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Rare Bird makes the difference for sizzling Celtics

By Ross AtkinSports writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 11, 1981

If Magic Johnson turned the National Basketball Association playoffs into a stage last year, Boston's Larry Bird has surely made them an aviary this season.

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His contributions to the Celtic cause make him the prime MVP candidate for the playoffs and a serious contender for the overall league honor, to be announced later this month.

Bird has averaged approximately 23 points and 14 rebounds per game, both team highs, in postseason play. Superior performances became such a "given" for him during earlier playoff wins over Chicago and Philadelphia that a 19-point outing against Houston in the current best-of-seven championship series almost seemed an "off" night.

As impressive as his statistics are, they can't adequately explain the Bird phenomenon, which is about the best way to describe his play and the impact it's had on the Celtics. On a basketball court, Bird is a charismatic figure. As with most great players, his mere presence elevates the level of play of those around him.

In college, he worked his magic at Indiana State, a school never known as a national power. As a senior in 1979 he led the Sycamores to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the national championship game, won by Michigan State, which had its own Magic man in Earvin Johnson.

With the Celtics, the "Bird difference" was just as clear as it had been back in Terre Haute. The previous season's College Player of the Year turned around the franchise, lifting it from a last-place finish in '79 to a division title in 1980, and emerged as the NBA's Rookie of the Year.

Bird is a three-mints-in-one player, a tremendous scorer, rebounder, and passer, who has the Haylicek-ian knack for doing his best work when the game is on the line.

Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, a former ballhandling wizard for the Celtics and the commentator on the team's local telecasts, says Bird "has exceptional passing ability, the best I've ever seen."

His willingness to use his skill, sometimes even more than he should, has earned Bird a reputation as one of the game's most unselfish superstars.

Eric Fernsten, a little-used Boston reserve, marvels at Larry's altruism. "When you sit next to the coach night after night," he told Sport magazine, "and you hear him yell at Bird, 'Shoot it! Shoot it!' that's got to register with you. That kind of unselfishness is rare, very rare, and very nice."

Larry once described his passing philosophy this way: "I just think when a man is open, he should get the ball whether it's 30 feet out on the wing or underneath."

Bird makes passes that others wouldn't dream of trying, but he's anything but an inveterate showboat. As with other part of his game, he picks the most expedient means to achieve the desired result. Entertainment may occasionally be a byproduct of this style, yet winning games remains his sole objective.

Part of the beauty of Bird then lies in his ability to play fundamentally sound basketball that wins games and fans.