Larry Legend Hits The Big 5-0

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - December 13, 2006
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Can Larry Bird really be 50? Has it been 27 years since he was beaten by Magic Johnson in what is still the highest-rated NCAA final in television history?

Nineteen seasons since he stole that pass from Isiah Thomas to take game five in the Eastern Conference Finals?

Fourteen since he last played in the NBA?

It doesn’t seem like yesterday, but at the same time it is hard to believe that the man who helped rescue the league came into national attention nearly three decades ago.

At least we finally have something in common with the man who averaged 31 points, 21 rebounds and four assists as a senior at Spring Valley High School. Thinner on top, slower in movement and bit wider than before. Hey, it’s something.

Bird came along at just the right time. The NBA in the 1970s was anything but national. Games were hard to find on television and the league was losing money and in danger of becoming insolvent. While the sport was filled with some of the most innovative players in its history - Julius Erving, Pete Maravich, World B. Free, Clyde Frazier - for most of America, meaning white America, the game was too threatening, too drug-oriented and too black.

While the players were mostly African American, those in the seats and those with the expendable income advertisers craved were mostly white. The league was looking for a great pale hope to market. Bird was the perfect foil, a white man with a black man’s game.

He was the Elvis of the NBA. The thing that white America missed or ignored was that Bird played the very game they hated. He was a behind-the-back-passing, trash-talking showman who combined the outside shot of the rural game with the take-it-to-the-rim urban style. Bird was great and he knew it. So did his competitors, because he told them. As Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum said in a 1992 article, Bird “dispensed as much trash on the court as Muhammad Ali did in the ring.”

Remember, this was the guy who walked into the locker room during the 1986 All Star Game three-point contest and told everyone they were playing for second place. They were. Bird won.

In a game against Seattle, he told Supersonic star Xavier McDaniel from what location he was going to hit the game-winning shot. With McDaniel guarding him, Bird did just as he promised.

Hell, he even got Dr. J, maybe the most even-keeled player in the league, so angry that he grabbed Bird by the throat. That’s street. You break your opponent down any way you can. Off the dribble or verbally, it doesn’t matter. Bird understood this even if the audience didn’t.

Bird hardly saved the league single-handedly. Without Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler and many others there would be no Larry Bird, and the 1980s would not have been the game’s greatest decade. Legends are not made in a vacuum; they are created in front of raucous crowds with their feats recorded for history. Bird owes his legacy to those he played with and against. Basketball’s holy trinity - Bird, Johnson and Jordan - reintroduced the game to the fans through a combination of undeniable skill, hard work and the want to talk a hole through the competition.

Trash-talking aside, Bird could flat-out play. There wasn’t a point on the floor he couldn’t score from, and he may have been the best passing front line player in the history of the game. He was even a three-time member of the all-defensive second team, though defense was never really his forte.

To paraphrase Magic at Bird’s retirement ceremony at Boston Gardens, there will never, ever be another Larry Bird. Or when a slightly annoyed Jordan was asked if Bird wasn’t just a sentimental pick as a member of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, he responded in kind. “I don’t care how old or in pain Larry Bird is.

You name me a forward in this league who’s not already on the team who can rebound, throw the outlet pass to get the break going, shoot the three-pointer, play in the half-court and has the presence of Bird.’‘

So happy belated birthday, big guy. You really were something special.

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