HOUSTON — I have this idea for Larry Bird. One more year and goodby. Quit. Throw the sneakers in the gym bag, grab a ball on the way out. “Where you going?” someone would ask.
“Not sure,” he’d say.
And he’d disappear forever.
How good is Larry Bird? That good. So good that, at 29, the only thing left is the myth-making exit. The kind that comes too early, that kind that makes him legendary, a cult figure, even bigger when he’s gone than when he was around. A James Dean, an Elvis, a J.D. Salinger.
What else is left? Where else can he go? He has lapped his field, passed his teachers. He is the best basketball player on the planet, playing the best basketball of his life, and is on verge of leading the Boston Celtics, the only professional team he ever has played for, to yet another NBA championship. That would make three in the last six years. The Celtics have never had a losing month since he joined them in 1979. Not one. He has captured the league’s Most Valuable Player award three years in a row. Three years? In a row?
On Thursday night, in the Celtics’ 117-95 rout of the Houston Rockets, he took the ball against Akeem Olajuwon and faked a behind-the-back pass so deftly that Olajuwon’s eyes, head and torso spun to where the ball was going. Only it had never left Bird’s hands, and he stepped back and tossed in a jumper. Later, Bird had forward Rodney McCray one-on-one along the baseline. Bird faked in, faked in, faked in, then somehow spun under McCray and scooped the ball off the glass for a left-handed lay- up.
On both plays the crowd was so astonished it laughed as it clapped. Forget the 31 points he scored, or the 2-0 championship series lead his team took with the victory. How good is Larry Bird? They’re laughing. That’s how good.
“What were you thinking on those plays?” he was asked in the crowded locker room afterward.
“I don’t know,” he said, sipping a Diet Coke. “They were just, you know, plays.”
“Have you played better basketball than what you’re playing now?”
“I’m sure I have,” he said. “I forget when.”
“Does it bother you when Houston double-teams you?” “Nah, I enjoy double-teaming,” he said. “It makes my game stronger. I wish they did it more.”
More? Well. Why not? Basketball, it can now be said, is a game of guards, forwards, centers and Larry Bird. He is a bit of all three. Sort of a “Greatest Hits” album in shorts.
Say you’re an NBA coach. What do you want from an ideal player? Someone who scores a lot? Maybe 25 points a game? And a good foul shooter? No, make him the best foul shooter in the league. And a top 10 rebounder. That, too. He should lead your team in assists. And be a defensive ace. He should play every game of the season. He should want the ball with two seconds to go. He should be able to pass with his eyes closed. And he should never foul out.
Check, check, check, check, check. No. 33 did all of that this year for Boston.
“How good is he?” people have been asking.
“The best who ever played,” said Don Nelson, the Milwaukee Bucks’ coach.
“The best on the planet right now,” said Bill Russell, who once bore that honor.
“It’s a thrill to be on the same court as him,” said teammate Bill Walton, a man with his own MVP Award in the closet. “And I’ll tell you something else. I don’t think you’ve seen the best of him yet.” A scary thought. But consistent. I’m not sure exactly when Larry Bird jumped ahead of his peers. But I think I know how. Somewhere along the line, most pro players stop to look around, take it all in: the fancy hotels, the networks’ cameras, the paychecks with the obscene number of zeros. They coast just a bit. They enjoy it. But Bird just keeps dribbling and shooting and dribbling and shooting, an hour before practice, three hours before games. Being paid was never reason enough to flip on to cruise control. I don’t think being paid is that big a part in why Bird plays basketball at all.
When no one is around, he invents problems. That’s how much he is into it. At Boston Garden the other day he was practicing arching his shots, imagining the very high arms of Houston’s 7- foot-4 Ralph Sampson in his face.
“You have to use your imagination,” he said. “Why would you ever practice a shot so high off the backboard if you didn’t see someone coming at you to block the shot?”
The shots banked high and dropped in. Then he switched back to regular shots. They dropped in also. He was all alone out there, but in his mind he was covered like onion soup under mozzarella cheese. Imagine the situation. Compensate. Improve.
Bird, in his seventh season, admits he gets bored with the simple dribble and shoot. “I’m like a gymnast,” he said recently. “I’m into degree of difficulty.” Which explains his love affair with the three-point shot — something that didn’t exist when he was learning the game as a kid in French Lick, Ind. “I like it,” he said, “because it’s a back-breaker.”
