Larry Bird still loves you and he loves your teams
Memo to Boston fans: Larry Bird still loves you and he loves your teams. Even from his home state of Indiana, the Heartland of Deflategate Hate.
"I never root against the Boston teams,'' Bird said in a phone interview while his Indiana Pacers prepared to face the Celtics at TD Garden Wednesday night. "There's no sports town like Boston. I don't care where you go.
"They talk about Chicago and Philadelphia. No. They don't ever compare to Boston. I mean, there's ladies in their 90s and they can name every player on the Red Sox and Patriots team. You just don't have it anywhere like that.
"It's unbelievable out there, and my gratitude to the fans out there is that I'd never root against them because I know how important sports are to them."
Larry Legend didn't take it too seriously when he first heard the deflated footballs charge after the Patriots waxed the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game last January.
"I thought it was a bunch of lying, if you want to know the truth," said Bird. "That's something [Bob] Kravitz [Indianapolis sports columnist] came up with, and I never believed any of it.
"It doesn't really matter. It was written about a lot around the country, but here in Indianapolis, most people knew. We knew the Patriots was going to beat them anyway. I thought it was pretty chintzy. People finally realized they would have beat us anyway. I just laughed about it.
"They got the footballs they played with and we got our footballs. And their footballs beat our footballs.
"I watch every one of the Colts games. I really like them. But my son loves all things about the Patriots. And I never root against the Patriots."
I reminded Bird that the deflated footballs debacle was reminiscent of accusations often levied against Celtics godfather Red Auerbach — such as Pat Riley believing that Auerbach rigged the thermostat at the Old Garden to torture the Lakers.
"Right,'' Bird agreed. "If that's what they think, then now we've got them.''
It's a love story, this thing between Bird and Boston. Hub fans loved Bird the first time he showed up at Camp Millbrook in Marshfield in the summer of 1979, and it never changed. He could do no wrong, right through his retirement from the Celtics in 1992.
Almost a quarter of a century later, while Bird has raised a family and excelled as coach and president of the Pacers, he remains loyal to the folks who cheered him all those years on the parquet floor.
"I even rooted for the Red Sox against the Cardinals in those World Series,'' he said. "That one took me to the dirt because you know I love my Cardinals.''
Bird's Pacers beat the Celtics in Indianapolis earlier this month. What does he think of today's Green Team?
"They're young and they play together and they're fun to watch," he said. "I haven't really watched them that much. They seem like they're going to be all right.''
The Celtics have a lot of players with similar skill sets. Speaking as an ex-coach, what's that like when doling out the playing time?
"Guys are always going to be pissed off whether they're playing 30 minutes or 40 minutes or 10 minutes," said Bird. "It's the same old thing. The players are never happy.
"It all depends on how they're playing and how the team's doing. You can run into that problem. I don't know if they have that problem. They seem like they get along pretty well, but they do have a lot of guys that are young and want their chance.
"Everybody wants their minutes. We've got the same problem.''
Celtics coach Brad Stevens brings a college mentality to the pro game and tries to make his team play hard for the full 48. Is this realistic in the NBA?
"That's the only way you get better," said Bird. "I think the players understand that. I don't know much about Brad Stevens even though he's right here in Indiana, close to us. I think I just met him one time in Orlando at Summer League. I know he did a good job here at Butler, so you got the right coach.''
Most players don't stay in college very long. In today's draft, do you really know what you're getting anymore?
"We spend a lot more time now and have a lot more background checks," said Bird. "We're probably more familiar with them than we were 25 years ago.
"But they come in so young. We've got a couple kids that are 19 years old, and one of them is playing 20 minutes for us. I couldn't imagine playing in the NBA at 19 years old.
"It's tough for these kids. They go from being high school All-Americans to one year of college and being drafted high, and then they come in here and they expect they're going to walk in here and take over, and that's not the way it's going to be.
"It takes time. So there's a lot of hit and misses out there.''
Do they have to be taught more now?
"The four-year guys are better that way, no doubt," said Bird. "I took Roy Hibbert a few years ago. Compare him to Paul George when he came in. Paul's a nice young man and very pleasant to be around, but you just knew it was going to take a couple of years, maybe more, to develop. With Roy, four years of school, he's been around the block. He knows how to handle situations.
"You're going to have to have patience when you take these young kids. Think about it, 19 years old and they are in a new city and they don't have their friends or family around. It can be really tough for them.''
Can you win a championship in the NBA today without superstars?
"No," said Bird. "It all comes down to how much you're willing to spend for players. If you get the right superstar, will other players come and play with him? It's the same old thing.
"The draft has a lot to do with it. You have to hope that if you have a high draft pick, one's going to become a so-called star. You've got to have the players. It's always been that way. Whoever's got the better players is going to win.''
But it's hard to turn things around quickly in the NBA. If you finish in that 7-8 spot, you sometimes get stuck there.
"It's tough," said Bird. "If you just barely make the playoffs, you've got to get very lucky in the draft. And a lot of the teams are not going to spend up to the tax every year to try to build a team.
"The small markets have it tough. It's just how you manage it. Hopefully you get lucky in the draft and get a couple that can take you over the hump.'''
Let's go back in history. Do you have an all-time starting five?
"No, I don't care about that stuff.''
Our Globe basketball guy, Gary Washburn, just went back and re-ranked the top 50 players of all time (first done by the NBA in 1996). He came up with 13 new guys, which bounced 13 off the original list.
"Well, that ain't fair [laughter].''
Seriously, our man Bob Ryan always said that the Baseball Hall of Fame should work that way. Every time someone new gets in, some old guy gets bumped out.
"[More laughter] That's awesome.''
You came in at No. 9 on Washburn's list, between Oscar Robertson and Kobe Bryant.
"Oh, boy. I don't know where I fit in there, but I'll tell you one thing: When I was healthy, I had a lot of fun.''
Washburn had Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain ranked second and third behind Michael Jordan. An homage to the big men.
"I agree," said Bird. "I like all big men. How do you keep Kareem off any list? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar [No. 5 on Washburn's list] has to go down in history as as good as anyone who ever played the game. Go back and look what happened when he was a rookie with Milwaukee. It's just amazing how good that guy was.
"You take these college guys like Bill Walton and all them. When I was at Indiana State, we won 33 in a row. I never thought much about it back then. Now I think that's something else. Walton won, like, 78 games in a row [88, to be exact]. How the hell do you do that?''
Is the 1985-86 Celtics team the greatest of all time?
"I don't know about all time, but it was by far the best I ever played on," said Bird. "When I went to training camp, I knew that if we stayed healthy, no one could come close to beating us. And that was before we lost Sly Williams. He was unbelievable.''