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.