I like to believe I can recall, on demand and command, pretty much every Larry Bird no-look pass and dagger 3 from his full and fulfilling Celtics career. But the original visual was always provided by a television, or via Johnny Most’s nicotine-choked crackles from the car radio.
I never saw Larry play in person.
I know. It’s a void, one in my soul as a sports fan and, nowadays, my resume as Boston sports writer. I witnessed his entire career, every game I could. And yet I missed out. When Brent Musberger would tell us “You’re looking live!” at Boston Garden during his intro to CBS’s coverage of one huge mid-‘80s showdown or another, I always envied those fans in the crowd on television, inside the building.
How did you get to be inside? Who did you have to know? How lucky could you be? How rich?
If there were such a thing as a retroactive sports bucket list, where you could zap back in time to see an athlete or an event you missed the first time around, catching Larry in the process of building his legend would be near the top for me.
I wouldn’t even request a specific game. Any one in which he was out to destroy would be more than fine. Though, now that I think of it, if my retro-game could include just one occurrence of that baseline cut to catch and score off a bullet pass from a seemingly nonchalant Dennis Johnson, that would be especially cool.
I never saw Ray Bourque, either, or Greg Kite, or any of the other Bruins and Celtics legends and lessers during my ‘70s/’80s childhood, when sports weren’t my everything, but came awfully close. I never made it inside the Boston Garden until I was a journalism student at the University of Maine covering the Hockey East tournament in 1993.
I grew up in midcoast Maine, Bath, one of those bucolic spots that nowadays sees a mass influx of Massachusetts license plates in the summer. But back then, in my small world, Boston seemed so far away.
A recent discovery in my attic of two old Red Sox ticket stubs I’d tucked away long ago – a $2 bleacher seat for a Sept. 25, 1982 Red Sox-Yankees game, and a $8 box seat for an April 17, 1983 matchup with the Rangers – reminded me that a trip to Boston was more an annual adventure for my family than something to ask for or count on.
I remember those otherwise forgettable Red Sox games so vividly, still. Dwight Evans dropped a fly ball in that ’82 game, which I did not ever consider a possibility. I also ate a Klondike bar and got sick. It was not the ice cream bar but a certain smell wafting through the bleachers that day that got to me. I would not figure this out until college.
In the ’83 game, John Tudor and Rick Honeycutt engaged in a pitcher’s duel, which I watched from beneath a scowl after my mom spilled her annual beer all over my baseball cards.
When we did go to the city, we always took a rental car. My younger sister and I always thought the borrowed brute of a car – my mind pictures a lime-green Oldsmobile, with “Take It To The Limit” or “Slip Slidin’ Away” playing on the radio – as a special treat. But it probably had more to do with my parents owning an AMC Gremlin and other vehicles of similar limited reliability in those days.
Later, when the seams loosened on my family and my parents split up, we didn’t make it to Boston much, if at all. Through the better years we did get to Fenway, the Museum of Science, strolled around the Public Garden. But we never did make it to the Garden I longed to see.
We’ve made up for this and then some through the years. I got to sit with my dad in the Fenway bleachers for Game 1 of the 2013 World Series, then he accompanied down to the field to shoot a postgame video about the Red Sox’ victory. That felt like a happy pinnacle in more than one way. We’ve been to so many Sox games together in recent years – usually with one of my two kids in tow – that I’ve lost count.
My son, 11, isn’t into team sports. A baseball game to him is just a means to a concession stand. Our bonds are books and Star Wars movies and The Office quotes and being a chronic smart aleck to his mom. I too like concession stands.
I suppose this is unusual for a sportswriter’s kid, but it’s always been our normal, and it’s going to be a joy to watch him find his own path. I don’t always comprehend those Marvel movies we always seem to go see they day they premiere, but he loves them, and so I do too. He’s never had a day where he wasn’t a marvel to me.
He will probably hock my baseball card collection without a second thought someday. Maybe I’ll leave it to my daughter instead. She loves sports, especially the NBA. It’s the first thing we talk about during the sleepy-eyed scramble in the morning before school. She knows the Celtics’ won-lost record and schedule off the top of her head, and when she doesn’t, she’s quick to find it with that ubiquitous device in her hand. It always seems like she’s scrawling through one mosaic of NBA highlights or another.
