Unflappable Larry Bird: basketball star with the blue-collar work ethic

When the game gets tight, says Kevin McHale, the Boston Celtics have learned to do two things, ''play good defense and look for Larry.'' Needless to say, McHale is talking about teammate Larry Bird, a player seemingly impervious to pressure. A case in point came during a recent game with Phoenix.

After the Suns went up one with a second left, Boston called time out. Apparently convinced there was no escaping this jam, a Phoenix player chided Bird as the teams returned to the floor. Aroused, Larry told the needler he would hit the game-winning shot. And he did, too, from 25 feet out.

Last week he blitzed the New Jersey Nets with 13 points in the last 41/2 minutes. And if you want to go back two years, there's the memory that will live in Celtic history.

With Boston hanging on to a slim lead in Game 6 of the National Basketball Association championship series, Bird did the almost unthinkable, firing up a corner jumper from three-point land. But the ball swished through, breaking Houston's momentum and paving the way to the Celtics' 14th NBA title.

What constantly amazes Boston Coach Bill Fitch is that Larry still has something to show you long after other players have milked their games dry.

And it's not that Bird paces himself or picks his spots. For the consistency of his overall game sets him apart and perhaps makes him the best player in the game today.

In fact, writers who regularly cover the NBA selected Bird as the league's best player in a recent poll conducted by the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He finished ahead of Moses Malone, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Malone, however, is the NBA's reigning MVP and its highest paid player, neither of which bothers Bird a bit. On the contrary, Larry was happy when Philadelphia signed Malone to a $13 million contract before the season.''He deserved it, and it can't do anything but help everybody else in the league,'' Bird observed.

And what does the Boston forward think about having to face Moses more often now that he's in the Atlantic Division? ''Well, if you like competition it's fun.'' Bird, of course, is as competitive as they come.

K. C. Jones, an assistant coach, caught a glimpse of his battling nature on Bird's first day in rookie camp four years ago. The summer workouts are held on asphalt courts and Jones didn't really expect Larry to risk life and limb going after the first loose ball. But he did it. ''Now that surprised me,'' Jones said. ''Since then, nothing he's done has surprised me.''

Someone once wrote that Bird was a blue-collar player, a superstar who worked hard for his paychecks. Larry liked the description, which pretty much sums up to his approach to the game.

''If you give the fans their money's worth and play as hard as you can, you can be satisfied,'' he says.

Celtic fans, it might be added, haven't been asking for refunds recently. More than a hundred consecutive sellout crowds have filled Boston Garden, and there's little question about who they come to see. The loudest and longest pre-game ovation is always reserved for the pallid Hoosier with the fuzzy mustache and corn silk hair.

The features are so familiar that a 3-D turnpike billboard has used them as an attention-getter. An inflatable shock of blond hair appears behind the board , with an arm reaching over holding a basketball. No introductions are necessary.

In many ways, Bird is the embodiment of rural Middle America. He grew up in French Lick, Ind., and returns there every summer.

Speaking with a twang that that earned him the nickname ''Hick from French Lick,'' Larry says, ''Boston is the first major city I've been in for any length of time. I like it a lot, but it can never beat home.''

Fame, fortune, and the city lights have not changed Bird. ''People don't know what to make of him,'' says his agent Bob Woolf, who has Larry as a next-door neighbor both in the Boston area and on Cape Cod. ''He doesn't get dressed up, he drives around in a Bronco, and he drops his 'g's' all the time on words like talking and speaking. What some people don't realize, though, is that Larry's a very bright and witty guy.''

Despite signing Bird to major endorsements with McDonald's, Spalding, and Converse, Woolf claims his client ''is the least publicity conscious person I've ever dealt with. In the sports and entertainment industry, where you're dealing with some pretty big egos, he's a breath of fresh air - an individual with no pretenses or falseness.''

In the locker room, Bird is a willing and patient interview. But reporters best not ask personal questions. ''My private life is nobody's business,'' he points out. ''Besides it ain't interesting.''

Bird, a 6 ft. 9 in. Indiana State product with a 23-point scoring average, has all the statistical credentials expected of a great player. His passing ability is so keen that Celtic General Manager says Larry is ''like a Cousy up front.'' And for a non-leaper he is an incredible rebounder. ''I work hard at boxing out and chasing down everything,'' he explains.''I have to because I don't jump as well as other people.'' A workhorse, a hard hat, a perpetual motion machine - that's Larry Bird.

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