Larry Bird adjusting to new level,gaining wisdom


BROOKLINE, Mass. -- The conversation began as a discussion on the mental edge, that nebulous term often used to describe what separates the elite athlete from the rest.

Larry Bird is such an athlete. He got drafted, pulled on a Celtic jersey with the No. 33 and never looked back. He won three world championships, three MVP trophies. He has been to the JTC All-Star Game 10 times and was the NBA three-point king two of the three times he participated.

Soon he will become the fifth player in NBA history to surpass 20,000 points and 5,000 assists. The list of those who have

accomplished this indicates the select company Bird keeps: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Havlicek, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.

All of the above have retired. As they grew older, they learned to adjust to the fading away of familiar faces and the ushering in of newer, younger players eager to make their mark.

They also learned to deal with changes within themselves, the adjustments required to balance the years that crept up on them with a game that keeps moving along, with or without them.

That challenge may indeed be the toughest of all, and Bird is eager to put himself -- and this Celtic team -- to the test.

"I always respect an opponent, but I never fear anyone," said Bird. "I've always been taught that way. Playing a smart game accounts for a lot. Detroit plays smart. We have a team right now with a lot of talent. If Detroit plays their best, they might be the only team that can beat us at our best."

As predictions go, this is a bold one for Bird, who has repeatedly stated a season is lost unless it ends in a championship. He sees promise in this team, and is willing to step aside as the primary focus to make it work.

He has not been the same player since having the double heel surgery that forced him to miss all but six games of the 1988-89 season. In fact, he conceded Tuesday, his best years are behind him.

"The most frustrating thing is to play when you're not able to play at 100 percent every night," he said. "Even now, I'm not close to being the way I used to be. My confidence just isn't where it once was, and it probably never will be again. I thought last year I could get it all back, but it never happened."

He acknowledges that the surgery played a part in that. It also makes a difference that he is approaching 34, not 24.

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