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.
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.
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.
"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.