A look inside Larry Bird as the legend retires
BROOKLINE -- He has left It behind, but It won’t leave him alone.
“I still dream about basketball,” says Larry Bird, now exactly 180 days into his (forced) retirement. “Three or four times a week. Believe it or not, Magic is still in my dreams.”
He can’t play, period. His back will not permit it. Not being physically able to play means he spends zero time second-guessing his decision to retire. It also means he’s not experiencing the requisite withdrawal symptoms every newly-retired athlete recognizes. To Play Or Not To Play is not the issue. He’s comfortable with not playing -- to a point.
“You know the smell of a locker room?” he asks. “One day not long ago I was in the locker room over at Brandeis and I thought, ‘Mmmm, I feel at home again.’ “
Since basketball defined Larry Bird to the world at large -- and even to himself -- for more than two decades, it is hardly surprising that his subconscious keeps churning out images of Olympian confrontations with his athletic alter ego. Without his basketball self, Larry Joe Bird would be just another anonymous citizen of Orange County, Ind., and that would have been a perfectly acceptable state of affairs for a guy who still likes to fish, knock back a few beers and hang out with old buddies.
Work? Real, live, roll-up-your-sleeves, punch-that-clock, get-down-and- dirty work? Larry Bird would have worked, just the way his father did, and he would have been very proud of his endeavors. Hasn’t he pointed out countless times how much he loved that Recreation Department job he held during the hiatus between his brief time at Indiana and his matriculation to Indiana State? Larry Bird would have worked. No Maynard G. Krebs, he.
And yet Larry Bird did work. No one worked harder at basketball and felt more of a sense of accomplishment than Larry Bird, who took the athletic gifts his Creator bestowed upon him (size, peripheral vision, great hands, a computer where everyone else had a mortal mind and a rawboned, hockey-football toughness) and married them to a work ethic that happened to be the work ethic by which all subsequent athletic work ethics will be judged.
The result was a unique basketball career, to which the Celtics, the fans and assorted friends, family members and professional admirers will pay homage tonight.
That career, however, is over. Finito. There will be no miracle cure. Far earlier than his faithful public would like, far earlier than the Celtics would like and, naturally, far earlier than he would like, a bad back has forced Larry Bird to the realm of pundit emeritus, and nothing can change that.
He’s still in pain. During the course of an interview at his home, he alternates standing with kneeling on one knee, as if in the on-deck circle.
“I’m not feeling that great right now,” he admits. “Over the next three or four weeks I’ll have to make a decision about more surgery. There are times I think I’d really like to play, maybe just scrimmage. But I can’t. Basketball is history. I can just forget it.”
He almost retired last year, when his back first acted up. (”I was doin’ all right until Peter May wrote that story about how good my back was doin’,” he jokes.) “I really wanted to quit then,” he explains, “but I figured you can’t be a quitter in the middle of the season.”
He dragged himself through limited playoff duty, and then he got himself to the Olympics. “Sure, I wanted to. I was 35, and it was a great honor, to play for your country.”
But don’t ask him for any game reminiscences. “There’s nothin’ to talk about,” he says. “You can’t spend 12 days at one thing and say it was the best time of your life. Those 13 years with the Celtics were the greatest time of my life. When I left the Celtics, I left basketball. My career ended when I left the Boston Celtics.”
His innocence, meanwhile, had ended when he joined the Boston Celtics 13 years earlier. The basketball he could handle. As for everything else . . .
“I had no tutor,” he explains. “I had to learn everything on my own. I mean, I had no clue. When I thought of a city, I thought of Terre Haute. I wasn’t ready for Boston. I still haven’t seen half of this city.”
Being Larry Bird was a trade-off. It means you’re wealthy beyond anything you could have imagined. It means having the athletic capability to shape events. It also means having to worry about the unexpected (”goin’ somewhere and findin’ that there were 200 more people there than you thought”) or encountering the one “loudmouth” who would blow your cover and spoil your evening (”the guy who’d yell ‘There’s Larry Bird!’ “). It means sending your wife into a place to “check it out,” to scope the joint to make a guess as to the nature of the occupants before committing yourself. “If it looked like a quiet crowd, maybe an older crowd, then we’d try goin’ in there to eat,” he explains.
Moreover, being Larry Bird meant having to fulfill a very heavy performance responsibility. Behind the well-documented bravado lurked a vulnerable human being who ate, slept, bled, worried and, yes, even doubted on occasion. The truth can now be told.
“I feel so good now,” he admits. “The pressure’s off. I don’t have to put up with everything anymore. I don’t have to perform the way the people want.”
That, too, was part of the daily life problem. Larry Bird found it difficult to unwind. He hesitated to place himself before his public because he wasn’t sure they would see a self he could be proud of.
“I was always so intense,” he says. “I might not act the way I’d want to. I was always thinking about the last game or the next game.”
And there was always the money. He’s got a grain elevator full of money. He knows people envy him for that money, and he is almost, you might say, amused by that, because money doesn’t mean as much to him as it does to virtually everyone else he knows.
“Here is what the money means to me,” he says. “Security.”
That is one of Larry Bird’s favorite words. He is obsessed with the concept. So what does “security” mean to him?
“It means I’ll never have to live the way I once lived,” he explains. ‘’It means you’ll never again have to worry about being home when the collectors are beating down the door. It means your mom has enough money when she goes to the store, and doesn’t have to worry about figuring out every item and worrying about being a penny or two short and having to put things back and people saying something.”
His basic spending habits have not changed, even as his bank account has ballooned. His list of desired creature comforts remains on the short side.
“The one essential thing I want is a clean, comfortable place to live,” he asserts. “Other than that, money is not that big of a deal to me. I know it’s easy to say that when you have some, but I mean it. If I have enough money for some Coke, some beer, something to eat and a nice place to live, I don’t need much more.”
