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Bird won't stiff U.S., but how about future?


PORTLAND, Ore. -- First, the crowd chanted, "We want Bird," then "Larry! Larry!" A fan held a green street sign that said, "Larry Bird Ave." The video scoreboard showed the great Boston Celtics warrior on the bench, and the crowd exploded.

Larry Bird did not play in the Tournament of the Americas last night, did not play because of his chronic sore back. Naturally, the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team won without him, but its 105-61 victory over Canada was a given.

Bird's return next season is not.

Will he or won't he? At this point, not even Bird knows. The discomfort that forced him to sit out last night is the same discomfort that forced him to miss nearly half of last season. He turns 36 in December. Many expect him to retire after Barcelona.

Basketball fans everywhere cringe over that possibility, and the ones at the Portland Memorial Coliseum last night groaned when the public address announcer informed them that Bird was not playing due to "mild discomfort" in his back.

First, Magic.

Now, Bird.

It's almost too much.

Bird, though, wasn't the only one injured last night. Patrick Ewing made a surprising return after missing one game with a dislocated right thumb, but John Stockton suffered a fractured right leg after getting kneed accidentally by Michael Jordan.

Stockton is lost for the tournament, yet the crowd barely noticed he was missing. Bird, on the other hand, couldn't recall getting such a warm reception in Portland. "They always call my name out," the 13-year NBA veteran said, "but they usually don't say nice things."

All things considered, he was in jovial spirits. He strolled into his post-game media briefing and announced with a big smile "day to day." Then, when he nearly stumbled off the podium sitting down, he added, "year to year."

"I'm on a team that still wins by 50 even if I don't play," Bird said. "It's easier sitting with them than it is with the Celtics. With the Celtics, I always want to fight through it, and I get in trouble."

Thus, he sat last night as a precaution. Bird scored 17 points on 7-for-8 shooting in the Dream Team's 136-57 victory over Cuba on Sunday. He looked relaxed and comfortable, but afterward the familiar stiffness returned.

Coach Chuck Daly said the decision to rest him was in "everyone's best interests," and Bird agreed. It's uncertain whether he'll play tonight against Panama (Charles Barkley: "We're going to get the canal back!"). But it's no great concern.

The Dream Team opened sloppily last night, and led only 31-24 after 13 minutes. But Barkley (19 points) and Karl Malone (15) helped extend the lead to 50-33 by intermission. A highlight-filled 21-7 run to open the second half put the game away.

Why the slow start?

Bird smiled.

"Different team, different day, I wasn't playing."

Whatever, the United States outscored Canada 55-28 in the second half, without Stockton, without Bird. At one point, five fans in blue USA jerseys stood behind the Dream Team bench, each holding a placard.

"Hey Chuck," the placards read. "Let us play."

Bird said he could have played if the gold medal was at stake, or -- keep a straight face now -- if the game was in jeopardy. But he underwent surgery last summer, and the "Will he or won't he?" watch kept New England riveted all season.

"I'll tell you in September," is Bird's stock answer, but it's difficult to imagine him tolerating another season of pain. This is one of the game's legends, a winner of three straight MVPs from 1984-86. After Barcelona, he should just say goodbye.

Bird, of course, won't commit himself just yet. He described his latest ailment as "very minor," and said he was taking over-the-counter medicine for pain relief. It was the usual story. He didn't seem particularly upset.

"Usually in this situation, I keep playing for three or four games, and then I can't play any more," Bird said. "What we're doing is holding back, taking every precaution. I'm trying to get to Barcelona healthy. If I can get through this, I'll be all right."

Meanwhile, the fans clamor.

Larry, they're saying, please don't go.

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