I knew it was raining in Boston for three days for some reason. - Larry Bird teammate.

He couldn't run or jump. But he played basketball with style and grace. Larry Joe Bird's legendary skills - incomparable passing, soft touch in the low post, 3-point shooting, rebounding, ability to "see" the court, nailing shots in the most grinding clutch - didn't equal the sum of the player, or person.

Bird, who retired from the Boston Celtics this week because of injury, could walk on a court full of pro athletes and raise everyone's play to a new level. The "hick from French Lick" emerged from the Hoosier state in 1980. Many said he would be eaten by the NBA, the Boston press, the big city.

Never. Bird turned a 25-53 Celtics team into 61-21 winners, was rookie of the year, and All-NBA. Five years earlier he'd worked on a garbage truck. But now the Boston Garden parquet was a stage for Bird's athletic performance art - as an individual and team player. Bird won three championship rings, three MVPs, and was a hero worldwide. Yet he remained Larry - preserving a small town decency and work ethic.

Larry was what he seemed to be, the real thing. That's why he reached so many fans. Plumber or physicist, you could trust Bird and share his never-say-die spirit. A 1987 playoff game seemed lost when Bird misfired and Detroit inbounded with 5 seconds left. Bird stole the ball, passed it off, and the Celtics won. Many had quit. Not Bird. Typical.

He became a blue-collar oracle. LB aphorims were clipped. This, after a '92 Celt loss: "From the start, you could tell how it was going to go. Everyone was standing around looking tired. In this league, stand around and you get beat."

Bird's ethic of deeds over words and respect for teammates DJ and Robert Parish transcended race. A sneakers ad today says athletic skill isn't enough. The real question is - have you got the love? Larry Bird, more than any recent star, had the love.

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