, he does something." Inside, perhaps, Lewis was wondering if he could be that type of player someday. To Lewis, Bird was respected not because of his shooting ability, which is considerable, but because of his gutsiness, his insistence on taking the big shot and making it when the game was on the line.
Working the room after the game were a number of Hollywood types, Kevin Costner foremost among them. With a slew of Academy Award nominations for Dances with Wolves, Costner was absolutely the brightest star in the Hollywood sky at the time, yet one sensed his shyness when he went over to introduce himself to Bird. They shook hands and talked for only a moment before Bird got up to leave.
"Hey, Kevin!" McHale shouted to Costner.
"Oh, hi, Kevin," Costner said, making his way to McHale's corner.
"Saw Dances, man," said McHale. "It was great."
They chatted for about 10 minutes, during which McHale praised the movie for, among other things, its "cinemagraphic depiction" of South Dakota. Bird, meanwhile, was sitting impatiently on the bus, ready to return to the hotel and a postgame meal in the coffee shop.
"Let's git this going," Bird said. "If we lost, we'd a been outta here a half hour ago." He got to his feet and looked out the window. "Sheet, even Joe Kleine's out there, looking for stars. Joe Kleine!"
McHale climbed into the bus just as Ford was saying goodbye to Sister Filomena Conte, his fifth-grade teacher back at St. Michael's School in Atlantic City, N.J., who was now living in L.A.
"That's your old teacher, Doc?" said McHale. He ran to a window and began banging on it. "Whoa, Sister, hey!" McHale yelled. "You should hear all the cussin' Chris does on the bench. You'd be ashamed of him now."
The good sister continued walking. Perhaps she had heard about McHale.
On the way back to the hotel, Celtics radio announcer Glenn Ordway said to McHale, "Boy, you must have really been impressed by that movie."
"What movie?" said McHale.
"Dances with Wolves," said Ordway.
"Oh, that," said McHale. "Actually I didn't see it."
Casey took a large contingent, including his family, Ford and Jennings, to Spago, the trendy West Hollywood restaurant presided over by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, whom Casey had gotten to know during his Clipper years. They ate and drank and ogled celebrities far into the night, and the following morning Jennings had to admit: "You know, sometimes this L.A. stuff isn't bad."
Brown walked into the Marriott-City Center Hotel in Denver on Feb. 16 to find his wife, Jill, waiting for him. Bird walked in to find the "Golden Girls" waiting for him. It had only been a week since Dee had won the slam-dunk contest, but Jill had already felt the strain of his sudden fame. Dee was glad to see her. Ford was not, for wives on the road are considered a taboo in the NBA. But Ford pondered the situation—the Browns' ages (he 22, she 25), the changing circumstances and the fact that the Celtics were playing well—and decided not to get on Dee about it.
Bird checked in, put his bags in his room and came back downstairs to see the Golden Girls—Bonnie Brown, Dona Rossow, Lenore Goehring and Joyce Tisdall, all of whom were pushing 60. They had first become interested in Bird through Bonnie Brown's son, Scott, who lived in Indiana and worshiped Bird. Joyce lives in Denver, so the other three decided six years ago to make the sometimes difficult 650-mile drive from Mobridge, S.Dak., where they reside, to see Bird play against the Nuggets. As they checked into their hotel, they ran into Bird and, according to Bonnie, "attacked him."
It was one of those happy twists of fate for the Golden Girls. They had caught Bird in a good mood, and he stayed and talked to them for an hour; they have made pilgrimages to the Celtics' games in Denver ever since and visited with Bird each time. Actually, this was not so far out of character for Bird. Just as he was friendlier with Kleine than with McHale, and more likely to hang out with someone like Brad Lohaus (a former Celtics forward) than with Magic Johnson, so he was more inclined to give his time and friendship to a foursome of older women than to the gladhanders and autograph seekers who continually hound the Celtics on the road.
On this occasion, Bird and the Golden Girls shared a table in the downstairs lounge, talking about Larry's fishing and Larry's grandmother and Larry's wife, who just a few days earlier had mailed each of them a new pair of sneakers in anticipation of their visit to Denver. Dozens of other fans came by and hung at the periphery of the group, wondering if they would be asked in, and then they drifted away when it became obvious that Bird was paying them no mind. Finally, he got up to leave.
"Gotta do some runnin'," said Bird. "I'll see ya all before the game."
"O.K., Larry," one of the women said. "Get a good night's sleep, and we'll see you tomorrow."