Now, I know people who say basketball puts them to sleep. But it is worth a week’s paycheck to sit, on a sold-out night, along the Boston Garden court and watch Bird grab an offensive rebound and scamper to the three-point line. He knows where he’s going. So does the crowd. His defender chases after him. Too late. Bird squares up, leaps, and fires a high-arching shot that is in no hurry to get to the basket. It rises, rises, and so does the Garden crowd, a guttural “yyyeeeaaahhh” forming in its throat as the ball starts back toward earth.
What can a defender do? These shots are as paralyzing as watching a man leap off a bridge. He can only stare, his mouth agape, until the splash — or the swish of the net — jolts him from his impotence.
And by then, of course, it’s too late.
Three points. Here is a Larry Bird story: In practice one day toward the end of the season, coach K.C. Jones laughingly offered to let the team go home if one of the players could hit a half-court shot on the first try. Bird grabbed a ball, ran to halfcourt and sank the shot. Everybody went home.
Here is another Larry Bird story. Before the $10,000 three- point shooting contest at the NBA All-Star Game, Bird walked into the locker room and announced to the seven other contestants, “OK. Who’s playing for second?” He then went out and sank 11 straight to win the crown.
What does this tell you? He’s cocky? Sure. When it comes to basketball. The
nice thing about Bird is that most of the best stories about him are just that. Basketball stories. He remains a near-mystery off the court, a loner, unmarried. Occasionally you hear tales about him hanging out in neighborhood bars. I’ve met several Boston people who swear they’ve saddled up next to him and bought him a beer.
Whatever. While other players are into everything from God to oil fields, Bird seems to have been constructed out of hardwood and leather. His physique is tall (6-feet-9) and otherwise unspectacular. No rippling biceps. Some people joke that with his nose and mop of blond hair, his first name ought to be “Big.” Either way. There will be no leading-man movie roles. Not with that kisser. He doesn’t sing (as Carl Lewis so miserably attempted). He doesn’t dance. Can you imagine him as a spokesman for some Nautilus club? (“Hi, I’m Larry. After the game I go for a beer. You, on the other hand, must work out on these machines for 13 hours a day. . . .”) No, forget it. Basketball. Over and over. Stop. Pop. Swish. Start again. That is what he’s here for. That only.
The Celtics love him because he is a clutch player, a catalyst, and a guy who makes the rest of them play better. His coach loves him because on the court he is, as Muhammad Ali once said of himself, “like oxygen. All over the place.” The Boston fans love him because he is, like most of them, blue collar in his attitudes, if not in his paycheck.
“Are you ever satisfied with your game?” someone asked him Thursday night.
“I’ve only been satisfied twice in my career,” he answered, “and both times were after we won the NBA championships.
“You know, you can come in here and talk a great game or you can come in here and win it. You can say whatever you want, evaluate whatever you want, but you’ve still got to go out and win it, right? Until you do that, you haven’t done anything.” So OK. There are still games to be won. But barring a complete role reversal, or a sudden hurricane in the Houston Summit, Bird and the Celtics should pocket the NBA crown this week. Quite likely Bird will be voted MVP of the Series.
And then? How many more trophies? How many more awards? How many more magazine covers, so that his face is displayed in every airport newsstand from Tallahassee to Portland?
If, as Walton suggested, Bird has not hit his peak, part of the imagination is tempted, seduced by the idea that there could be, what? Behind-the-back shots? Head-butt passes? Drop- kicked free throws?
And another part doesn’t believe it. How could he get better than this? No way. So why not end on a crescendo? Can you imagine if he just disappeared at age 30? Left the sport with reels of highlight film and a barrel of unanswered expectations? His legend would grow even larger. And it’s pretty big now.
Maybe I should suggest it to him someday next year, when he’s all alone on the court, shooting baskets, three hours before practice, in the middle of another lonely midseason trip.
“Why not?” I could say. “Go out on top. Leave ’em wondering. Leave ’em begging for more. You can’t lose, guy. You’ll be bigger than Elvis. Do it. Go ahead. Jump into eternity. . . . “
What would he say? I don’t know. He’d probably just curl his lip and drill one from 30 feet, right down the hole. CUTLINE Larry Bird:”The best on the planet right now.”