Larry Bird, A Child's Idol

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What was your first memory?

For me, it was going to Boston to see my first Celtics game and my hero, Larry Bird.

I was only five, and Larry was by then at the tail end of his career, but I’d heard all about his play.

My older cousins had already made me admire Larry Bird with surreal awe - they talked about him in reverent tones that they reserved for no other player in any sport. I looked up to my cousins a lot, so when they voiced their opinions - especially when said with the conviction they used when talking about Bird – I couldn’t help but take their side.

I might have been too young to even understand some of the things they said, but I could certainly comprehend the respect and wonder with which they regarded Larry Legend – they were so obviously impressed by everything Larry did that even at five years old I got excited about visiting the Boston Garden to see him play.

So excited, in fact, that I shook like a recovering alcoholic in withdrawal the whole time I was in the building. Seeing Larry Bird play – even to a five year-old who didn’t even fully understand the depths of his brilliance – was an otherworldly experience. He was the greatest Celtic of my lifetime, by far, and to see him play gave me the chills.

I wasn’t like a kid on Christmas morning waiting to open his presents – I was far more than that. I was like a kid going to meet Santa Claus at his house and watch him and his elves make my presents. Just to be in the same building as my idol, to see Larry Bird no more than sixty feet away from where I sat, was enough to keep me happy for weeks, even months.

And my veneration didn’t stop when his career ended. Rather, it got greater as I got older and became more aware of everything that Larry was about.

He was the perfect Celtic. For a franchise that preaches “Celtic Pride” and has such vaunted history, he was the ideal player. Bird is clearly a prideful man, and played every game as if he had something to prove. He was arguably the greatest player from his era, but played as if he were an unsigned rookie yearning for his first contract. He was the type of player who brought his lunch-pail to work every day, ready for another day on the job, another day of unmatched effort and determination.

Once he attained his spot as one of the all-time greats, Larry Bird didn’t stop working. Instead, he played every game as if he didn’t want anybody in the crowd or on the opposing team to ever forget just how good he was.

Like anybody could ever forget. When a guy scores 61 points and the Atlanta Hawks’ bench - the opposing team’s bench - cheers every shot like it was their own team’s game-winner? You could never forget that - never.

Or the shot against Houston, when he missed a shot to the right side and, before the rebound even came down, he was there to put it in from halfway behind the basket. Oh yeah, and it was with his left hand, too.

There was the duel with Dominique Wilkins, the 49 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists against Portland in his final season, three MVPs, three championships and too many game-winners to count. There are so many highlights you can talk about when discussing Bird’s career.

But his career was far more than just the highlights, far more than the game-winners, and far more than his exploits. For every game-winner Bird made, he dove into the first row after dozens of loose balls to save possessions for his team. For every highlight reel, how-the-hell-did-he-do-that pass, there was a simple swing pass that kept the Celtics’ ball movement crisp and led to smooth execution. For every award he won, there were hundreds of times he outhustled quicker players to get to a loose ball.

It was for that whole package that I loved Larry Bird. He was cocky, but he earned it. He was a 6’9 forward, but he was the best passer on the Celtics and maybe in the entire league. He was exceptionally gifted in so many areas, but he worked as hard as anybody in the league. He has some highlights that would make even Michael Jordan jealous, but his biggest contributions were often the so-called “little” plays that go unnoticed in the box scores. He was considered to be slow and unathletic, but he put together a career that is only rivaled by a very elite few.

Bird was a player who brought joy to the game of basketball. He was able to bring grown men to their feet, constant applause to an arena, and a sense of community to all of Boston. Because he was a selfless superstar, teammates loved playing with him. They revered him as much as any fan did, looked up to him like I did when I was a little five year-old shivering in a fit of unbridled excitement.

Since that first game, I’ve followed Larry Bird in every way I possibly could. I’ve rehashed all his moments on “ESPN Classic,” I’ve read and reread his autobiography, “Drive,” and I’ve watched “Larry Bird: A Basketball Legend” a million times. Worshipping him from the time I was three or four years old, I still get wound up every time I see one of his old highlights – even the ones I’ve seen over and over.

They take me back to that time when I was five, a bundle of innocent ecstasy among a crowd full of pleased spectators.

I don’t remember who the Celtics played that day, I don’t even remember if they won.

But I sure as hell remember the feeling I got from being in the same building as Larry Bird.


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