After another defeat to an elite team followed by a blow-out victory at home over the Pistons, I have decided to take a break from this back and forth struggle of trying to figure out the 2009-10 Boston Celtics. Rather, I want to take a look back.
You see, this week is my birthday. Usually, I am not one to make a big deal out of my birthday, but this year is different. I am turning 33. And besides my 21st for obvious reasons, I have looked forward to turning 33 more so than any other birthday, for no other reason than it gives me an excuse to write about Larry Bird.
I figure if a man can request a longer prison sentence of 33 years due to his love for Larry (read here), then I can use my 33rd birthday to think back on my favorite Larry Bird moments.
Just in case anyone is doing some quick math at home, you will also realize that I was not very old during Bird’s prime years. It didn’t matter. Between watching games live, repeatedly watching games that my older brother had taped on our VCR, or watching over and over the Larry Bird: A Basketball Legend video, I feel as if I didn’t miss a thing.
I will admit that this first memory is one that I did not see when it actually happened. But, like many others, I have watched the replay so many times, I might as well have been there. It is a perfect example of the blend of confidence and swagger that Bird had.
There was a timeout with 13 seconds left in a tie game against the Seattle Supersonics (remember them?). Bird told head coach KC Jones to just give him the ball and tell everyone else to get out of the way.
Bird then walked onto the court and told Xavier McDaniel, who was guarding him, “I’m going to get [the ball] right here and I am going to shoot it in your face.” As McDaniel remembers it, he responded by saying, “I know, I’ll be waiting.”
Then in about that exact same spot, Bird gets the ball and buries a shot right in McDaniel’s face, turns to Xavier and says, “I didn’t mean to leave two seconds on the clock.” McDaniel said of that play, “He wanted to shoot it with zero seconds on the clock. I just walked back to the sidelines, like damn.”
I also remember a game against Dallas when the Celtics trailed by two in the closing seconds. Bird dribbled up court and pulled up a few feet behind the three-point line, knocking down the go-ahead three. This prompted the Dallas announcer to say admiringly of Bird, “Imagine the arrogance, the wonderful arrogance of a man who needs two to tie or three to win. Has the time to do either one, and says, let’s roll the dice.”
Every Celtic fan who remembers Bird has a special place in their memory for the duel he had against Dominique Wilkins in Game Seven of the 1988 Playoffs. Tommy Heinsohn, who was doing color commentary for the national broadcast, exclaimed after Wilkins answered another Bird basket, “It’s a duel! Put down your saber!”
(On a side note, how was Tommy Heinsohn, maybe the biggest Celtics-homer in history, ever allowed to do color commentary on national broadcasts where he had to at least appear to be a neutral observer?).
Wilkins would shoot an amazing 19-23 from the floor and finish with 47 points. Bird went for 34 points, 20 of which came in the fourth quarter, as Boston got the win and advanced. My favorite moments from the game were a pair of lefty shots Bird made in the lane, and then later, a crucial three pointer with about a minute to go with Wilkins all over him.
After the game, I celebrated in my living room and then raced out to the hoop in my driveway, trying to reproduce all of those shots that Bird made.
The Hawks actually led the series three games to two, with a chance to end the series in Game Six on their home court. But Boston came away with the victory that set up the showdown in Game Seven.
After Game Six, Bird guaranteed a Game Seven victory, saying, “They had their chance, they had a big chance to beat us. I think now we are going to come out and play like we did tonight, but we are going to be at home and our shots are going to be dropping a little bit better, and we are going to be running a little faster. So I’d say [Game Seven] is going to be a big win for the Celtics.”
How can you not love that?
Another time Bird guaranteed victory and delivered was before Game Six of the 1986 NBA Finals, a game Bird has called the best game he ever played.
The 1986 season, when I was nine, was really the first year I can remember clearly watching the games, and Game Six produced perhaps my favorite Larry Bird moment.
The fourth quarter began with the Celtics in command. In fact, Bird already had a triple-double. All that was left was for Boston to deliver the absolute knock-out punch. Leave it to Larry.
After trading a few baskets early in the quarter with Houston, Boston led 84-61 and had the ball. Bird ran across the lane and took a pass underneath the hoop. Instead of putting up a shot from in close, he ran to the corner, dribbling around Bill Walton.
As the shot clock ticked down to two seconds, Bird made it to the corner, turned around, and buried a three pointer. The Garden crowd exploded. Game over, series over, and the Celtics had won title number 16.
Remember when Larry went for a Celtics’ record 60 points against the Hawks in 1985? As Quinn Buckner said, “Larry was so good that night, the Hawks were giving each other high fives.” And they were.
The story goes that Bird was on such a hot streak, he was calling his shots. And not just from spots on the floor, but on one play, he called, “three-pointer, trainer’s lap.” And he did it, hitting a three, while falling out of bounds, and landing in the Hawks’ trainer’s lap.
