BOSTON -- A blue-collar player with creativity, Larry Bird's every move on the court has a purpose, a twining of athletic efficiency and imagination.
In a game Bird controls the Boston Celtics, using his combined abilities of forward, guard and center to take advantage of situations before they exist.
At 6-foot-9, the five-year Celtics veteran has the inside moves of a forward, the passing and outside shooting of a guard and the position rebounding of a center.
'He's not bad for a slow white guy,' teammate Kevin McHale jokes.
The praise of Hall of Fame ex-Celtic Bob Cousy is more straightforward: 'Larry Bird is probably the greatest ever to play this foolish game since Dr. Naismith put up peach baskets.'
When Bird is on the court, he controls the Celtics.
'If I'm playing well, I feel that everyone on our team is involved in the offense,' explained Bird, who had 520 assists in the regular season.
Bernard King believes that next to Los Angeles' Magic Johnson, Bird is the best in the NBA at finding the open man.
On Feb. 16 he had 17 assists against Golden State, the second-highest total for a forward in NBA history (second only to Golden State's Rick Barry's 19 in 1976 against Chicago).
During the regular season, Bird led the Celtics in scoring at 24.2, assists with a 6.6 average, defensive rebounds 615, and steals, 144. He led the league in free-throw accuracy at 89 percent. Bird's average of 38.2 minutes a game was also a team-high.
'Larry thrives on work,' said Celtics coach K.C. Jones. 'Because he's not just out there as a shooter, if he's not hitting he is still contributing; he just adapts his game to what's going for him that night.'
Bird is constantly named to sportswriters' 'All-Hustle' or 'All-Floor Burn' teams despite his superstar status and his long-term contract. Last year he signed a seven-year pact at $2-million a year.
'For the money they pay me, the least I can do is give them my best every time,' said Bird, who still dives for loose balls in meaningless games at the end of the season to the delight of fans.
It is impossible to say how much of Bird's success is due to hard work or to raw talent. His leaping ability is only ordinary, at best, but he still averaged 10.1 rebounds a game -- thanks to pinpoint positioning.
Celtics great Bill Russell always argued that the majority of rebounds in pro basketball are taken below the rim. Bird offers proof.
And Boston General Manager Red Auerbach notes that Bird 'always gets the last rebounds, at the end of the game.'
Despite being aggressive on the boards like Russell, Bird rarely fouls out (not once since the 1980-81 season) and has learned to play effectively even loaded with four or five fouls.
As Boston's -- possibly the NBA's -- premier clutch player, Bird's play late in a game takes the pressure off his teammates. Bird's recurring quote when describing the end of a close game is: 'I wanted the ball in my hands.'
Milwaukee Bucks guard Mike Dunleavy said that because Bird plays so well in playoffs, his teammates can operate as they would during the regular season.
'In the seventh game against the Knicks (Eastern conference semifinals), Larry was making great shots right from the beginning, and that takes the pressure off everyone else.'
Bird and King of the Knicks are the most frequently mentioned candidates for the league's MVP title this season, but the Celtic professes little desire for personal attention.
'I don't worry about that, I worry about my next opponent. I got one of those (MVP trophies) in college and its sitting at home, not doing anything for me now,' said Bird.
The extent of Bird's confidence in himself is such that he rarely makes errors and is not visibly upset by them.
In one such case during a March regular-season game, he dribbled the ball off his foot and watched the ball roll out of bounds. He looked at his foot, and headed down court with a smile.
When Bird came into the league in 1979 from Indiana State, the fear was that he was too slow to play defense. Instead, for the past two years he has been named to the NBA's All-Defensive second team.
Explosive Mark Aquirre of the Dallas Mavericks said of Bird: 'He's such a smart player you can't throw a fake at hime and make him do what you want him to.' In fact, the reverse is generally true.
Knicks coach Hubie Brown sees Bird as 'the real key to their defense.'
After a New York playoff loss to Boston, Brown said, 'The entire Boston team played great defense, but the one man the purists noticed was Bird.
'He reminded us of a middle-linebacker the way he roamed around out there. His ability to clog the lane, double-team, and strip the ball were keys to their defense,' Brown said.
Bird's teammates are constantly being asked to describe the young man with the wispy blond moustache and golden locks.
'You start running out of words,' said sixth man McHale. 'You use up all the adjectives when you're talking about him.'
Bucks coach Don Nelson, speaking for his team, said, 'We have 15 films of Boston playing, and we marvel at Bird. The Celtics can beat you so many ways, and most of it starts with Bird, because then he gets everyone else into the act.'
Bird was drafted as a junior eligible by Boston, pro basketball's longest and most successful proponent of the team concept. In his five years as a pro the Celtics have always been winners, including an NBA championship in 1981.
'I've never been on a losing team, but if I was playing on a Cleveland, I feel they would be a little bit better because of the team concept that I want to play,' said Bird.
'Everyone wants the ball and everyone would like to score 20 points, but I have been in a team-oriented concept from the time I started,' he said. 'If I stared playing one-on-one, I wouldn't be very effective.'
Bird says he has never thought about abandoning the one-for-all attitude, which he credits to his coaches while growing up in French Lick, Ind., and instead and instead playing for personal glory.
'I shoot enough as is. You've got four other guys out there with you and they don't want to just play defense all the time. Everyone wants to play and the only way you're going to win is to play the team concept,' he said.
But teammate M.L. Carr disagrees with Bird's comment that he shoots enough.
'Larry can be too unselfish. He can be so concerned about how the team is playing as a whole that sometimes he ignores his own scoring,' said Carr.
'He'll try to get Robert (Parish) or Kevin (McHale) more involved; he'll try to set up an outside shot for one of the guards. Sometimes, in trying to do all that, he passes up opportunities he should be taking.'
The Boston offense is designed for Bird to handle the ball a lot, because he can create opportunities like putting opposing teams into a no-win situation: Bird will score 40 or 50 if one defender is on him alone, but if opposing teams double-team him, he hits the open men routinely to thwart the defense.
'When Larry is on the court, we are all very aware of where he is, especially if he is hot,' said McHale. 'Then we really work hard to get him the ball.'
The one shot Bird most infrequently takes is a dunk, which he avoids 'because it embarrassesthe other team.'
But in the recent Eastern conference final series with Milwaukee, Bird drove in for a reverse slam, a move done in anger due to the rough defense he had endured -- and what he felt were lack of foul calls against the Bucks for it.
'(But) they weren't trying to hurt me,' Bird said of the Bucks, 'as some other teams try to do.'
The comparisons between the 'Bird-man' and the 'Magic-man' have persisted since the two came into the league together.
Now the weighing of the their respective abilities is renewed with the Celtics-Lakers confrontation in the NBA finals. Bird says that the comparisons exist mostly for the fans and media, but he does see one similarity:
'Magic's a guard and I'm a forward, his job is to pass more and mine is to score more. But if I'm like him in any way, it's that we're both winners.'