Page 2 columnist
This column was originally published April 25, 2003.
When Larry Bird joined the Celtics in 1979, I was just nine years old, dreaming about playing for the hometown team some day. My Dad and I attended just about every game at the Boston Garden. The place was dead. Bird came in and transformed everything, like Swayze waltzing into the Double Deuce and cleaning house in "Road House." He wasn't just great, he changed the way his teammates played. He brought everyone to a higher place. Of the 50 happiest moments of my life, Bird and the Garden were involved in at least a dozen of them.
Does that make him a hero? Probably not. He wasn't saving lives, he wasn't putting his own life at risk, he wasn't making the world safer or anything. At the same time, I can't imagine what my life would have been like without him. We grew up together over the years. He won three championships and three MVP awards, helped save the NBA, rejuvenated the Celtics franchise. During that same time, I hit puberty, graduated from high school and college, even started living on my own. By the time his career ended in 1992, my life was just beginning.
But here's the thing ...
Ever since I was little, I loved basketball more than just about anything. Randomly, inexplicably, coincidentally, the greatest team basketball player of my lifetime landed on my team, in my formative years, and I had the privilege of watching him, day in and day out, for 13 years. His work ethic and his competitiveness rubbed off on his teammates. He always rose to the occasion when it mattered. His passing was contagious. When you watched him long enough, you started to see the angles he was seeing; instead of reacting to what just happened, you reacted to the play as it was happening. There's McHale cutting to the basket, I see him, get him the ball, there it is ... LAYUP! Bird gave that to us.
So that's what I grew up watching -- basketball played the right way. People looking for the open man. People making the extra pass. People giving their best and rising to the occasion in big moments. Even years later, I can rattle off the classic Bird moments like I'm rattling off moments of my own life. Like the time he sprung for 60 against Atlanta, when the Hawks were high-fiving on the bench. Or the time he dropped 42 on Doctor J in two-and-half quarters, frustrating Doc to the point that they swapped punches at midcourt. Or the famous shootout with Dominique in the '88 playoffs, when they combined for 34 points in the final quarter. I have a hundred of them.
The best thing about attending games during the Bird Era? That moment when everyone in the Garden collectively realized, "Hmmmmm ... something good is about to happen here." You never knew when it might happen, you just realized it as it was happening. Suddenly there would be a steady murmur in the arena, like what you hear at a rock concert right before the show is about to start. As soon as you felt The Buzz, you knew something special was in the works. You probably think I'm a raving lunatic, but I'm telling you, anybody who attended those games knows exactly what I'm trying to describe. You could feel it in the air. Larry's taking over.
Bird never gave himself to us until Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Philly in '81, a fiercely contested game where every possession felt like a do-or-die play. At halftime, fans snuck into the hallways for cigarettes, so smoke drifted back inside and rose to the ceiling, where it festered for the rest of the game. The referees tucked away their whistles in the fourth quarter; it was more of a rugby game then anything. You know the old saying, "These teams hate each other"? In this case, they really did.
With Boston down by one in the final minute, Bird hauled down a rebound, dribbled down the left side -- I can still see it -- and nailed a 15-footer that brought the roof down. Philly called timeout as Larry skipped down the court, arms still raised, soaking in the noise of the crowd ... finally he unleashed an exaggerated, sweeping fist pump. Painfully shy, Bird never acknowledged the crowd during that part of his career, so it was the first hint of emotion we ever saw from him. That's how great the game was -- like a heavyweight title fight, with Bird's banker being the knockout blow. And then the fist pump. He finally threw us a bone.
We loved him before that, but this was different. Now he was one of us. And it went from there -- the first title in '81, followed by his first MVP award in '84, and then a victory over the despicable Lakers in the '84 Finals. The fifth game was one of those defining Larry games: Ninety-six degrees outside ... and about 500 degrees inside the Garden. Fans were passing out in the stands. Well-dressed housewives were wiping sweaty makeup off their brows. Fat Irish guys had huge armpit stains on their green Celtics T-shirts. Even the dehydrated Lakers seemed ready to pass out; Kareem and Worthy needed to suck from oxygen masks during timeouts.
