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Rare Bird makes the difference for sizzling Celtics

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Even Celtic general manager Red Auerbach, who watched NBA games for 35 years, expresses amazement with some of Larry's moves. Auerbach called one basket in Boston's series-opening victory over Houston "the greatest play I've ever seen." Bird swooped in after his own missed shot, grabbed the rebound in his left, nonshooting hand, and scored while sailing out of bounds.

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"It was luck," he said later.

Unusual and spectacular, maybe, but lucky? No one who who regularly catches Bird in action would agree. Why just two nights later, the all-Star forward executed another indescribably delicious move.

It's worth risking a description, though. Bolting downcourt on a fast break, he took a hot-potato return pass. In finding the handle, he flew from one side of the basket to the other, finally scoring on a reverse left-handed layup. The crowd erupted as it so often does these days.

The 6 ft. 9 in. forward has truly become a folk legend, the kind every team hopes for, but few teams ever get.

Auerbach gets the credit for having had the foresight to realize how much Bird could mean to the Celtics. He drafted Larry after his junior year at Indiana State, a gamble that paid off even though Boston had no guarantee it could sign him at the end of his senior season and before another draft.

After arduous contract negotiations, however, he inked a pact reportedly worth $650,000 a year, the most lucrative deal ever for an NBA rookie.

That put lot of pressure on the young kid dubbed "the hick from French Lick [ Ind.]." Skeptics wondered how he would adjust to the fast-paced NBA game. He is , after all, something of an anomaly, a player with only average speed and jumping ability playing alongside high-leaping greyhounds.

Bird says he makes up for his relative slowness "by being smart." One former NBA coach says Larry seems to be a thought ahead of everyone else on every offensive play. Other compensating assets are his tremendous hand quickness and toughness.

With his blond mane, a barely discernable blond mustache, and the pale complexion of a matinee-loving moviegoer, Bird doesn't necessarily look like a basketball leatherneck, but he is one. His coach, Bill Fitch, calls him "as tough and as rugged as they come."

A totally unaffected star, much as Dave Cowens was, Bird has come along at a time when Boston needs a hero. Cowens and John Havlicek have retired from the Celtics, ex-Bruin Bobby Orr is gone from hockey, and Carl Yastrzemski is playing out the string with the Red Sox.Outfielder Jim Rice could potentially rival Bird in popularity if he played on a better team. But then again, though not a great interview, Bird hasn't antagonized the press the way Rice has.

No one begrudges Larry the attention he receives, probably because he doesn't seem to bask in it. He simply goes out and plays hard in an arena filled to 97 percent of capacity this season, a club record. Officially, it's the Boston Garden, but don't be surprised if they start calling it "Bird's Cage" soon.