On the pure pleasure of basketball Bird watching

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Larry Bird. Let me say that, again: L-a-r-r-y B-i-r-d.

This time of year, the name rolls around in gymnasiums like summer thunder. You hear it in restaurants and on elevators. In chants and awed whispers. You see it enshrined in The New Yorker. (Yes, The New Yorker.)

It sounds loudest of all to Boston fans like me, who have learned the sweet pleasures of watching Larry Bird.

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Here in Boston, the compliment offered by Herbert Warren Wind in The New Yorker -- ``Bird's arresting over-all concept of basketball and his sturdy execution of it have made the Celtics games tremendously exciting to watch'' -- seems like a quaint understatement.

The blond-haired forward with the phantom mustache, who recently became only the third man in history to win a National Basketball Association MVP award three times in a row, has pushed, pulled, inspired, and goaded his team into its third straight championship series appearance and the fourth in his seven pro seasons.

Or as former Celtic player and coach Tommy Heinsohn put it when he was summing up things to watch for in Game 4 of the finals:

``Larry Bird. Larry Bird. Larry Bird.''

Yes, we've heard names accorded such special status before. In recent times, Dwight Gooden comes to mind. More distantly, there's the name of Joe Namath. But I'm here to tell you that Larry Bird is different.

Bird is in a category all by himself.

The game he plays requires more than virtuosity: It demands a free-flowing versatility of offense and defense, of team and individual effort. And, throughout the minutiae of this endlessly complicated game, Larry Bird has raised the threshold of broad achievement.

The measure of this achievement was most recently evident to me in Game 2.

It was the fourth quarter. The Celtics had a commanding lead, maybe 20 points. They had never trailed. In fact, they had never been challenged. But I found myself sitting there watching with even more intensity and enjoyment than I got out of the far more closely contested and competitively thrilling fourth game.

What I was doing was watching Bird. And it was a little bit like those box-office-milking montages in every Rocky movie, where we see the athlete alone out there on the road in the predawn morning, in a meat locker slugging beef, tattooing the speed bag, or alone at night in the gym.

Bird executed maneuvers up and down the court -- steals, layups, blocked shots, and one spectacular inch-by-inch, back-your-man-into-position basket -- in a complete world of his own. You see Bird in such situations challenging himself, and it seems an extraneous question as to who else is around.

You're sitting there and you feel as if you're in an otherwise empty gym watching the man practice in a continuous effort to make himself even better.

It makes Boston better, too, I'd say.

I would grow quickly bored, for instance, living in Los Angeles and watching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar make his sky hook week after week. Even Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins can only offer the cities of Chicago and Atlanta a narrowly defined, although certainly spectacular, grace.

What Bird does for us in this city is provide the constant spectacle of an athlete working his way into every aspect of the game, learning as he goes, and teaching us, too, many of the small wonders of basketball.

So I'm gonna say it again:

Larry Bird.

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