Larry Joe bird chiseled out his greatness with a thousand small strokes. If he scored with a duck-under on one trip down the floor, then he would fall back and take a jumper on the next. If he used a running righthander across the lane in the first period, he would throw in a crazy lefthanded hook in the second. If an opponent darted around him to grab a rebound before halftime, Bird would nudge the guy out of the way with a well-timed hip or elbow and grab that rebound himself down the stretch. Sure, he hit the home run—in the form of the dramatic three-point shot that always lifted the decibel level in Boston Garden—but he was, at heart, a cagey singles hitter who constantly reinvented his game to fit the situation.
There was one thing, however, that Bird, whose troublesome back forced him to retire last week at the age of 35, could not reinvent. That was the color of his skin. The best white player ever, many fans and writers said. A true superstar even though he was inflicted with white man's disease. The great white hope. So on and so forth. These phrases invariably diminished Bird's greatness, for this fact is certain: The Celtics' Larry Bird was a player, pure and simple.
At the height of his game, Bird, as much as any player in NBA history, could have blended seamlessly into any style of play. The fast-break Los Angeles Lakers? He would have grabbed the defensive rebound, whipped the outlet pass to Magic Johnson, run a wing from time to time and, of course, come down as the trailer to stick the three-point shot. The half-court Detroit Pistons? He would have set up on the blocks, called for the ball and driven his defender batty with a fall-away jumper, a dipsy-doodle duck-under or a no-look feed to a cutting teammate. The varied-tempo Celtics? Well, that you can look up. In 13 seasons he averaged 24.3 points, 10 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.7 steals.
Within the NBA, Bird's virtuoso versatility was recognized by both blacks and whites, and one rarely heard his name mentioned in a racial context. Oh, there was that comment from Isiah Thomas in 1987, when he agreed with Piston teammate Dennis Rodman that Bird would be just another good player if he were black, but Thomas said it in the heat of the moment and never really believed it. However, a story written about Bird—sometimes even a paragraph written about him—rarely failed to yield a race-related response from readers. "When will you and other white sportswriters quit glorifying this guy?" asked one SI reader in a letter responding to what this writer felt was a positive, but certainly not glowing, review of Bird's performance in the 1992 playoffs. Another reader said, "It's about time you wrote about a white superstar, like Larry Bird, instead of the black players all the time."
August 30, 1992
One side or the other was always trying to claim Bird, as if he were a genetic experiment or a laboratory animal. He was neither, and as far as race goes, he proved only that there are great white players, just as there are great black players.
How great was he? I once believed that he was, at the very least, the outstanding player of his generation, but I now give that nod to Magic, Bird's old sparring mate who also entered the NBA in 1979. You can line up their statistics, side by side, and stare at them all night, but the fact remains that Johnson, who led the Lakers into the 1991 Finals, was a great player over a longer period of time than was Bird, whose career began to be measured in medical reports rather than scouting reports as early as 1988. And in the long run Michael Jordan will surpass the achievements of both men, never mind Jordan's inevitable comparison with such superstars past as Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. But Bird is on my alltime starting five, and don't bother to work up an argument against it. Number 33 is on my list, right beside 32 (Magic) and 23 (Jordan), and you can have the next two picks.
Bird's talents were so diverse—one is tempted to use "are," for is there an NBA team that would not start him today, bad back and all?—that he remained formidable even as those talents were diminished by pain. After Bird was named to the U.S. Olympic team last September, a reporter offered Jordan the opinion that Bird, while great in his day, had been largely a symbolic choice for the team. Jordan looked incredulous and even a little disgusted.
"I don't care how old or in pain Larry Bird is," said Jordan. "You name me a forward in this league who's not already on the team [that eliminated Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen and Chris Mullin] who can rebound, throw the outlet pass to get the break going, shoot the three-pointer, play in the half-court and has the presence of Bird."
