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BIRD'S FLIGHT IS OVER Celtics' legendary forward retires after 13 seasons


NEW YORK -- Ending a legendary career that left a monumental impact on the game he loved, Larry Bird announced his retirement from basketball yesterday.

A chronic back condition that hindered Bird the past two seasons forced him to leave the game at age 35, after 13 memorable seasons with the Boston Celtics. He will remain with the team as a special assistant to the team's executive vice president, Dave Gavitt.

But the excruciating back pain that Bird endured this summer while playing with the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team persuaded him to face the inevitable.

"The last couple of years have been very tough on me, on my back and on my body," Bird said at a hastily called news conference in Boston. "It was very hard to deal with, day in and day out. Unfortunately, it all came down to this. I would have

liked to have played a little bit longer, maybe a year or two more, but there was just no way possible I was going to be able to do that. So, today, I'm retiring."

The magnitude of Bird's announcement was immediately felt not only by the Celtics, but also by the NBA and the entire sports world.

During his brilliant career, Bird did more than just win championships, throw remarkable passes and make clutch shots.

Bird, along with Magic Johnson, was responsible for triggering the NBA's enormous rise in popularity during the 1980s, a trend that has been continued by Michael Jordan into the 1990s.

Johnson and Bird burst into the national spotlight in 1979, when Johnson's Michigan State team defeated Bird's Indiana State team in the NCAA championship game.

The Bird-Johnson battle continued into the NBA, with Johnson joining the Los Angeles Lakers and Bird joining the Celtics. The rivalry between Bird and Johnson, and the rivalry between the Celtics and the Lakers, captivated fans nationwide, as did the remarkable play of Bird and Johnson.

Bird was not a great leaper nor was he extraordinarily quick. But he dominated games with his uncanny court savvy, his great vision, his pinpoint passing, his deadly outside shooting and his will to win.

And like Johnson, who is also 6 feet 9 inches, Bird had the versatility to pass and dribble like a point guard, to shoot like a shooting guard, to drive like a small forward and to rebound like a forward or a center.

And Bird was always true to the game and to himself -- diving on the floor for loose balls, playing through injuries, never allowing his teammates or himself to coast.

Bird became as much a part of the Celtics' tradition and mystique as the Boston Garden itself.

And with a resume that includes three NBA titles, three most valuable player awards, 11 All-Star games and a 1992 Olympic gold medal, Bird will be remembered as one of the greatest basketball players ever.

"There is no way to quantify the impact that Larry Bird has had on the game of basketball," said NBA commissioner David Stern in a statement released yesterday. "With his intensity, dedication, competitiveness and will to win, he has been the ultimate team player in the quintessential team sport.

"Quite simply," Stern added, "Larry Bird has helped to define the way a generation of basketball fans has come to view and appreciate the NBA.

"In the future, great players will be judged against the standards he has set, but there will never be another Larry Bird."

Bird said he did not decide to retire until this week, after consulting with his doctors and giving his situation more thought. But he has suffered with back pain for two years, and he continued to suffer even after he underwent back surgery in the summer of 1991.

Bird said he felt good when last season began, but he reinjured his back last December during a fall in practice and he has not been healthy since.

One day during the Olympics while suffering intense pain, Bird said, he looked out the window of his hotel room and realized the end of his career was near.

"I said, 'God, if you let me get through this, I won't play no more,' " Bird said.

In the end, the Olympics turned out to be the final appearance of his career.

"I didn't know for sure, but I think everybody sensed the way I went about the games over there that they would probably be my last games," he said. "I just wanted to be a part to a great team, and I was. I didn't know my career was over at that time, but I looked around and smelled the roses. I'm very happy I had a chance to play for my country and win a gold medal."

Johnson, who announced his retirement from the NBA last November after contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is considering a comeback with the Lakers next season.

Asked to speculate on Johnson's future, Bird smiled and said, "I'm going to say today that he's coming back next year. He didn't tell me that, but since he got me in trouble I'm going to get him in trouble."

But Bird said he would make no comeback of his own, even if his back improves. Bird would not even consider playing a partial schedule, as Johnson may do.

"There has been a lot of speculation that they want me to come back and play home games, that they want me to play a 42-game season, but that's not the way I approach things," Bird said.

"I try to play every game, every minute. I just couldn't see myself doing that.

"Whatever you hear, from now, to next year, to the next year, I will not be coming back to play basketball. I've discussed it with my doctors and they assured me this was the right decision, something that had to be done. At this time, this was probably the best thing that could've happened to me. I'm excited to be going to a new life, but I'm going to miss this life."

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