Boston's Slam-Dunk `So Long' to No. 33

Basketball great Larry Bird's retirement party drew 15,000 `guests a sports `postcard'

FIRST Magic, now Larry: The second curtain of 1980s basketball closes as Larry Bird retires from the Boston Celtics. In an elaborate production somewhere between a "Late Night with Bob Costas" and a collegial roast, fans bid farewell to Bird at Boston Garden Feb. 4.

The sold-out tribute was hosted by NBC's Costas and featured video clips of Bird's career, as well as anecdotes from teammates and coaches. There was also a special visit from friend and former archrival Earvin (Magic) Johnson.

It was the first time that a player's retirement gala was held as a special event, rather than at halftime during a game. The National Basketball Association assisted, and NBA commissioner David Stern joined the cast of speakers. Elaborate local media tributes preceded the event, including television specials and thick souvenir sections in the Boston Herald and Globe.

Players like Bird and Magic changed the public perception of basketball forever, commissioner Stern said. They competed against each other in college, entered the NBA together, played on the Olympic "Dream Team" together, and - five years from now - surely will enter the NBA's Hall of Fame together.

After viewing many of Bird's famous, buzzer-beating shots and strenuous efforts to win games, members of the Celtics' 1981, '84, and '86 championship teams joined Bird and Costas on stage. Former Celtic Cedric Maxwell said when Bird first joined the Celtics, he and Bird practiced together. "All I can remember," said Maxwell, "is those 20-footers raining down on me. And I remember thinking, `Boy, this white guy can play, can't he?' "

Another anecdote was told by former Celtic coach K.C. Jones, who told of diagramming a play on the sidelines only to have Bird dismiss it: Get the ball to me and get everyone out of my way, he said. I'm the coach, Jones responded, and I will call the plays. Then he turned to his players: Get the ball to Larry, he told them, and get out of his way.

Magic Johnson, in his Lakers warm-ups, spent several minutes speaking to Bird as though there weren't 15,000 fans nearby. He said Bird was the best all-around player he ever saw. He feared Bird more than any other player, because he knew if there were a few seconds left on the clock, Bird would find a way to win.

After Bird's number was ceremonially hoisted to the rafters in the Garden, followed by a spectacular laser light show, Bird addressed the audience: It was because of the support he received from fans that he was able to raise the level of his game, he said. He never put on his uniform to play a game - he put on his uniform to win. To the strains of "Small Town" by John Mellencamp, Bird walked off the parquet floor a final time.

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