BOSTON — He is the kid with his finger in the dike. The fisherman who hooks a great white shark. The prince with a slingshot who rides off to slay the giant.
He is the man who must cover Larry Bird.
“What do you do to stop him?” someone asked Houston’s Rodney McCray.
“I do my best,” he said, shrugging.
What else can you ask for? What else can you do? How do you stop the top basketball player on the planet? How do you keep the ball from arcing into the basket, or banking in off the glass, or whipping into another Celtic’s fingertips for an easy lay-up — as it has done unceasingly in the first two games of this NBA championship series? How do you stop a guy who can score with your hands, your teeth, and your bad breath in his face?
“Does he have any weaknesses?” McCray was asked. “Anything you can exploit?”
“None that I’ve seen,” he said.
“How do you stop his assists?”
“You hope the guy who gets the ball misses the shot,” he said.
This was Wednesday,
a day before the Celtics would beat the Rockets for a 2-0 lead in the series. Bird would lead the way again, throwing in baskets from everywhere, firing pinpoint passes, scoring 31 points. He was magnificent. What can one man do?
“Can you box him out?” someone asked.
“It’s hard,” he said, “because he’s always moving. He’s in one place, then he’s gone.”
“Did he take it to you?”
“He takes it to everybody,” McCray said.
“He such a good scorer and passer,” a TV man asked, “yet what about him is overrated?”
“Nothing is overrated,” McCray said. No choice to make What did he feel like during these questions? What could he feel like? Like a budding novelist sent to debate Norman Mailer. Like a iron worker asked to paint the Brooklyn Bridge. Solo. Everyone figured McCray’s job was impossible. If he held Bird to 20 points, five rebounds and five assists he’d be doing great, right?
McCray sees it another way. He guarded Denver’s Alex English in the second round of the playoffs. And James Worthy in the Western Conference final against the Lakers. He had no choice then. He has no choice now. He is the small forward, so is Bird. No choice.
“What makes him so tough?” someone asked.
“You can’t figure out one or two things and stop him,” McCray said. “He just does something else. He hurts you so many ways.”
“How does guarding him compare to guarding English and Worthy?”
“They both add up to a Larry Bird,” he said.
In this series, Bird’s job is more glamorous: shoot, score, rebound, pass. The juicy stuff. McCray gets the peel: defend, get in the way, box out. And then, if you can, do the other things.
Insiders know that McCray, 6-feet-8, and Bird, 6-feet-9, are more similar than people realize. Both specialize in the nooks and crannies of the game, the intelligent maneuvers, the defensive tricks. But Bird has the numbers people notice (25.8 points, 9.8 rebounds), while McCray (10.3 points, 6.3 rebounds) must depend on the finely trained eye for appreciation.
“Does it bother you that Bird gets so much more attention?” someone asked.
“Not if we win,” McCray said. Go for the challenge Larry Bird in motion is simply awesome. Three-pointers are tossed in like apples to a barrel, drives come from the left or the right, no air space is safe from a pass. He has, at some point, embarrassed every player who guarded him. He did it to McCray Thursday night in the Celtics’ 117-95 victory.
“If you did have a choice,” someone asked McCray, “to guard Bird or someone else, what would you choose?”
“Bird,” he said, “for the challenge. If you do a good job on him and you win the series, you can feel confident about your defensive capabilities.
“And if he scores a lot of points on you, hey, he scored that many points on a lot of other people, too. He’s the best player in the league. It’s a challenge just to see what you can do against him.”
So on he goes, to Game 3. He is Michelangelo with a ceiling to finish, the bricklayer sent to build a pyramid, the quiet guy who pays a dollar to get into the ring with the carnival strongman.
If this series ends quickly, it will likely be because Bird proved unstoppable — too sharp, too deadly, too great. But if it goes six or seven games, it will mean McCray is absorbing the best of the best player on the planet. A lot of it.
“What do you predict?” he was asked.
“Don’t know,” said the man with the dirty job that somebody has to do. But either way, I am going to need some serious rest when this is over.”