Of course, Bird loved it. He threw up 34 points and 17 rebounds as we screamed and fanned ourselves in unison. It was hot. I mean, it was really, really hot. And we were whipping the Lakers, and Bird was God, and we were cheering feverishly because we felt part of the whole thing. We were sweating, too. During timeouts in that game, M.L. Carr was walking around fanning his teammates with an omnipresent towel. I don't know why I remember this, but I do: During the fourth quarter, as Bird was finishing off the Lakers, they called timeout and M.L. started fanning Bird with that towel ... and Larry just shoved him away, insulted. Like M.L. was ruining the moment for him.
Bird and the Garden always seemed to go hand in hand in moments like that. I can't imagine him playing in the Fleet Center now, standing during timeouts as things explode on the scoreboard, as dance music blares, as flunkies use a cannon to shoot t-shirts into the crowd. When the Bird Era crested with that remarkable 67-win season in the 1986 season, it was the ultimate marriage of the perfect crowd and the perfect team. Remember the scene in "Hoosiers" right after Jimmy Chitwood joined the team, the inspiring "This team's coming together" montage? That's what every game felt like that year. The season ended with Bird walking off the floor in Game 6 in the Finals, fresh off demolishing the Rockets with a triple double, his jersey drenched with sweat. It was perfect.
He entered another realm during the mid-'80s: Tons of trash-talking, loads of swagger, almost like he kept upping the stakes to challenge himself. There was the famous story of the Three-Point Contest in '86, when he walked into the locker room and told everyone they were playing for second. Or the time he told Seattle's Xavier McDaniel exactly where he was shooting a game-winning shot, then lived up to the promise with a jumper right in X-man's mug. As the game-winners and stories started piling up, that's when he moved into that hallowed Bobby Orr-Ted Williams ground for Boston fans. We thought he could do anything.
As he grew older and his body started to betray him, Bird's career became even more astounding. Hobbled by bad heels and crippled by his ravaged back, he could barely make it up and down the court. He was doing it all on memory and adrenaline. During his final two seasons, he would miss chunks of weeks at a time -- even spending time in the hospital in traction -- then immediately return to the starting lineup like nothing happened, managing to average 20 a night and add to his ESPN Classic resume. Like the famous Game 5 against Indiana in '91, when he banged his head against the floor, returned Willis Reed-style, then carried the Celts past the Pacers. Or the 49-point outburst against the Blazers on national TV, when the crowd chanted, "Lar-ree! Lar-ree!" before he swished a game-tying three-pointer in regulation.
Maybe the strangest game happened in the '91 playoffs against the Pistons, when a struggling Bird couldn't get anything going, then an actual bird came flying out of the rafters of the Garden and halted the action by parking itself defiantly at midcourt. The crowd recognized the irony and immediately starting chanting, "Larry! Larry! Larry!" And for the only time in the entire series, our crippled hero came alive. He started hitting jumpers, a bunch of them, and the Celtics pulled away for a crucial victory. As we joyously filed out of the Garden, my father asked me, "Did that really just happen?"
It did. I think.
When he finally retired from the game in '92, it happened for the right reasons: His body just couldn't handle an NBA schedule anymore. Unlike Magic, he didn't make any comebacks, he didn't embarrass himself, and you would never see him lowering himself to a 3-on-3 game during All-Star Weekend or something. Unlike MJ, he never would have been content toiling away on a .500 team, past his prime, for no real reason. He walked away and he stayed away. Larry came back to coach for a couple of years, nearly won a title in Indiana, walked away again. That was it.
Did these things make Larry Bird a hero? Probably not. But there were heroic qualities about him, mainly stemming from the fact that everyone in New England believed he was invincible. He just came through too many times for us. After awhile, we started expecting him to come through, and when he still came through, that's when we were hooked for good. Out of all the dramatic Bird moments over the years, I'll always remember a game-winning shot that he missed ... not just because he missed it, but because nobody believed he could miss it.
