Larry and me.
It was complicated.
I spend a lot of hours in the Wayback Machine these days. Hard not to. I am surrounded by old photos, old journals, and yellowed newspaper clips. I turn on ESPN and there’s Larry Bird going up against the Lakers in the “Heat Game” in the 1984 NBA Finals. And there’s young me at the courtside press table wearing gigantic eyeglasses that Michael Caine made famous in the 1980s.
While writing recently about Bill Belichick seemingly handicapping himself for the 2020 NFL season (no Brady, no Gronk, no draft studs), I was reminded of the time Larry shot almost exclusively lefthanded in a game at Portland in 1986 and went for 47 points. I asked my favorite Globe librarian if he could unearth my story from Larry’s lefty night. He sent me clips from the entire seven-city February trip to Sacramento, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Oakland, and Denver.
It was my fourth and final year on the beat and it was awkward. Largely because of Larry.
I had a reputation for being critical, and Celtics players called me "Scoop.'' Kevin McHale would regularly greet me with, "Hey Scoop, is your shoulder sore from driving all those pipes through people?''
Larry and I were OK for most of the first three years. He particularly liked me the day he soaked me for $160 in a free throw shooting contest (his suggestion) after a practice during the 1985 playoffs.
Things changed In the summer of 1985, a month after the Celtics were dethroned by the Lakers, when I went to work on a front-page story detailing Larry’s late-night fight at a Boston bar during the conference finals. The rumor had been all over town but nobody had written the story.
Stalking bars near Faneuil Hall, I found the guy Larry hit — a former Colgate football player — and gave Larry a chance to explain. Larry had played with tape on his right hand after the fight and his playoff shooting percentage declined as the Celtics lost in the Finals. It turned out that there was an out-of-court settlement, and it was not a topic Larry wanted to explore with me.
When I explained that I was doing the story anyway, he said, “I won’t be talking to you anymore.”
And he meant it. For six full months and more than 40 regular-season games of the epic 1985-86 season (the Celtics went 40-1 at home and won their 16th championship), I covered the team without any one-on-one words from Larry.
Things didn’t thaw until Larry heard about the NBA’s first 3-point shooting contest, which was scheduled to be staged at the 1986 All-Star Game in Dallas, directly preceding that seven-game Celtic trip west. The contest energized him. Larry loved shooting threes and could not believe they were going to award someone $10,000 for 10 minutes of work.
In Dallas, when we informed Larry that Washington guard Leon Wood (who became an NBA official) had made 28 of 31 in practice, Larry said, "That was when he was by himself and there was no pressure. Today, there’ll be people screaming and $10,000 on the line and Leon Wood probably won’t hit a shot. I’ll be out there hollering at him.''
It was over before it started. Larry walked into the dressing room, looked at the other seven contestants, and asked, "Which one of you guys is going to finish second?'' Wood immediately left the room and was quickly eliminated in the first round.
"Larry has that Muhammad Ali kind of approach,'' said Celtics coach K.C. Jones. "He gets to you and to your mind before the fight begins. By the time you step in the ring, you’re 20 points down.''
Bird made 18 of 25 threes in his final minute of the contest, including 11 straight. He added a preposterous banker for good measure. Just because he could. When the thing was over, he danced into the interview room and announced, "I’m the 3-point king! Put that in your paper, Dan Shaughnessy!''
At this moment of his career, Larry was at the absolute zenith of his considerable talents. He was on his way to a third NBA championship and a third straight MVP trophy. These were the days when he was telling opponents what he was going to do before he did it to them. I never saw him happier.
After Dallas, the Celtics gathered in Sacramento for the start of the seven-game odyssey. When we asked Jones about his expectations for the seven games, he answered, "If we can split, we’ll be doing well. The best you can ask for is a split.''
Nobody bothered to ask him about “splitting” a seven-gamer. The Celtics had won 13 in a row. Like Bird, Jones was on a roll.
The Celtics flew commercial in those days, and four beat writers flew with them. We waited for luggage together, shared buses, and stayed in the same hotels.
In the opener at Sacramento, Larry was cheered more than any player on the Kings when he was introduced before the game. He scored 29, but the Celtics’ winning streak was snapped by the Kings, who reacted as if they’d won the NBA title.
