Imaginations soared with the best Bird


Larry Bird retired yesterday, and his basketball headstone should read: "He expanded our imagination."

That was his elemental appeal. It was the same with Magic Johnson. They made you understand that anything was possible on a basketball court.

A point guard such as Magic could lead his team in rebounding and even play center if he had to. A big, rough forward such as Bird could pass and shoot three-pointers as deftly as the trickiest little guard.

That could not really happen, could it? Yes, just watch Bird do it. Magic, too. (This is supposed to be just about Bird, but it is getting almost impossible to separate him from his friend and rival.)

Michael Jordan is a better player than both, probably the best ever, but his astounding air act is descended from Julius Erving and Gus Johnson. Bird and Magic descended from no one. Their combinations of size and skill had never been seen when they arrived together in the NBA in 1979.

Oh, Oscar Robertson was a point guard who could play big and Elgin Baylor was a forward who could play small, but, with all due respect, neither approached Bird or Magic as a position-bender. As a stirrer of the imagination. So big, and out there throwing no-look passes.

Bird played inside, but he always led the Celtics in assists. The point guard dribbled the ball up-court, but Bird directed the offense from the lane. He proved there was room for such an anomaly as a play-making "point forward."

He also always led the Celtics in steals, which were the domain of bumblebee guards until Bird proved that a big man, a top rebounder, also could have quick hands and instincts for thievery.

And shooting range -- goodness. We are talking about a 6-foot-9 power forward who is maybe the best three-point shooter in NBA history, if you quantify it with accuracy, volume and the ability to hit when it counted.

Never has a big man shot from such range with such ability. And confidence.

When the NBA made the three-point contest part of its All-Star weekend, Bird won the first three. He was the last player to show up in the locker room that second year. The other contestants were waiting to take the floor.

"OK," he said as he changed into his uniform, "who's finishing second?"

When the contest came down to the final moments that third year, Bird needed to make his last shot to win. He turned his back before his shot touched the net, raising his arms in triumph.

Those stories deliver the essence of Bird: wry, honest, tough, cocky because he had every right to be.

It took years for that personality to emerge publicly, which is perhaps the greatest difference between his career and Magic's.

From the first dribble, Magic was all smile and bubbles. Bird, from a small town in Indiana, was shy, distrustful of strangers and embarrassed about his accent and country ways. He did not speak to the press as a college senior. His game was his appeal in his early pro years.

But then he began growing up and speaking out, no doubt comforted by his immediate and immense impact. He was the best and knew it, and wound up among the game's best interviews: blunt, unable to throw softballs.

At the end, he was among the most self-confident athletes anywhere. He did not need an attention-getting farewell tour or a sentimental last All-Star performance. He just retired, turning down millions the Celtics were ready to give him.

But he was tired of playing in pain, not being himself. He was not the Bird of legend the past four years, when injuries to his heels and back reduced him. He still could deliver, just not nearly as often.

Few will remember that Bird, anyway. They will remember the Bird of the mid-'80s. The best Bird. The Bird who scored 20 in the fourth quarter in Game 7 of a 1987 playoff series against Atlanta. The Bird who shot 15 of 20 in a pivotal game of the 1984 championship series. The Bird who made 71 straight free throws.

They will remember the Bird who made the best single NBA play in recent memory: stealing an inbounds pass and throwing the ball to Dennis Johnson for the winning basket just before the buzzer of Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against Detroit.

That one play summed up the player perfectly. Here was a big man also doing things that little men did, and doing them when it mattered, and doing them with unadorned elegance. Stretching the boundaries of basketball convention.

"There goes the mold," Knicks coach Pat Riley said yesterday when he heard that Bird was retiring.

Of course, a mold implies that there are others like him.

There are not.

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