It happened in Game 4 of the '87 Finals. After winning those three MVPs, Bird was in the midst of the greatest run of his career, single-handedly dragging the aging Celtics to the Finals despite injuries to McHale, Parish, Walton and Ainge. In the Eastern Finals against Detroit, Bird snatched victory from defeat with the famous steal from Isiah in the waning minutes of Game 5, which remains the loudest I ever heard the Garden in my life. (That's the great thing about sports, when you hope for something improbable to happen, and 499 times out 500, it never happens ... and then there's the 500th time, and for God's sake, it's happening.) Two games later, he sunk Detroit with a variety of backbreaking shots down the stretch, including a ludicrous 15-foot left-handed banker that had to be seen to be believed.
At this point, everyone in the Garden was convinced that Bird couldn't be stopped. He just kept raising his game to another level ... how high could he go? Down by one in the final 30 seconds of Game 4, the Celtics tried to run a play for Bird, who was smothered by James Worthy (who held Bird's jersey for most of the play). Somehow the ball rotated around and back to Bird's side, only this time he was open in the corner for a split second ...
He launched a three right in front of the Lakers' bench ...
(Everyone in the Garden hopefully screams out, "Threeeeee ...")
If they had stopped the game at that point so Larry Bird could walk across the Charles River, not only would I have been the first guy there, I would have brought my camera.
Of course, the Lakers rallied back on a free throw from Kareem and a baby sky hook from Magic. The Celtics had one last chance. Sure, there were only two seconds left, but we had Larry. We still had Larry. Somehow he broke free at midcourt from two Lakers -- how does this happen??? -- and darted down the sideline, taking the inbounds pass from midcourt, setting his feet and launching a wide-open three in front of the Lakers bench. If you watch the tape, you can see Lakers backup Wes Matthews crouched on the floor, screaming behind Bird in sheer horror, and you can hear everyone in the Garden make some sort of strange shrieking noise -- a gasping sound loosely translated as, "Holy (bleeping bleep), he actually might make this thing!!!!"
I was there. Standing at our old seats, right at midcourt, my heart pounding ... when Bird released the shot, he was directly between me and the basket. I can still see the shot soaring through the air on a direct line -- it was dead-on -- and I didn't even have time to jump before the shot bounced against the back of the rim. He missed it by a fraction ... maybe the length of a fingernail. It couldn't have been closer.
But here's what I remember most: It wasn't the sound in the Garden -- that gasp of anticipation giving way to a prolonged groan, followed by the most deafening silence imaginable. It wasn't the jubilant Lakers skipping off the court, like they were about to split a winning Powerball ticket 12 ways (they knew how fortunate they were). It wasn't even the shocked faces of the people around me, everyone standing in place, mouths agape, staring at the basket in disbelief. Nope.
It was Larry. After the shot bounced away, he stood there for two seconds in front of the Lakers bench, staring at the basket in disbelief ... just like we were. He couldn't believe it.
The ball was supposed to go in.
And then he ambled slowly off the court, joining the cluttered group of players and coaches trying to leave the floor, seeming more confused than anyone. Many Celtics fans remained in their seats, shell-shocked, unable to come to grips with the fact that the Celtics had lost. Remember seeing a movie like "Saving Private Ryan," when everyone in the theater is paralyzed at the end of the movie, how people can't move even as the final credits were running down the screen? That's what the Garden was like that night. People couldn't move.
My father stayed slumped in his seat for at least 10 minutes, looking like a guy who just rear-ended someone and couldn't move from the car. He wasn't showing any inkling of getting up. When I said to him, "Hey Dad, let's get out of here," he didn't budge.
A few more seconds passed. Finally, my father looked at me.
"That was supposed to go in," he groaned. "How did that not go in?"
Almost 16 years have passed since that night... and I still don't have an answer for him. Maybe Larry Bird wasn't a hero, but he sure as hell seemed like it.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and he's a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live.