On the morning after the Kings game, the Celtics were sprawled over seats at an airport gate in Sacramento, waiting to board a flight to Seattle, when I went to use a payphone to call my office. There were big changes afoot in the Globe sports department. Our baseball guru, Peter Gammons, was leaving for Sports Illustrated, and we would be needing a new baseball guy. I wanted the gig, and while standing at the payphone, I learned that I’d be leaving the Celtics beat as soon as this trip was over.
Emboldened with this news, I hung up the phone, walked back to the Celtic group, and said, "Well, boys, this is it. When this trip is over, I’ll be going to Winter Haven to cover the Red Sox.''
Larry stood up, took out his wallet, and said, "I’ll pay your way if you leave now.''
I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure Danny Ainge got up and went to the wall of phones to call and warn his friend Bruce Hurst.
We flew up to Seattle, where Larry torched the Sonics for 31 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 assists. The Celtics beat the Sonics, which was important because Boston owned Seattle’s top pick and there was a chance the Sonics would be part of the draft lottery (this was the draft that ultimately yielded Len Bias).
On to Portland. This was Larry’s lefthanded game. The Celtics had lost to the Blazers earlier in the year at the Garden (Boston’s only home loss all season), but Larry made sure that didn’t happen again, with 47 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists in an overtime victory. Larry claimed he made 11 shots shooting lefty and said, "I’m saving my right hand for the Lakers.''
Two days later in the LA Forum, Bird scored 22 with 18 rebounds and 7 assists as the Celtics completed a season sweep of the Lakers.
After the game, New York Post basketball columnist Peter Vecsey, who was part of the entourage, told me, "You ought to give back half of your salary for the right to cover Bird!''
The next day in Phoenix, Larry scored 18 in the first quarter, then got ejected from an eventual 7-point loss to the Suns. Larry wouldn’t comment on the ejection or anything else, and his silence continued when we boarded a hotel elevator after the game. My brother was with me, and when we exited the elevator, leaving Larry behind, my brother said, "How come Larry doesn’t like you?''
"Long story, brother,'' I said. "But we are doing better.''
Next stop: Oakland. It was the Celtics’ third flight into California in eight days. Scott Wedman was not with the team for this game, and I got suspicious when the Celtics announced that Wedman left for “personal” reasons. My cynicism was reflected in the coverage, and it caused a small stir back home.
The Celtics routed the Warriors that night, with Larry contributing 36 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. After the game, when it was disclosed that Wedman had a back problem and would be rejoining the team in Phoenix, Bird found me and teased, “Hey Scoop, is Scotty on drugs?”
Our group was scheduled to fly to Denver for the final game of the trip on the morning of Feb. 20. Upon learning that there would be another flight delay (the fifth of the trip), Bird said, "Anybody got a blank stat sheet? I want to mail in my stats for tonight’s game and go home. Put me down for 20 points, 18 rebounds, and no assists.''
That night, Bird scored 27 with 16 rebounds and 4 assists in a 2-point loss to the Nuggets. Over the seven-game trip, he averaged 30.9 points, 13.4 rebounds, and 7.1 assists. And the Celtics won four of seven. Almost a split.
The late-night bus ride from McNichols Arena to the downtown Denver hotel was my last ride with the team. I was pretty sure I was the only one mindful of this. The ride was dark, quiet, and brief. When the bus pulled to the curb and the lights came on, Larry Bird stood up, turned around, shook my hand, and said, "Good luck, Mr. Shaughnessy.''
Bob Ryan, who invented NBA coverage as the Globe’s Celtics beat reporter in the 1970s, came back to replace me on the beat for the end of the season.
“Bob can watch us for a week and figure out all of our plays,'' gushed Larry (”So how come we don’t know ’em?'’ asked Dennis Johnson).
That was it for me. I was off to Florida, suddenly feeling tall again as I walked into the Red Sox clubhouse at Chain O’ Lakes Park.
But word gets around.
My first week in the clubhouse, galoot reliever Steve Crawford saw me across the room and yelled, "Hey everybody, that guy over there is so bad that Larry Bird wouldn’t even talk to him!''
Two decades later, after sharing postgame beers with Pacers general manager Larry Bird in a Garden dressing room, I brought up the 1985 bar fight and asked Larry how it all went down.
"Scoop, I hit that guy with my left hand!'' he said with a chuckle.
Like I said. It was complicated.