BOSTON-- Larry Bird is gone and we are again reminded that at the upper level there is Good, Great, Superstar and Truly Irreplaceable. And inside Truly Irreplaceable there is one further subsection, wherein reside the athletes whose ultimate gift to the sports fan is a vision, a feel, an actual inspiration that is so rare and so highly developed that when these individuals cease playing, they leave a spiritual void that threatens the True Believer's subsequent appreciation of the game.
Bobby Orr fans know what I'm talking about.
Bird aficionados will soon empathize.
Here is what Larry Bird has meant to the Boston basketball aficionado. Imagine:
You are an art student, a total art freak. Into your classroom walks Michelangelo.
You are passionately in love with the novel. Into your classroom walks Professor Tolstoy.
You are enraptured by music. Classical music. Show music. All music. Into your classroom walks Professor Bernstein.
Does that help?
Larry Bird was the individual microcosm of everything good about both basketball and sport itself. He possessed the full range of requisite skills; an unsurpassed work ethic; a simple, direct value system; a thorough understanding of team dynamics; an appreciation that fans have a symbiotic relationship with athletes; an overt joie de vivre that always suggested to those watching that, however hard he might be working, the enterprise was still meant to be fun; and, finally, the rarest of all athletic gifts -- namely, the capacity to anticipate the consequences of every participant's actions.
Larry Bird could, in theory, teach the proper technique of shooting a basketball. He could teach a young player how to get position under the basket for a rebound. He could teach someone how to slide into the passing lane at the right moment on defense. He could impart his theories about the proper responsibilities a player has to teammates, coaches, fans, owners and even the press. He could relate how much he loved the game. He could give someone a workout schedule.
He could open up the head of another talented 6-foot-9 kid and pour into it every bit of his vast experience. But he could never make anyone into another Larry Bird.
It is deliciously ironic that once upon a time the prevailing perception was that Larry Bird was stupid. Indeed, he himself propagated the nickname, "hick from French Lick." People had confused polish with intelligence. Larry Bird was never stupid. Larry Bird had simply managed to evade the American educational system. He comes from Orange County, Ind., where proud people who see life from an entirely different perspective do not always put a premium on formal education. As much as anyone could be, Larry Bird is a product of his environment.
The double negatives and the "ain'ts" masked a great native intelligence. No one could play basketball at the Bird level without being intelligent. On the rare occasions that coaches have had to tell Larry Bird anything at all, they have had to mention it only once.
Larry Bird was smart, all right, and he absorbed everything. As the years went on, he had to work harder and harder to maintain the French Lick image. The worst thing that could ever happen to Larry Bird would be go home and have someone say, "Larry, you've changed." But he had changed, of course, and all for the better.
Not that intelligence per se makes for a great ballplayer. Some of the dumbest players who have ever laced up a sneaker came out of the Ivy League. Without it, no one can be truly great, but intelligence alone can't sink a 20-footer with two guys hanging on your arm.
Instinct is closer to the Bird-Orr gift, but it's something more than that, too. A lot of players have what people would refer to as good instincts. No, it goes even deeper than that.
What separates the Truly Irreplaceable from even the Superstars is a quality that takes intelligence and instinct and savoir faire and ties them into some unspoken empathy with the fans. The Truly Irreplaceable are perceived to be accessible. More than any player in the last 30 years, Larry Bird connected with fans.
He was the absolute master at utilizing the press to get his message across to the fans. He firmly believed that fans played a tangible role in a team's success. If he thought the Boston Garden was getting a bit library-like over a period of games, he would plant a comment designed to enliven the place the following night. "All I ask of the fans," he once said, "is to be vocal, to keep it loud, to pick it up if they see we're getting a little fatigued and to get us over the hump."
They invariably responded.
If he's not the greatest player of all time, he's in the Holy Trinity (with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan), and there will be plenty of time to debate that. The legacy of Larry Bird is that he was the purest player we have ever known. There were no secrets between Bird and his constituency. He put his art and his heart on a platter every night for all to see.
Now we have the toughest task yet. We must try to watch a basketball game without wishing he were in it.