There is only one person on the Boston Celtics that worries me and that is Larry Bird. You can throw out as many Dee Browns and Brian Shaws as you want. Tall guys? Bring on the tall guys, Kevin McHale, Joe Kleine, Ed Pinckney. Even the old man, Robert Parish — who recently celebrated his 92nd birthday
— even him, I can handle. I need an ax. But I can handle him.
Bird worries me. Always has. There are athletes who just seem to have something secret up their sleeves, something they know and you don’t and never will. Until it’s too late. Bird is like that. And I don’t trust him. Not that he’s a bad person. I mean, he seems like a nice enough guy — although with all those years of living in Boston you’d think he might lose that Indiana accent. He still talks as if he’s ordering a bag of grain from the feed store. “Hey, y’all wanna load me up one them 50 pounders right quick?”
But OK. He could talk like Laurence Olivier, I still wouldn’t trust him. Not as a player. You forget, I was there that night in Boston Garden, 1987, when he slipped inside Isiah’s pass and stole the ball and the season. He is like that. He is too good. This is how well he knows basketball: well enough to sucker you. Were Larry Bird a soldier, he would lie still on the ground, pretending he was dead, until you walked over him — then he’d grab your leg, spring up and jab you with his bayonet.
Which brings me to this series.
We have played three games in this Boston-Detroit affair, and the Celtics are ahead, 2-1, and Bird is yet to jump from the dirt and grab the leg. When will it happen? He didn’t even show up for Game 1. For Game 2 he was there, but his numbers were average. And he sure didn’t need to do much for Game 3; the way the Pistons played, the junior varsity from Our Sisters of Mercy might have won.
My theory is the Big Bird game is yet to come.
And that’s what worries me. When it counts most, he comes through
He came to practice Sunday — the first time he’s practiced in more than a month — and talked to reporters as he laced his sneakers. He said his back is still bad. He said the pain is so great he barely shoots anymore except during pregame drills and the games themselves — those he manages to play in. “I’m missing open jumpers, but I can’t be upset with myself. If you don’t work at something, it won’t be there for you. It’s like cramming for a test. You can’t do it all in one day.”
I watched the other reporters scribble this down. And I looked at Bird’s eyes to see if he were laughing. Call me cynical. I am from Detroit. I remember the previous playoffs when Bird was supposedly hurt — but there he was, when it counted, hitting the big shots and making the great passes. I remember just last week, against Indiana, when he came out of the hospital and nearly broke his face and still scored 32 points to push Boston into the second round. There was a mean rivalry between Bird, 34, and Chuck Person, 26, during that series. Person was the loudmouth, bragging that he could
“take Larry anytime, anywhere.” For a while, it seemed he was right. But in the final seconds, it was Person missing a shot that could have won it all. And it was Bird walking off the court trying to suppress a smile.
Bird wins. More often than he loses. You must be careful of guys like that, because they get used to it, and they acquire the magic to make it happen. Have you ever watched Bird when a shot goes up? While the other players are frozen, he is running to where he figures the ball will come down. And when it does, it is often right into his hands. That’s the way he plays. He gets you while you’re dreaming. Never doubt the great ones
We have a city now that is worried about its basketball team. We see the Pistons as too unpredictable, great one night, struggling the next. Personally, that doesn’t concern me. When they are threatened enough, the Pistons will fire their best shot — and there is still no team in basketball that can handle that. What worries me, however, is someone who can counter it. And Bird can do that. In one game. On one night. Bad back and all, he can make the passes, the shots, the rebounds, the steals — maybe not enough to dominate a game anymore, but enough to change it. And I predict he will. At least once. There has never been a Pistons-Celtics playoff series that has been easy when Bird was playing. The one time the Pistons swept — first round, 1989 — he was too injured to take part.
“I’ll have one of those nights,” he said, almost nonchalantly. “I’ll have one of those nights where all the shots are falling.”
I would not doubt him, just as I would not doubt Jack Nicklaus on the final day of the Masters, or Joe Montana with two minutes left in the Super Bowl. No matter how old they get. The great ones see the game differently than everyone else. They see opportunities.
“What advice do you give younger guys like Shaw and Brown in the playoffs?” someone asked Bird.
“I tell them to pass the ball to me every time,” he joked. “They don’t seem to listen.”
They will, when the time comes. Believe me.
Maybe he won’t play tonight. Maybe he won’t play Wednesday. Maybe I’m just paranoid, living in Detroit. But I will worry about Bird until there are no ticks left on the clock. And I see no alternative. The day you stop worrying about a guy like that is the day he jumps up with the bayonet and stabs you dead.