Bird sensed a big game coming, which was only logical, because Denver didn't have anybody to guard anybody, far less Bird. With the Golden Girls cheering him on from their prime seats under the basket, Bird came out firing. He hit his first four shots and finished the first period with 17 points. It was a joke. Half the time he looked over at the bench while his shot was in the air, his disdain for his opponents evident in the smirk on his face. Near the end of the game, McHale, on the bench in street clothes, was eating a slice of pizza. "When I saw that," said Michael Adams, the Nuggets' injured point guard, "I knew they were showing us a lack of respect." The final score was 126-108. Bird had a game-high 24 points in just 25 minutes. The Golden Girls had a good time. And the Celtics were 4-0 on the trip. Without McHale.
The following day, McHale's attention was fixed on a sign in the Jewish Community Center gymnasium in Phoenix, the Celtics' final stop on the trip. It read NO HANGING ON RIMS.
"Hey, Mike," he called to Mike Fine, a writer for The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass., who is Jewish. "See what you make of this sign." Fine read it. "Now, Mike, is this a big problem?" McHale asked. "Somehow I think the springing Jew is somewhat of a dying breed, don't you? Can't you hear them out there saying 'Oy vay! How the boy can jump.' "
Ford was trying to keep the Celtics focused on a fifth straight win, which would be almost unprecedented on an NBA road trip, so he worked them hard in practice.
It was a tough day for the autograph hounds outside the Jewish Community Center too. Most of them were adults, and Bird was feeling frisky.
"Excuse me, but don't you have a job?" he said to one, who tagged along, demanding that he sign after Bird first refused.
"You know, the Marines are looking for a few good men," he said to another. "Maybe you're one of 'em."
He finally made it onto the bus and flopped down onto his seat. Obnoxious autograph seekers have become an increasing problem in sports, particularly to athletes like Bird, whose signature is valuable on the open market. It has become nearly impossible for Bird to distinguish the young fan who sincerely wants his autograph from the money-hungry trader. Bird has an excellent memory for faces and he often surprises a traveling autograph seeker with a refusal. "I jest signed for you in Denver," he will say, and the hound will stare at him wide-eyed.
Lately, Bird had taken to signing Pete Rose's name on his cards from time to time. "But Doc made me stop when I signed it on the team photos," he said.
Bird hates the hypocrisy of the whole autograph game: "These guys, most of 'em, will say, 'Hey, Larry, you're the greatest,' and when I don't sign three autographs for 'em, they'll turn around and say, 'Asshole. Piece of shit. Hey, what an asshole Larry Bird is.' I hate it when somebody comes up to me when we're out of town and I sign for him, and then he turns around and says, 'You know, we're gonna kick your ass tonight.' Why does he say 'we'? I always ask the guy, 'How many baskets will you score?' "
When the Celtics arrived back at the hotel, a contingent of Smith, Pinckney, reserve forward Dave Popson and reserve center Stojko Vrankovic left for a nearby arcade for a round of miniature golf and various other time-killing recreations. Kleine, who was waiting to go for ribs with Bird, watched the group with amusement.
"McHale and I figured out why Michael is so good at games," said Kleine. "Miniature golf, shooting games, video games, things like that. See, Mormons—Smith is from Brigham Young—had to spend all their dates in places like arcades and amusement parks because they were afraid to be alone with their girlfriends in case things got, you know, out of hand. That's why they're always real good in that stuff. Anyway, that's our theory, and we're sticking with it."
Later that afternoon, Bird sat—or "set," as he would put it—in the lobby of the Hotel Westcourt in Phoenix, enjoying the day off, enjoying being Larry Bird, enjoying being the sine qua non of a potential championship team, something he had not been in a few years. He adjusted himself repeatedly on a couch, trying to find a comfortable position. His back felt relatively good on the court, particularly after a few minutes of action had warmed it up, but in his private moments, at home or in a hotel room, he constantly had to change positions, lying on the floor for a few minutes, then standing, then sitting, then leaning against a wall. He had stopped going to the movies on the road because he couldn't sit comfortably and didn't want to keep getting up. By the stop in Phoenix, it seemed that Bird had turned a corner with his back problems. No longer could he hope that they would work themselves out. He had been through a month of hell, and there was no guarantee that it was over yet. When surgery was mentioned, he didn't pooh-pooh it, as he used to. He knew it was a definite possibility, both to enable him to continue playing and to have a pain-free life after basketball.
"There were a couple days there I wanted to quit 'cause it hurt so bad," Bird said. "The pain was goin' on down my right leg, and I said, 'The hell with it. Ain't worth it.' I was settin' there at home, jest thinkin' and thinkin', Why are you doin' it? But then, I also started thinkin', Look, you're prolly gonna have this thing the rest of your life, in some form, anyway."
Bird used to joke that he wanted to be the fattest man driving out of Boston when he stopped playing, but like many athletes near the end of their careers, he had had a change of heart. Injuries and wear and tear had made him feel more like a normal human being, a mortal, and he didn't particularly enjoy it. He liked his body when it was in tune and humming, and he wanted to keep that feeling in civilian life.
