Larry Bird is completing his fifth year of pro basketball, but to those who follow the game he remains an enigma. Simply put, the 6 ft. 9 in. forward of the Boston Celtics is a very private person. He accepts all the attention that goes with his superstar status, but he makes it clear he would much rather just play his game and let it go at that.
Headlines, publicity, his picture on the cover of a national magazine - none of these things generates the kind of excitement that would kindle the emotions of an ordinary man. What does interest him is winning - as part of a team.
With a four-games-to-one victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Celtics have claimed a spot in the National Basketball Association finals. Now they await the winner of the Western Conference championship series, in which the Los Angeles Lakers lead the Phoenix Suns 3-2 entering tonight's sixth game.
Whichever club wins the West knows its chief worry will be stopping Bird, the Boston catalyst. For when he isn't scoring, he's beating you some other way, all while making better players of those around him.
Don't look for great running speed from Bird. Don't look for a leaper near the basket in the mold of David Thompson, either. There are also several higher scorers in the league, but there might not be a better clutch shooter when the game is on the line in the fourth period.
What Bird probably does better than anyone else is create a winning environment. Like Bob Cousy, whose peripheral vision and court awareness allowed him to know where everyone around him was at all times, Larry is a great passer. He makes scoring plays that most cornermen wouldn't recognize if they saw them on a blackboard.
''I don't know what it is about Bird that makes him so special,'' former teammate Dave Cowens once said. ''But it's something mental that other players with more physical talent don't have . . . When it comes to creating good situations for other people, he's almost in a class by himself.''
When Boston was swept by Milwaukee in last year's Eastern Conference semifinals, Bird often performed like a man who had grown weary by playing too many minutes during the regular season. His usually impeccable timing was off just enough to affect his entire game.
K. C. Jones, who replaced Bill Fitch as Boston's coach at the start of this season, said he planned to monitor Bird's floor time more carefully - the idea being to avoid wasting Larry's talents in games clearly won or lost.
Well, it didn't work out exactly as planned. Bird actually played 46 more regular season minutes this year. However, once Boston clinched its division title, K. C. found more bench time for his top player.
The rest may have been a factor, too, in the seventh game of the Celtics-New York Knicks series, in which Larry scored a career playoff high 39 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, and handed out 10 assists. Bird even maintained a higher scoring average than New York's heralded Bernard King in that series, as well as outrebounding him 74 to 34.
But if there is anyone that Bird the millionaire frustrates more than his opponents, it is the great fashion designers of this world. Larry's idea of haute couture is worn sweat pants, a tattered practice jersey, and a baseball cap. He always looks like a guy who is either coming back from fishing or is about to assault some river bank.
Asked to explain himself, Bird once told a national magazine: ''I'm not the smartest guy in life, but on a basketball court I consider myself an A-plus. Not that I'm dumb. . . I just don't explain myself to people very often. I like to keep 'em guessing. The way they take me is the way they take me.''
One way to judge a celebrity like Bird is to watch how his teammates take him. While they obviously respect his ability, they even more obviously like him as a person, particularly his sense of humor, which surfaces mostly during team bus trips and in locker rooms.
If the favored Lakers make the finals, maybe the best part of this year's NBA championship series from a fan's point of view would be the matchup between Bird and Michael Cooper.
The 6-7 Cooper, a combination guard-forward, is a member of the league's all-defensive team. He is a jumping jack who could give Superman lessons in leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Bird vs. Cooper would be pro basketball's ultimate version of the mongoose against the cobra, guaranteed to be boffo at the box office.