His homes in Brookline and West Baden, Ind., have two things in common: (1) They are spotless and utterly devoid of clutter; (2) They offer no indication whatsoever that therein dwells one of the greatest athletes of all time. The homes are, as he says, clean and comfortable. They are not gaudy. They could belong to a reasonably successful insurance salesman or accountant. If you’d like to see the Bird memorabilia (three MVP trophies, etc.) you must go to Terre Haute and the Larry Bird Boston Connection Hotel and head to the coffee shop.
Bird’s legendary neatness fetish is under serious attack now that he is a father. Young Connor Bird does all the requisite toddlerly things, and Daddy has trained himself to count to 100 or so before exploding. Larry Bird is not used to picking up toys and kid stuff, and he knows the worst is yet to come. ‘’I know,” he says, sadly, “that some day he’s going to pick up the Magic Marker and write on the walls. I’ll have a hard time with that one. But it’s going to happen; that’s a given. I’ll let this stuff go on for a while, but when he’s a little older he’s going to learn to pick up.”
Fatherhood. Bird and Bill Cosby. Who’d have bought into that concept? Having missed out on seeing the growth of his teen-aged daughter from his short-lived and ill-advised adolescent marriage, he is now plunging himself into Fatherhood, Part II, at age 36. He and wife Dinah are very serious about it. Just this week they brought home a second adopted child, tiny Mariah Rose Bird, thereby changing King Connor I into a prince who must share his throne with a new Bird princess.
The children occupy a role in the post-career life of Larry Bird. “I’m so happy with them,” he gushes. “When I was playing, I really didn’t want kids because I didn’t think I’d have the proper time for them. It wasn’t just the traveling. I think maybe someone else could do it. But it was always different with me, because I always had so many other commitments. I’d come back from a trip, and two hours later I was out doing something else.”
So now Larry can be a proper father. “After I got home from the Olympics I began to know Connor,” he explains. “And we just spent a month in Florida where I got to know him even more. I love being there when he wakes up and when he goes to bed. We just have a blast. Now with a little girl we can do the same thing. I’m just so happy to be in the position where I can be around.”
Dinah Bird has only one future worry. “She keeps saying, ‘What will Connor say when his friends ask him what his daddy does for a living?’ He can’t say, ‘Well, my daddy just hangs around the house.’ “
When Larry isn’t playing with Connor or his sister, he fills his hours making TV commercials and appearances of all kinds. He’s traveled far more than he intended, and he says one of his 1993 goals is to get a handle on everything so he can cut back on the outside stuff. The Celtics? Well, sure. He is Dave Gavitt’s Special Assistant In Charge Of Telling People How To Do It Right.
“I just do whatever Dave asks,” Bird explains. “Watch a game. Watch a tape. Offer suggestions. Whatever he wants.”
Bird was never the world’s greatest fan, although his interest in watching the NBA when he wasn’t playing did grow as the years progressed. He now watches the games differently, incidentally. “When I watched games before, I was like everybody else: I followed the flight of the ball,” he said. “Now I have a completely different perspective. I watch the weak side. I watch someone on defense. When I see a play called, I see how they run it. Half the time, three of the five guys don’t run it correctly. And defense? Don’t ask.”
What he’s doing is fulfilling a contractual commitment. He can’t say where he’ll be or what he’ll be doing in five years. Or three years. “I’ll have to see what happens after the contract runs out,” he says. “Is this what I want to do? Where do I want to live? I think I’ll always have a presence here. I’m a Celtic. When we win the next championship, I’ll be here. But will I have a house or a condo? Where will we want to send the kids to school? I can’t answer all this.”
He has fallen in love with Florida, especially the Gulf Coast. Raised in a god-awful climate (scorching in the summer and teeth-chattering in the winter) and not especially in love with the Boston weather, he can envision many warm days on the links in the Sunshine State.
“Right now,” he laughs, “I don’t know. I’m still in the gypsy mode.”
Regrets? Sure, he’s had a few, but aside from wishing he’d been healthy the past five or six years, not too many. There’s always The Finger, of course, but he’s learned to live with the right index finger that was smashed in the infamous softball accident back in 1979. The fact is he’s still in semi- denial. First he says, “I made a quick adjustment. It really didn’t bother me. Honest.” Then he turns around and says, “I was never as good a shooter in the NBA as I was in college. Never. It wasn’t even close. I couldn’t grip the ball. Even as much as I practiced, I couldn’t get the same feeling I once had.”
He would like to have enjoyed the benefit of his conversion to the fitness religion in the summer of ‘87. “I was in unbelievable shape,” he recalls. ‘’I wasn’t tired after practices. I wasn’t tired after games. I could do anything I wanted including stuffing a rebound to the armpits during an exhibition in Provo, Utah.” Then came the heels, however, and eventually the back, and now the retirement we always dreaded.
But complain? No way. “Think about this,” he says. “You need luck. Think how close we came to winning one championship instead of three. We were lucky to beat Philly in ‘81. And if Gerry Henderson doesn’t make that steal, we don’t beat LA in ‘84.”
As much as he’d love to be playing, he’ll dwell on the good -- and only the good -- tonight as he says thanks and farewell in his favorite building before his favorite fans. “Did anyone else ever appeal to the fans directly, the way I did?” he inquires. No, Larry. No one. “They pulled us through in ‘84, and against Milwaukee and Detroit in ‘87 and Atlanta in ‘88.
“They knew how to get up for big games. You could always sense their anticipation. You could walk into the building for a big game and know they were ready. You can’t tell me that doesn’t help a team.”
They’ll have one last chance to fire him up tonight. Bring the box of industrial-strength tissues.