Centers, big mobile centers like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, are what turn losing pro basketball franchises around overnight. Everybody knows that, because who else is in such a natural position to control the backboards, start the fast break, make the big plays on defense, and lead by example.
This never changes, except there is a 6 ft. 9 in. rookie on the Boston Celtics this season who has added a new dimension to playing forward that isn't in any of the testbooks.
The name is Larry Bird, the dimension is an intangible one called stabilization, and the proof is the team's 52-15 record, the best in the National Basketball Association. Bird isn't primarily a scorer but a gifted passer able to find openings where none seem to exist and whose 10-plus rebounds a game put him ahead of established stars like Julius Erving and Marques Johnson.
In turning the Celtics bolt upright, Larry would be the first to admit that he has had plenty of help from a rejuvenated Dave Cowens, an injury-free nate Archibald, and a cast of role players. Nevertheless, his contribution has been no more important than the ignition is to a car.
"I call the guy Kodak," says Boston Coach Bill Fitch, "because his mind takes an instant picture of the whole court. He sees everything; he reacts well to almost any situation; and his overall game is so balanced that he can help you without scoring in big numbers.
"Like any rookie who has been thrust into a key position, there are still mingled periods when Bird doesn't play that well," Fitch continued. "That's why we get out the videotape after every home game and show people their mistakes. Sure I get on Bird, but no more than I get on any of my players."
Although Larry's talent is visible enough, people are still learning about the man. His inner personality is not easy to read. He is never going to volunteer much, and since headlines don't seem to interest him, the burden of trying to loosen him up is always going to be on the interviewer.
"The toughest thing for me to get used to so far is how often a team, even a good team, can lose in the pros," Bird explained. "In college it was different, you had time between games to prepare for your next opponent. But in the National Basketball Association, you sometimes play four games in four nights.
"I didn't want to sign with a team that wanted me to put the ball up 25 times a game and be a big scorer," Larry continued. "That's not my game and that's not my kind of basketball. Anyway, when I saw in training camp that the Celtics emphasis would be on team play, I knew I was in the right place."
Those who like to paint Bird as a country bumpkin (the hick from French Lick, Ind.) are missing the point that he likes it that way. He will give low-key interviews after practices and after games, but there are certain things in his personal life that he will not talk about.
one of them is how much the Celtics paid him to get his name on a contract (the most frequently reported figure is $3 million for five years). He also ducks questions about a finger he injured last summer playing softball that has forced him to change the way he shot in college and cut down on his range.
Bird is the kind of unselfish player who, when he controls the ball, looks to make the pass to the open man first and then, if it's not there, takes the shot. He also has the rare ability to get rebounds inside without jumping.
But sometimes, Fitch says, Bird passes up shots that he should be taking. "I hate to criticize a guy who is unselfish, but when Larry gives up a good shot to get the ball to somebody on our team who doesn't have one, that's dumb.
"I've also had to caution Bird about fouling when we were so far ahead that he didn't need to foul," Fitch continued. "But I am impressed by the fact that he's still saying the same things he did earlier, about just wanting to win and about being overpaid."
Bird's chances of being NBA Rookie of the Year, as opposed to Laker's Magic Johnson and the Knicks' Bill Cartwright, will probably depend on two things. The final decision could turn on where the Celtics finish and whether Larry, in what remains of the season, can get his scoring average above 20 points per game.
Johnson, because so much of his game is flash and because he has abdul-Jabbar to finish off his plays for him, has probably already won the battle of the media.
Cartwright, partly because he's a center and partly because he plays in New York, will not go unnoticed. In fact, both Johnson and Cartwright are very talented people.
But for the basketball purist, Bird's unfettered game has a special attraction.