BOSTON - Here's how great the career was: Boston's Dee Brown says the Portland performance on March 15 of this year was the greatest game he's ever seen, and no one is even talking about it.
That's because once upon a time, 49 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists, four steals and 54 minutes of playing time was just a pretty fair night's work for Larry Bird. Weren't like it was anything special.
Forgive Dee. He's just a kid in the Celtics' lineup. He didn't see Larry when Larry was, well, fictional.
May 22, 1988, for example.
That was the afternoon when Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins strapped 'em on in the fourth quarter and told the wimmin and young'uns to take cover if they knew what was good fer 'em.
Dominique was great. Scored 16 in the fourth. Larry was greater. Scored 20. Shot 9 for 10. Carried the Celtics into the Eastern Conference finals for the last time.
"We were sitting on the bench and saying it was like the Shootout at the OK Corral," said Reggie Lewis.
Which it was. Of course, there was never any doubt who would come out on top, either.
"Hell," said Bird, "this is my building."
Larry always talked that way. He liked to have a little fun, sure, but he always stuck that chest out because he believed he ought to be good because he had put in the hours, had taken the hundreds and thousands of jump shots and had stayed at the gym long after everyone else had gone home.
Don't ever think Larry didn't honestly believe he was good.
Remember 1981? Philly Game 7? Maybe as emotional a game as the Garden has ever witnessed? Score tied, minute or so left, Darryl Dawkins turns in (gets mugged, say the Sixer guys, not without reason), misses the shot. Bird pulls down the rebound, dribbles upcourt, pulls up and calmly banks that exquisite 18-footer.
"I don't know what happened," Bird said, "but I wanted the ball in my hands. That's the only place I wanted it."
That was Larry. Then. Later. Even, yes, now. He didn't retire last week because he can't play. He quit because his body won't let him play often enough. "You know," he said one June night in Portland, "when I'm healthy, I can still play."
Larry knew he was good, all right, and that's why he lived for the big games. He didn't always come through; no one does. But he came through more often than most people.
Greatest Bird game? You crazy? Does Julia Child rate the greatest souffles?
Some of Bird's best games were explosions. Others were symphonies. Still others were expert and unobtrusive, but vital background music. Check out, for example, Michael Jordan's epic 63-pointer on tape someday. Then pay attention to Bird's 36 timely points, his 12 rebounds and his eight assists. Then remember who won the game.
The NBA career officially began on Oct. 12, 1979, against the Houston Rockets. The Celtics won 114-106. Bird played 28 minutes and had 14 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Bill Fitch knew the kid was special.
Bird began his professional career with a major physical problem. A softball mishap the previous spring (after the end of the college season but before he signed his contract) had mangled his right index finger. He played the exhibition season and that first game against Houston with the injured finger heavily taped to the middle finger. He changed the taping method after one night (then went out and scored 28 in Cleveland) and tore the tape off completely in Game 12 against Kansas City, saying, "I've got to stop babying myself."
He played his entire career with that misshapen finger and he never again babied himself. (if indeed he ever did). As the injuries mounted, culminating in the back ailment that eventually brought him down for good, one thing became perfectly obvious, and that was that Larry Bird believed in earning his pay.
"Nobody in my 42 years in Boston ever played hurt the way he did," Red Auerbach said last week.
Bird would have his face pounded in by a Harvey Catchings elbow, he would injure his elbow, he would hurt his knees, he would have his nose broken, he would have his face damaged again (being forced to wear goggles), he would lose a season to double heel surgery and he would struggle with a chronic bad back. But for 13 years he would refuse to give in, and he would continue to amaze everyone with his phenomenal ability to miss long periods of time and come back as if he had just stepped away for a drink of water. That's why he was Larry Bird.
During his first seven years he missed 13 games. Even the fractured cheekbone in 1982 kept him out for only five. Those first seven seasons encompassed the meat of his career. He won three Most Valuable Player prizes, a Rookie of the Year Award, an All-Star Game MVP and a playoff MVP. He played in seven All-Star games and was named to the first-team All-NBA squad all seven years. Most important, he played on three championship teams.