Sometimes I work in my home office with the television tuned to the Celtics game, while she’ll watch in the living room. On those occasions, I’m the beneficiary twice the usual play-by-play.
If, in a key situation Jayson Tatum tees up a shot and Mike Gorman says, “Tatum takes it! Makes it!,’’ a split-second later I’ll inevitably hear this from the living room: “Daddy, Tatum took it and made it.”
I knew these Celtics really had her hooked earlier this year when Marcus Smart missed a potentially winning shot against the Lakers and she muttered simply, “Oh, Marcus. [Sigh.] You try so hard, but you’ll never learn.”
This brings me an overwhelming happiness that even an owner of a dog-eared thesaurus struggles to explain. She’s 14 now, an age where daughters can turn away from their dads. There are formal dances, and meetings about high school curriculums, and the possibility of getting a job this summer, and constant reminders that she’s growing up. Right now she’s away in a distant city on a multi-day school trip, and not for a moment did she reveal anything but excitement for going far away.
I search for things to offer her. Thanks mostly to my wife, we’re doing OK with the important things – love, stability, encouragement, discipline, warmth. Solo, I’m good with providing the dad jokes, a decent stepback jumper, maybe even a word of helpful, wisdom here or there. I – we – want her to be rich in experiences too, to give her a beautiful stack of postcards to file away as cherished memories.
Taking her to the Celtics-Bulls game Friday night seemed like the perfect opportunity for a mental postcard, at least when we bought the tickets a month ago. Since then, Kyrie Irving and Daniel Theis have joined Gordon Hayward on the done-for-the-year brigade, while Smart – oh, Marcus – remains sidelined with a hand injury for an indefinite amount of time.
Then, on game day, we learned that Al Horford and Jayson Tatum would rest and would not play. The lineup we were going to see suddenly looked a lot like the one that had become familiar at Red Claws games this season.
The lack of star power did not dim her enthusiasm. Her favorite Celtic, charmingly, is Shane Larkin. He doesn’t always get a chance to play a lot, but when he does he’s often awesome, she reasons. There’s a heck of a lesson there.
Our seats were in the very back row, section 315, a cinderblock wall behind us and the ninth-floor press box where I work immediately above. But we did get there as early as possible so we could sneak down near the Celtics bench to watch the players warm up before the game.
It’s a sneaky great take to arrive early and watch the players get their work in, to see how tall and unfathomably graceful they are, to watch the effort that goes into getting ready to play.
Larkin did not confirm her theory while she was there as a witness. He did not score in 21 minutes. But there was much to see, even with many of the Celtics’ letterwinners out of action.
Jabari Bird scored 16 points while looking like a far better NBA player than Abdel Nader. Jonathan Gibson, just arrived from China, hit three 3-pointers in a Conner Henry-like debut. Jaylen Brown pogoed around the court for a career-high 32 points. Greg Monroe, by our unscientific tally the Celtics’ team leader in pregame autographs signed, delivered a slow-motion triple-double.
Along the way, there were observations that were distinctly hers.
“Yabusele has a big butt in person,’’ she said.
“You cannot lie,” I said, because dads can never resist a Sir Mix-a-Lot joke.
As a child of the ‘80s, it’s my obligation to say the NBA will never be as good as it was then. But I’m not sure I believe it. The superstars are varied in personality and skill, and most seem like someone you’d want your child to admire. The shooting and ballhandling has never been better. The NBA is about the only thing that social media makes more likeable.
Maybe the NBA is not as good as it was in the Bird/Magic heyday. Maybe it is. But it’s the best league there is right now, and it makes me happy that it is the one my daughter loves.
No, I never saw Larry Bird play in person. Wish I had. But I did see Jabari Bird score 16 points while I sat in the new Garden, where there’s not a bad seat in the house, and chatted about basketball for a couple of hours with my teenaged daughter.
Turns out there’s no way the memory I always wished I’d had could have exceeded the one I got.