"I think I wanna be active," said Bird. "What I might do, though, is git in shape, git outta shape, then git in shape again. I won't do it like I used to, though. It's gittin' tougher. Three years ago I could lose 15 pounds like nothin'. Now? I don't know if I could." He had put on a few pounds when he was out of action, but he wasn't sure how many. "I was so bored, I'd set around the house, drive my wife crazy, and eat and eat. In 2½ weeks I was off I ate 10 gallons of ice cream and seven weddin' cakes. Why them? I ate weddin' cakes 'cause you knew they was gonna be good. I mean, who would screw up a weddin' cake?" There was Bird's philosophy at its most crystalline.
The conversation turned to his future. "Never thought about coachin'," he said, "and I'm not sure I'd be patient enough for it. The one thing I know I'll do is go on a fishin' tour for a year. Maybe play some golf, but that's it. Let my body heal up and figger out what I wanna do with the rest of my life." He smiled. "I already know, though, that I'd like to fish every day. I'd never git tired of it. Why would I have to do anythin' else? I been playin' basketball for 20-some years, and that hasn't changed. It could be the same with fishin'. Exactly the same."
Bird's only other summer activity besides fishing and golf has been home repairs. One year he built fences, laid brick and did some concrete work and some roofing at his house in French Lick, Ind. "I couldn't lay everythin' out, but I could do jest about all the work," he said. "I enjoyed it. I don' live for it, like I live for fishin', but I like it."
His reverie led him to a familiar subject—the respect he had for Parish and for Dennis Johnson, the former Celtics point guard. He began talking about them with an emotional charge that was, for Bird, close to outright passion. "Everybody knew when we needed a basket DJ passed me the ball, and I came off a pick set by Robert, who sets the best pick in the world. I don' know how he does it. Now I don' come off those picks as much, because that's not our offense. But if it wasn't for Robert, I wouldn't have scored half the points I have. Does he resent me? I'm sure pret-near everybody has a li'l resentment toward me. They're out there working their asses off, and all you hear is 'Larry Bird's in town' or 'Larry Bird and the Celtics are here.' I never talked about it with 'em, but what kin I do about it? I'm not gonna quit playin' as hard as I kin because I git publicity." He smiled. "Robert and I are talking about playing in Europe together. That'd be pretty neat, I think. Be a change, make a little money, have some fun." Imagine Larry Bird in Europe, a man of simple tastes, searching for a thick, juicy steak, a baseball game on the tube, teammates who move without the ball. But he seemed serious.
Brown had had an interesting trip. Virtually every day his agent, Steve Zucker, had called him with some offer that had come in since that wondrous day when he pumped up his sneakers before each shot he attempted in the slam-dunk contest. "It was just like the first morning after Jim McMahon and the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl a few years ago," said Zucker. Someone wanted Brown to run a dunking clinic in Spain. In Denver, the Nugget mascot, a guy in a mountain-lion costume, put on a blindfold to simulate the blind dunk with which Brown had won the contest and splattered himself against the backboard. The night before the game against the Suns, a man awakened him at three in the morning to ask if he could have his sneakers after the game. Later that night, Brown had to laugh as he watched Phoenix's mascot, the Gorilla, pump up a pair of Reeboks for still another impersonation.
The Sun team that the Celtics met on Feb. 19 was one with serious chemistry problems; the day before, Phoenix held an unprecedented four-hour team meeting. The Celtics found that rather amusing, particularly Bird, who had a quick diagnosis of their condition: "Shoot, Kevin Johnson is the point guard, and he's takin' all these shots, and that means [Tom] Chambers ain't gettin' his, and he's mad, and then [Xavier] McDaniel wants his, and, shoot, there you are." Sun forward Kurt Rambis, a 10-year NBA veteran, was a little sheepish about the length of the meeting, and later he described it as "a half-hour meeting and 3½ hours of porno films."
Nevertheless, the Suns approached the game against the Celtics with a playoff level of intensity and erased an early 12-point Boston advantage to lead by 107-105 with about one minute left. At that point, Bird came down on a controlled fast break, pulled up at the three-point line and missed, and the Celtics went on to lose 109-105. It was back to the eternal debate. On the one hand, he should not have shot the ball. On the other hand, he had made clutch three-pointers against the Sonics, the Warriors and the Lakers, as well as three others in the game with the Nuggets. What is a bad shot for Bird? "It's a real, real tough call," said Casey, who generally has an instant opinion on everything. "He's done it so often, but certainly you wouldn't want anyone else shooting that shot. When he took it, there wasn't anyone under the basket. It wasn't a best-case scenario."
Actually, Bird had an atrocious evening, making only five of 23 shots from the floor. All that stood between the Celtics and a perfect 5-0 road trip had been Bird's shooting. "What do I think?" said Bird with a shrug. "I think I shot bad. But who knows? Maybe next game I'll take 25 shots."