The spectacular became totally routine. He would register triple-doubles, drill three-pointers in traffic, make passes through openings that didn't exist and dominate ballgames because he possessed both skill and bravado. The teammates just stood back and watched.
On March 29, 1983, the Celtics went to Indianapolis and suffered a 29-point defeat. Larry always hated losing, but he hated losing in front of fellow Hoosiers even more. The two teams were meeting the following night in Boston.
"We're sitting here before the game," said Rick Robey, "and he said he was gonna get 40 points. Then the son of a buck goes and gets 50."
Fifty-three, to be precise.
On March 3, 1985, Kevin McHale scored 56 points against the Detroit Pistons to establish a franchise record. Bird continually fed McHale down the stretch so he might get the record.
Somebody asked Bird how long the record might last.
"It might stand until the next game," he laughed.
Close. The record lasted nine days. On March 12, at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, Bird scored 60 points against Atlanta. "It's Kevin's own fault," Bird kidded. "He should have gone for 60, and I told him that."
About the performance, which included one shot so outrageous that three Hawks tumbled off the end of the bench in disbelief, Bird said, "If I'm shooting like that, nobody's going to stop me."
There were a lot of nights when Bird shot like that in those days. Though he would be protesting right through the Barcelona Olympics that "there's more to the game than scoring points," he did, in fact, love to shoot and he took enormous pride in his ability to place rival jaws on the floor with his scoring exploits.
From '84-85 through '87-88, he averaged 28.7, 25.8, 28.1 and 29.9 points per game. He could dominate games with passing and rebounding and, on occasion, defensive disruption (see 1986 Houston Game 6), but what he did to send opponents back to the bar asking for a a double most often was scorch them with points.
He wasn't thinking about passes while jawing with the Cleveland fans in the 1985 playoffs, for example. This was a vintage Bird episode, for it involved two great Bird staples. 1. Triumph over injury 2. Putting his money where his mouth was.
Larry's right elbow was kicking up so badly he was forced to miss Game 3, a Cleveland triumph. The Cavaliers' fans chanted "We want Larry!" Kevin McHale wasn't sure this was a propitious development. "I have a feeling they're going to get him, and they aren't going to be happy when they do," McHale observed.
"They'll see," confirmed Bird. "Now - they want me? I'm gonna throw both barrels at 'em. If they want me, they're going to get me."
Bird hit them with 34 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. The Celtics won the game and closed out the series.
Larry always loved challenges, whether they were long-term or short-term. Angered and frustrated after the Celtics were swept in 1983 by Milwaukee, Bird vowed to return in the best shape of his life with a better game. "Everybody's blaming the coach," he said, "but the players just didn't get the job done."
A year later he and his teammates beat Los Angeles for another title. This was the wonderful series enlivened by such happenings as the great Gerald Henderson game-saving steal in Game 2, the celebrated McHale takedown of Kurt Rambis in Game 4, the Heat Game (97 degrees in the Garden at game time) and the Bird declaration that the team had played like "sissies" in Game 3.
Bird had 29 points and 21 rebounds in Game 4 and 34 points while shooting 15 for 20 from the floor in the cauldron that was Boston Garden in Game 5. "Larry Bird is the leader of this team," said Danny Ainge. "Tonight he set the tempo for everybody. That kind of confidence is contagious."
A healthy Bird always had that confidence. In 1986 the team returned home for Game 6 against the Rockets after having been physically abused in Houston. "I'm going to have a good game," he said on the eve of the game. "I know that. Rebounding's a problem, so I'm gonna rebound. I don't have to score a bunch of points, 'cause everybody's got to get involved. I think everything's gonna be just fine."
It was. Bird's 29 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists do not begin to convey his complete hostile takeover of this game. Basketball has seldom been played with more passion and purpose than it was by Larry Bird that day.
In their hearts, Celtics fans expected that level of performance from him every in every game. They did so because they knew he would try to produce it. They will love again, but it will never again be like this.