Larry Bird, legend
You wanted the parquet floor to be cleared. What would be the problem? Ask the dignitaries and family members to walk to one side. Take away the chairs. Remove the stage. What would be the problem?
You had Larry Bird right there in the flesh, wearing his Boston Celtic warmup suit and those black hightop sneakers. He had a midwinter tan and an easy smile, and to tell the truth, he never looked healthier. You had famous basketball players of all descriptions, names from the Celtics' past, half of them also in warmups. You had Magic—Magic Johnson himself—and you had a full house, and you had the baskets at the ends of the court and the television cameras, and you even had David Stern, the commisioner a of the NBA, in case you needed a referee.
What would be the problem? All you wanted was for Larry to do one final piece of basketball magic.
February 15, 1993
"I've been working out in Florida in secret," you wanted him to say. "I'm not going to come back, never will, but for this one night.... Toss me a ball, will you? I'm feeling pretty good. Anyone here want to try me for a little action?"
You sat in cramped old Boston Garden for 2½ hours watching this strange ceremony, this ritual of retirement. Had there ever been anything like this in sports? Larry Bird Night. Feb. 4, 1993. You sat through this high mass of adoration, capped by the retirement of his number, 33, which joined 17 famous numbers from Celtic history on one of the three banners hanging from the rafters. There were speeches and video clips shown and assorted standing ovations, but there was no sound of a real basketball dribbled by a real person. You wanted to hear that more than anything.
"If no one wants to put a hand up, I'll start calling names," you wanted Larry to say. "Jo Jo White, how are you feeling? Want to give it a shot? You've always stayed in shape, Dave Cowens. Lace 'em up. John Havlicek? Dennis Johnson? Come on, DJ. I'll give you what I always gave you in practice. One more helping."
The videos offered a kaleidoscope of the magic you wanted. Here was Larry sliding across this same floor, saving the ball and crashing into that same table at the end. See? There was Larry playing that little peekaboo game with the Detroit Pistons' Kent Benson. Larry offered the ball one way, and another, as if to throw a pass. Benson's head followed. Too late. Larry faded and delivered a soft jumper, Benson frozen a half step away. Here was Larry draining a succession of three-pointers, one after another, as little time clocks clicked in the corner of the screen, all the games ending the same way. There was Larry celebrating another championship. Was that 1981,1984 or 1986? Must be '81. That was when Larry posed with Red Auerbach's victory cigar in his mouth. Lighted the thing too.
You listened to the little stories from friends and former teammates who came to the stage to sit on stools next to Larry and M.C. Bob Costas. Nobody seemed to have notes. This was simple talk. Kevin McHale and Robert Parish and Larry were reunited one more time in public. Bill Walton. Quinn Buckner. Tiny Archibald. Auerbach. There was a gentle ribbing tone to most of the conversation, followed by a genuine appreciation.
Larry was on the stage at center court for almost the entire show. He was easy and glib. You thought back to when he first arrived in Boston, in 1979 from Indiana State, and you couldn't believe the personal growth that he had undergone. This was the supposed Hick from French Lick? He was now a 36-year-old millionaire. The accent and the fractured syntax might slip into his speech every now and then, but he could not be more loose or unrehearsed. Funny. He commanded the stage with the ease of Oprah. Larry, 13 years later, had become a showman.
"Tonight I leave," he said in his closing remarks. "I leave basketball forever. I leave the game that I love. I'm saying good night, Boston. And may God bless each and every one of you."
You watched as he pulled one of the long ropes that hoisted the green and white banner (his number, 33, next to DJ's number, 3) from the floor to the ceiling. His wife, Dinah, was next to him, and his year-old son, Connor, was in his left arm. One last ovation rocked the place. A show-biz putt of smoke was shot at his feet. Lasers danced against white screens. He left the floor.
The one problem with the entire production was that as an athlete he could no longer do what he once did. When a singer retires or an actor, there can sometimes be a final performance, maybe even a best performance. The athlete cannot do this. His best performance is captured on a screen or inside a mind. He cannot repeat it.
"Wait a minute," you wanted Larry to say as he walked toward the door, passing his child back to his wife. "Xavier McDaniel. I see you're taking a lot of my time, playing a lot of my minutes. Let's see if you deserve them. Are you ready?"
You wanted the ball to be bounced, the moves to be made. If McDaniel played him close, you wanted Larry to drive toward the hoop, maybe even forget his back problems and jam the ball for a final, giddy time. If Xavier played him loose, you wanted Larry to start hitting that little push shot, his feet just inching off the floor. You wanted score to be kept and the crowd to be yelling, "Lar-ree! Lar-ree! Lar-ree!"
You wanted time to stand still, for things to be the way they always were, at least for one last moment. Alas, it just doesn't happen that way. Not even for the best of us. Not even for Larry Bird.