Bob Ryan on Larry Bird: ‘He possessed a total game’
In an excerpt from his new memoir, “Scribe,” the legendary Globe columnist covers the legendary Boston Celtic.
In my career, I have written more words about Larry Bird than any other individual. I couldn’t possibly tell you who’s in second place, but Larry is surely in first.
My initial encounter was classic 1979 Bird. I was asked by Us magazine to do a story on him that summer soon after he signed a four-year Celtics contract. He had just purchased a house in Brookline, but he wasn’t going to do any interviews there. The sit-down was instead scheduled at the house of his agent, a neighbor.
He was pleasant and cooperative enough, but he made a strong point: He would fulfill all his media obligations, but nobody was ever coming to his house. He was very clear about that.
It didn’t take long for him to decide that we weren’t such bad people, after all. Later that year, after a game in Chicago, I went to the coffee shop at the hotel to get something to eat. Bird was there with some family and friends who had made the five-hour drive from French Lick, Indiana. He invited me to join them. After awhile, he looked at me and said, “Man, I never thought I’d be eating with a writer.”
Larry surprised himself with how much he loved Boston, with one exception — the traffic. In a 1988 article for the Globe Magazine, he had told me: “The only thing that keeps me from staying here full time is the traffic. Back home, I drive for twenty-five or thirty minutes from my house and I’m in Jasper. Here I drive twenty-five or thirty minutes and I’m at the Garden.”
He was always full of surprises. For years we all noted that he stared at the Garden ceiling during the national anthem. He never said why, and no one asked. Then, during his speech at the dinner to celebrate a statue to him that would be placed in the Sports Museum, he explained that he was looking at Bruins great Bobby Orr’s retired number 4 jersey as a source of nightly inspiration. “I want people in Boston to think of me when I retire the same way they do Bobby Orr,” he said. At a nearby table, a man gasped in a loud whisper, “My God.” The man was Bobby Orr.
One thing that Bird never kept a secret but that people were always surprised to learn was that he played his entire NBA career with a physical impairment that had not been present in college. In the spring following his senior season at Indiana State he was playing left field in a softball game. His brother hit a ball that wound up smashing Larry’s right index finger. It was never fixed properly. As difficult as this is to believe, he accomplished everything he did as a professional after having to make an adjustment to his shooting mechanics.
Making matters even more complicated, he dislocated his right pinkie when it was caught in a Chicago Bulls jersey during Michael Jordan’s famous 63-point game in 1986. That finger never healed properly, either. Thus, he played the final six-plus years of his career with a shooting hand that was 40 percent messed up and nonetheless shot .496 for his career (.519 on 2-pointers, .376 on 3-pointers). He never uttered a peep of self-pitying protest.
As he aged, injury became a way of life. Back. Elbow. Ankles. The bad back would end his career. Just getting him to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics was an iffy proposition. What bothered him most about the injuries was that they so often prevented him from practicing. He was the anti-Allen Iverson. To him, practice was exhilarating — it really was, for him, how you got better. “I’m not happy when I can’t practice,” he once said. “I used to go out there thinking I’d make every shot because I’d always have the practice. I didn’t, but I always thought I would.”
Unlike Yogi Berra, who may not have said half the things people think he said, all the following are true:
Larry Bird really did stride into the locker room prior to the first Three-Point Shootout in 1986 and ask, “Which one of you guys is finishing second?”
He really did turn down a chance to reenter a game in Salt Lake City in which he had a triple double, plus nine steals, by the end of the third quarter, saying, “I done enough damage.”
He really did say, after learning that Robert Parish had been suspended for punching Bill Laimbeer, “What? For that good deed?”
He really did say, “There’s a secret to playin’ basketball. I ain’t tellin’ what it is.”
No matter your allegiance, you can’t name anyone else whose game was a greater microcosm of everything basketball contains than Larry Bird’s. Michael Jordan is the greatest virtuoso who has ever played the game. But he never did something I saw Larry Bird do on more than one occasion — dominate NBA games without taking a shot. With Michael, it always came down to his putting the ball in the basket. With Larry, it never came down to any one thing. He possessed a total game, and this is what made him so much fun to watch.
When Larry retired, we needed to pick for the Globe some highlight games for a top 10 list. Ten? Fifty would have been a start.
Larry Bird’s personal favorite, and mine, occurred on June 8, 1986. He had much bigger numbers in other games — in this one he had 29 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists — but he never made a bigger overall impact at both ends of the door than he did in this game. The Celtics were up, 3-2, in the finals against Houston, but they had been pushed around in Game 5. Bird had assured the fans that everything was going to be on in Game 6. And then he went out and backed it up. I can’t put it any better than I did on the morning after:
The Houston Rockets were like an unwary couple pulled over on the highway for going 3 miles over the speed limit by a burly Georgia cop with the mirrored sunglasses. It wasn’t their day. The cop’s name was Bird. The bailiff’s name was Bird. The court stenographer’s name was Bird. And the executioner’s name was — guess what? — Bird. . . . He didn’t make every shot or grab every rebound or make every steal or sell every hot dog, but he plugged himself into every conceivable aspect of the game to the extent that all the other players had to do was feed off his energy level. “Let’s face it,” said Kevin McHale, “when you play with Larry Bird it gives you a lot of confidence.”
Said Bird himself, “That’s the one day I was totally prepared.”
For me, his arrival was as if I were an art student and into the classroom walked the new professor — Michelangelo. Who could be prepared for that?
Because of his genius, Larry Bird was a writing challenge. As they love to say in sports, he made me take my game to the next level. I hope I was able to do him proper justice.