How quickly things change in the NBA. Jennings stood at courtside before the Celtics game against the Bulls at Chicago Stadium on Feb. 26 and considered the circumstances. McHale was still out. Bird's back was starting to bother him again and was obviously affecting his shooting form—he had averaged only 30% from the field over the past three games. Two days earlier Boston had a 17-point lead in the last 11 minutes at Indiana but lost to the improving Pacers 115-109. The Bulls, on the other hand, had won nine in a row and 18 straight at home, and they were just a half game behind the Celtics for the best record in the East. And who the hell was going to guard Michael Jordan? Outside the arena, it had started to snow.
"Can you win, Jon?" Jennings was asked.
"Tonight?" he said. "No way."
It was simply life in the NBA. Some games are losers from the moment a team checks into the hotel, and this was one of them. In the locker room, there was kind of a let's-get-it-over-with feeling. Before the game Shaw was laughing about a skit he had seen on In Living Color in which comedian Tommy Davidson talked about the tendency of black singers to offer long, stylized renditions of the national anthem before sporting events. A half hour later, Shaw was nearly paralyzed with laughter as a young black female singer took three minutes and 40 seconds, possibly a world record, to get through The Star-Spangled Banner. It turned out to be the last humorous moment for the Celtics, who were never in the game. In the first period, the Bulls' Scottie Pippen saved a ball from going out of bounds by throwing it directly into Parish's groin area. "Boools-eye" is the way Chief later described the save. Chicago led 74-48 at half time, 105-69 late in the game and 129-99 when it was all over.
Ford worried about the effect the loss might have on his less-experienced players. "Our young guys are very fragile," he said. "Chicago stepped it up a notch, and we weren't ready. My guys might think they're ready to contend for a title, but they're not."
But it wasn't only the young Celtics. Bird and Parish had played poorly too, and Ford admitted he didn't quite know how to handle the Bird situation. He felt that Bird needed intermittent rest, but he also needed Bird's presence on the floor, no matter how poorly he was shooting. But Bird wanted to play most of the game. He felt that he needed minutes to increase his stamina and that the most difficult thing for his back was sitting out, then going back in the game, sitting out and going back in. The Minnesota Timberwolves were coming to town the following evening, Feb. 27, as opponents in the Celtics' first game at Boston Garden since Feb. 6, and perhaps an expansion team would be the antidote needed.
Shaw was visibly excited as he laced up his sneakers 90 minutes before the game against Minnesota. For weeks he and some of the other younger Celtics had been complaining that it was hard for them to warm up at the Garden, partly because of the cold temperatures but mostly because of the old-fashioned organ offerings that were played during the warmups, which Shaw referred to as "Lawrence Welk music." So Gavitt, ever the diplomat, had consented to let each of the players record an hour-long tape of his own musical selections to be played between 6 and 7 p.m. Then, promptly at 7:00, as the the fans were starting to take their seats for the 7:30 tip-off, Ron Harry would take over at the organ, lest the traditionalists think that the Garden had gone to hell. Shaw had selected mostly rap music by artists like M.C. Hammer and C&C Music Factory for his tape. Speculation centered on whose tape would be the worst. Shaw figured the honor would go to Kleine, who had promised a tape heavy on country music, or Bird, a Kenny Rogers fan.
"Nah, I think it'll be Stojko," said Dee Brown. "He'll choose Julio Iglesias."
When the big moment came, Shaw eagerly went out to warm up. But when the tape started it was barely audible. "Where's the bass?" he said, dribbling in place near the foul line. Actually, the sound was so tinny that even a Garden traditionalist would not have been offended. "I guess the next step is a sound system," said Shaw, disappointed. "Can't win for losin' around here." Gavitt was quietly miffed, his efforts to change and to accommodate the players having been defeated by the resolutely ancient Garden. At precisely 7 p.m., Harry took over, the sound clear and strong as he played The Mexican Hat Dance.
Bird had kept himself out of the music discussion but instantly got himself into the game. His shooting was deadly from the outset, and just before halftime he let loose with a three-point shot right in front of Ford. It went in and beat the buzzer. Ford looked at Casey and Jennings and spread his hands in front of himself, as if to say, "Look where he shot the damn thing from." But despite Bird's brilliance (35 points, seven rebounds, six assists), the Celtics could not pull away, and Ford could not buy Bird much rest. Boston finally prevailed 116-111 to lift its record to 41-15. For all the success of the Western trip, the Celtics were pretty much the same team at the end of the month that they had been at the beginning—one capable of lofty highs and depressing lows, following an aging and wounded warrior into uncertain battle.
This has been excerpted from "Unfinished Business, On and Off the Court with the 1990-91 Boston Celtics," by Jack McCallum, to be published in January by Summit Books.