In addition to the Hawks falling off their bench at Larry’s exploits, what stands out to me is that only a few days earlier, Kevin McHale had set the Boston scoring record with 56 points. Afterwards, Bird told McHale he should have gone for 60. Nine days later, Bird did just that, which at least to me, raises the question—could Bird have scored like that any night he wanted when he was in his prime?
We know Bird liked to use little motivational tools to push him along during the regular season. Most notably was a game in 1986 where he told his teammates he was going to shoot left handed against Portland. Bird did not score all his points with his left hand, only 22 of his 47 were made shooting lefty. Lefty. Would that ever happen today?
That to me is what made Bird great. He may have been limited by slow feet and lack of jumping ability, but it didn’t matter. He believed he could do anything he wanted on the basketball court, and when he was healthy, he basically did.
Bird likely did not need any extra motivation before the deciding Game Five against the Indiana Pacers in the opening round of the 1991 playoffs. We always hear about Willis Reed, and while it did not occur in the Finals, Bird’s return in the second half after smacking his face on the court was just as heroic.
The second half of that game began without Larry on the court. Then, as Bird emerged from the tunnel at half court, Marv Albert announced, “And here comes Larry Bird.” I can still see Bird running over to the bench, and Dee Brown, who was a rookie at the time, not being sure if he should stand up and give up his seat to Larry.
Bird led the Celtics to victory that afternoon, with 32 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists. Afterward, Indiana’s LaSalle Thompson said of Bird, “The way [Bird] played today is the stuff you tell your kids about.”
I imagine I have rambled on long enough about Larry even though I feel like I have not even scraped the tip of the iceberg with all my favorite memories. What about his 49-point triple-double effort against Portland in his final season? I could clearly go on and on.
I’ll end with one last Larry story.
A few weeks ago I went to a friend’s house who had just bought a new sports game for the Nintendo Wii. One of the games was a three-point shooting contest that I had to play. Not because I was any good, but because it gave me another opportunity to think back on my childhood, where I spent hundreds of hours in my driveway, pretending to be Larry Bird, taking (although usually not making) all sorts of shots I had watched Larry make over the years.
And of course the three-point contest was Larry’s game. He famously said to the other participants before the 1986 contest, “I want all of you to know I am winning this thing. Who’s playing for second?” The image of Larry that may be most ingrained in my head is him, with his warm-up jacket still on, in the three-point contest.
In the final round of the ’88 contest, Bird made eight of his last 10 shots. With two shots to go, he trailed by one point. Hits the first, then, throws up the money ball. With the red, white, and blue ball still spinning through the air, Bird sticks his crooked right index finger straight into the air and walks off the court. He knew it was in before it even got there.
Larry’s career has long since ended, but thanks to my memories, and my DVD player, he can walk through that door anytime I want. On my 33rd, thank you to number 33.
(This article was originally posted on 4SportBoston.com)
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The Larry Bird: A Basketball Legend DVD is a must have for any Celtics fan. It is filled not only with great highlights, but some memorable quotes. Here are just a few
“Larry would make a bounce pass behind the back on the break and you would say to yourself, 'Where is that ball going.'” – M.L. Carr
“He’d do things out there that would just leave you shaking your head and smiling.” – Chris Ford
“He's so intelligent, he's got eyes all around his head.” – Johnny Most
“Bird, strips it, tips it, yeah.” – Mike Gorman
“Larry always said ‘I want it,’ besides everyone in the building knew who it was going to anyway.” – Robert Parish
“Well, there is a two-point difference and they are down, and Bird will come up with a three pointer. And you are waiting for it with bated breath.” - Johnny Most
“Somewhere, someone went into a cave in French Lick, Indiana. And there was a block of ice. And they chipped away and out popped this prehistoric basketball player Larry Bird.” - Tommy Heinsohn
“And I have been very blessed, having coached some of the greatest that have ever played the game. But if I had to start a team today, the greatest player and the one guy I would take would be Larry Bird.” – Red Auerbach
“They forgot, they forgot about Larry Bird that’s all.” - Danny Ainge, on Bird steals the ball against the Detroit Pistons in Game Five of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals
After the loss to the Lakers by 33 points in Game Three of the 1984 NBA Finals…
“We just played like a bunch of women tonight. … Until we get our hearts where they belong, we are in trouble.” – Larry Bird
“Larry was frustrated. He was disappointed, as we all were at getting blown out on national TV. But when he said guys played with no heart, I knew what would happen in the next game. Guys would do anything.” – M.L. Carr
(The Celtics would win Game Four in overtime, and the series in seven games. Game Four is remembered for Kevin McHale’s clothesline of Kurt Rambis).
On the 1986 Celtics...
“We just went out there with a job in mind. And we all knew what our jobs were. And when we went to work, it was like punching the clock. If I’m on the assembly line, and my job is to put the knob on the radio, I’m putting the knob on the radio. And the other guy is putting on the buttons and putting on the antenna, and Larry was the antenna man and we were the button men.” – Kevin McHale
“I think what made that team so special was its ability to play any kind of style . . . . And if nothing was working, just give it to Larry and he'd step back and shoot a three.” – Bill Walton
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