A response requires some thought. James Worthy of the Lakers? Doesn't have the shooting range or the passing ability. Larry Nance of Cleveland? Ditto. Tom Chambers of Phoenix? Has the talent but not the presence. Dominique Wilkins of Atlanta? Maybe. But choosing Wilkins over Bird would have been choosing the sizzle over the steak, the pi‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±a colada over the hearty pint of stout. As it turned out, of course, Bird was hardly needed by the Dream Team, but, then, neither was any other single player, except Magic (the spiritual leader all of the time) and Jordan (the go-to guy from time to time). It is a high compliment that even with his physical limitations Bird did belong.
And there were moments in Barcelona, even as he was clearly playing with much pain and stiffness, when the old Bird showed through. On at least three occasions in a game against Germany on July 29, Bird caught a pass and got rid of it so fast and with such deadly accuracy that the eye almost couldn't follow it. This ability to redirect a pass recalled a 1991 conversation with Bird in which he admitted that he sometimes amazed himself with his ability to see the whole court and read all the ramifications of a play before it unfolded. A small moment in the semifinals against Lithuania on Aug. 6 offered another glimpse of the classic Bird. Late in the game a loose ball happened to hit an official, keeping it inbounds and enabling Lithuania to retain possession. Less than a minute later Bird grabbed a rebound with his left hand, glanced at that same official who was standing nearby and bounced the ball off him, scooping it up a split-second later. In that brief span of time between when he grabbed the ball and saw the official, Bird's basketball mind took a snapshot, developed it and determined that he could have a little fun without giving up the advantage.
Don't ever think that Bird did not have fun on the basketball court. The idea that he was enslaved by a Hoosier work ethic is absurd. When he was in a talking mood, he dispensed as much trash on the court as Muhammad Ali did in the ring, and no one ever said that Ali did not have fun. Bird's line of chatter was neither vicious nor vindictive—though it was annoying to the opposition; just ask even-tempered Julius Erving, who grabbed Bird by the throat in a memorable 1984 confrontation in Boston Garden—it was Larry's way of having fun. Yes, he respected the game, and, yes, he worked hard for his money, but basketball was not a religion for him, as some have claimed. At the end of an otherwise forgettable game against the Golden State Warriors several seasons ago, Bird rose from the bench a few seconds before the final buzzer and flicked a towel at a Warrior shooter just as he released a shot from near the sideline. The player winced, then stared angrily as Bird walked away, smug and serene.
More than most players, Bird had a fan's appreciation of the game. He liked to talk about basketball and rate the players, and his judgments, while not unerring, were excellent. A group of reporters named its Rotisserie basketball league the Larry Bird League not only because its scoring system favored the all-around. Bird-like player, but also because Bird himself annually drew lots to determine the order of the league's draft. He would never admit it, but the small honor pleased him.
In contrast to Magic and Jordan, Bird was not comfortable in the spotlight at first. He neither understood nor appreciated the demands of his celebrity, and for the life of him he could not comprehend why he needed to explain, say, the arc of his three-point shot to a bunch of reporters. Gradually he grew to enjoy the process and became one of the game's better interviews. He still wore his fame casually, like a Springs Valley High School letter sweater draped over his shoulder, but he knew it was there. Yet, there was a reticence about Bird that made him unpredictable, even mysterious. Whereas Michael and Magic were almost always good for a quote, Bird would frequently slip out the back door. That was his right, of course, but it definitely wound up costing him some public relations points over the years.
He couldn't have cared less. It might be a clichè to call him the Hick from French Lick, but it's true. To some that meant his life was an American dream come true, the small-town kid who turned into a big-time hero.
During the 1987 All-Star weekend in Seattle, Bird was in the NBA hospitality suite one afternoon munching cheese and talking to Celtics executive Jan Volk, when NBA Entertainment debuted its Bird video on a big-screen TV in the suite. Snippets of Bird in action—hitting a three-pointer, throwing a no-look redirect to Kevin McHale—rolled across the screen against the sound track of John Cougar Mellencamp singing Small Town. Bird was surprised when the video came on but quickly turned his back to it, as if it were a documentary on copper mining or something. On it played, a fine organic blend of song and scene, Mellencamp singing about the small town while Bird launched himself into the scats for a loose ball, punched the air after a key basket and just generally outhustled the free world. On and on, as the enraptured audience watched, and Bird stood with his back to the screen.