Larry Bird’s Birthday

In addition to being the 69th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor-a day that then-President Franklin Roosevelt said, “will live in infamy”-today is also Larry Bird’s birthday.

The basketball legend and self-dubbed “Hick from French Lick” turns 54 today, and, while he has not played for close to 20 years, the memories of what he did on the court and that time of my life still burn strongly (The burning gets a little help from my friends at You Tube, of course!).

I’ve written before about a number of Bird-related books.  Seth Davis’ enjoyable A March Toward Madness tackled the 1979 championship game between Bird’s Sycamores of Indiana State and Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and contained some tidbits that were new to me.  When We Owned The Game, co-authored by longtime Boston Globe write Jackie MacMullan, tells the story of their professional careers, largely in the superstars’ own words.

Drive: The Story of My Life is Bird’s autobiography.  I remember vividly skipping a practice of the freshman soccer team I was coaching to go to the signing, then shying away from the television cameras that were documenting the event for fear that my ruse would be exposed.

Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball opens with a lengthy description in the Prologue of Bird’s final missed shot in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.  The miss, which came after he and Magic had traded a three pointer and a baby hook, meant that the Lakers were up 3-1 and essentially sealed Magic’s fourth title. While in journalism school, I interviewed Bird about the shot through his agent and learned that his primary reaction was that he had let his teammates down.

Bird has even been the subject of academic work, figuring prominently in a book that uber-connector Danny Postel gave me.

In the end, though, while writing is helpful to recapture the magic we felt and the joy he provided during our adolescence and early adulthood, the memories from then, rekindled by seeing Bird again on the computer screen, are what stay with me.

I am not only talking about memories of classic moments like the steal in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals, when Bird grabbed a weakly thrown pass by Isaiah Thomas, spotted and then hit a streaking Dennis Johnson, who converted a nearly impossible lay up to stun the Pistons and give the Celtics a 3-2 series lead.  I am talking about how he would wipe his shoes and pull up his pants, the hum of anticipation in the final seconds of a game when everyone in the building would know the ball was going to him and he would hit the shot anyway.  I am thinking about the ferocity with which he threw his body around, his fights with opponents ranging from Bill Laimbeer to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the inordinate amount of trash he talked.

And I am also remembering his intelligence and humor, which surfaced as he became more comfortable, how he said, at a 1985 ceremony honoring Red Auerbach, “Red Auerbach’s a great man, because everything he set out to done, he did.”

I am thinking about the blond hair that grew into a serious mullet in 1986, the killer mustache that never quite worked, the unbelievable passes he routinely pulled off, and the sense both for a couple of years that the Celtics would never lose at home and that every night you might see at least one thing that you had never seen before.

Larry gave us that and more.

The man is not perfect. His years of not seeing his daughter Carrie from his high school marriage to Janet does not square with his heroic conduct on the court.  Lamentable and important to note, that blemish reminds all of us of our shortcomings and raises the time-old question of who athletes can and should be expected to be.

Fortunately, there is time to consider this and other issues.  For today, though, I will spend a few minutes being grateful for what Larry Bird gave to Boston, to basketball and to the world.

3 responses to “Larry Bird’s Birthday

  1. Hi Jeff,

    Great article. My name’s Nik, I’m Katharine Knoetze’s boyfriend, she passed your blog on to me, which I’m really enjoying.

    I’m a big Celtics fan. I was born in Macedonia (former Yugoslavia) and migrated to Australia in 1993. But my dad used to make me watch Celtics games and raved about Larry Bird. In 1988 the Celts toured in Yugoslavia and played our national team (before the war) featuring players like Kukoc, Divac, Radja and Petrovic. I think we lost by one field goal to the Celtics in that friendly game. I think while the dream team had a global impact in spreading the basketball gospel, Larry Bird and the Celtic’s visit in 1988 impacted the Yugoslavian national team and its people to play a similar brand of basketball. Yugoslavia went on to win the European and then world championship in 1990 over the Soviets proceeding the Celtics’ visit.

    Anyway, I wish I had experienced Larry and the Celtics in real life and in that era. Reading books, article and blogs like yours nourish my mind’s curiosity.

    Thanks

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Nik, for your comment and kind words. Katharine’s terrific and certainly spoke highly of you (The only time I saw her get upset during the two weeks in Italy was when she showed me a picture of the two of you and I complimented her, rather than talk glowingly about you! :)).

      I remember very well the Celtics tour to Yugoslavia and the friendly game they played against a very talented team that, as you point, seemed to learn and grow from their defeat.

      I hear you completely about how fortunate we were to have experienced watching Larry and the Celtics in person. While it may not be much consolation, there are a ton of fun You Tube clips that give you a feeling for what he did on the court and how he played the game.

      Thanks again, and I hope we get a chance to meet in person!

      Jeff

  2. Thanks Jeff. You-tube definitely a great tool. Glad we’ve started a conversation. Hoping that you and your Orvieto colleagues end up having a graduation ceremony in Boston in May 2011….I believe this may coincide with some big games for the Cs.

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