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Two Faces of Larry Bird: The Player and the Man

By FREDRICK WATERMAN

BOSTON -- 'I can never see me as Mr. Spokesman for the NBA or for this or that. That's not my job. My job is to go out and play the best I possibly can for the Boston Celtics and win basketball games. After that it's over and I can go home.' - Larry Bird, self-styled 'Hick from French Lick (Ind).

The New Jersey Nets showed up three hours early for their game with the Boston Celtics. Larry Bird was already on the court practicing.

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'That's why he's the best,' New Jersey Coach Stan Albeck told his team. Months later, when the Nets arrived at Boston Garden three hours early, there was no sign of Bird.

'They were all getting on me,' recalled Albeck. 'They were saying, 'So where's Bird? You said he was always out here.' I pointed up into the stands. None of them had noticed Bird up there, he was running laps; he'd already finished his shooting.'

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Bird's dedication is becoming as legendary as his talent, but neither may be on display past the 1989-90 season. He says says he will 'definitely' retire when his present contract runs out.

Bird has moved past Julius Erving as the NBA's No. 1 attraction, a status he is not comfortable with, but for which he was worked endlessly.

The leader of the world champions, Bird is a collection of contradictions. A pro athlete with neither speed nor jumping ability, he is a high scorer who claims no natural shooting touch and hides his analytic mind behind a country-boy demeanor.

But always shining clear and evident is his desire to win and be the best.

'I told Julius I eat, drink and sleep basketball 24 hours a day. He said he used to be the same way. I hope I never lose that, because in this league you have to think basketball 24 hours a day to be the best. Once you start to slack off a bit, you might lose some of that desire to play,' said Bird, who is admired by Erving.

'He is the consummate player, the best in the game today. He's willing to pay the price, something a lot of players don't want to do,' said the Philadelphia Sixer.

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Before he joined the NBA in the fall of 1979, Bird said, 'I know I'm not the type of guy who can dominate the league,' but he has spent his six seasons proving himself wrong and raising fans' expectations.

'A game will be in the second quarter and the fans are yelling, 'Hey, come on Larry, take the game over. Get these guys out of here,' as if I have the power to say, 'OK, Chicago. Quit playing now, it's my time to take over.'

'I'm supposed to take over at the end of a game, take the crucial shots, make the big plays. If we're down by three points with 16 seconds left, there is no question, unless someone else is wide open, that I'm going to take the shot.'

The challenge of the moment doesn't intimidate Bird, who acquired an appetite for the pressure and the spotlight while playing at Spring Valley High in French Lick, Ind.

'I had broken my ankle and came back in time to play in the sectionals tournament,' Bird recalled. 'It was late in the game and I was on the bench when the coach called my name. I thought it was my brother or someone else yelling down from the stands. The coach then says, 'Do you want to play or not?' I come tearing up off the bench and go into the game.

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'We're one point down with 10 seconds left when the other team fouls me and I go to the free throw line thinking, 'I could be a hero.' I made both shots and we won the game. Ever since then I've always had the feeling that I liked being center stage, I liked having the ball in my hands and making things happen.

'I've been in the situation hundreds of times now where the score is tied and I have the ball, or when I have to make the big steal at the end of the game. It's just happened over and over and over, so I don't worry about it now,' he explained.

Bird, the self-styled 'Hick from French Lick,' is concerned with what people think of Larry Bird the player, not Larry Bird the person. He has not tried to repair his often ungrammatical English or adopt a more sophisticated air.

'Doc (Erving) once said something that was the best quote I've heard from someone in the game. He said, 'I didn't want to be the team spokesman. I didn't want to be Mr. Everything. People put me in that situation.'

'Well, Doc had no control over that. My philosophy on anything is that you do what you do the best you possibly can, and after it's over with, you're on your own.

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'I can never see me as Mr. Spokesman for the NBA or for this or that. That's not my job. My job is to go out and play the best I possibly can for the Boston Celtics and win basketball games. After that it's over and I can go home.'

But how can he fight the need of the NBA to capitalize upon the fame of its most recognized player?

'You can sort of keep yourself away from it. I'm sure they'll be asking me to do a little bit more, but I don't want to get into thesituation where I have to give my time to the NBA, because I don't work for them, I work for the Boston Celtics.

'The NBA is a great thing and will be here forever and I'm going to try and make it better. But I don't want to be the spokesman. I don't even like to be captain of the team. Someone says, 'You're the captain of the world champions,' well, that's great, but I don't really like to walk out there and shake the officials' hands and say, 'How are you?' and 'How's the family?' and then when the game begins you start cussing them out.'

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Last year's league and championship series MVP, Bird had to travel to Utah during the summer to receive the regular-season honor. Like any laborer who feels he's earned his time off, Bird wasn't pleased about the required appearance.

'I'm off work in the summertime, then they tell me I have to fly up there to get the award. It would have been a lot easier to pack it in a box and send it to me or wait until the next season began, come to Boston and have a party.'

Instead, Bird went to the ceremonies wearing a shirt and pants.

'I knew they were having a banquet, but not that it was a dress-up one. To hell with them, if they wanted me to wear a suit and tie they should have had one waiting for me,' said Bird, visibly irritated at the memory.

His small-town upbringing often clashes with big-city ways.

'I hate to walk into a restaurant where someone says you've got to have a jacket. All they want is your money anyway, they just want to feed you and get you the hell out of there,' said Bird. 'What difference does it make what you wear, as long as it's nice?

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'People can wear suits and ties all they want, but just because they do doesn't mean I will, just to make them happy, and I can probably afford more than the guy sitting next to me. I can buy two suits to his one.'

Which means the guy next to Bird makes at least a million dollars a year.

The Celtics forward earns $2 million per annum, plus his share of the playoff money and income from endorsements.

His income doesn't fit the values of French Lick.

On a recent road trip Bird found a pair of cowboy boots which he liked, but decided against them when he learned the price.

'How can I tell the people in French Lick I spent $285 on a pair of boots?' he reportedly asked a teammate.

But Bird has earned his millions, intensely studying his sport while lamenting how slowly the knowledge is acquired.

'Now I look back at high school, at big games where I could have done a little bit more. If I knew then about basketball what I know now - not be as good as I am, just know what I do, I could have done so many things. But I didn't have the confidence then that I do now.'

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An example of that knowledge is the game's best-passing forward assesses his teammates' pass-catching abilities.

'Kevin McHale has terrible hands, the worst hands of anybody. Especially on a long break. If you throw it over his head while he's running, chances are he will catch five or six and fumble the rest. But Robert (Parish) can handle almost any type of pass, he's my best target out there.

'Overall, the guys up here have better hands than they did in college. Now I can throw a long pass or throw it down low and guys like DJ (Dennis Johnson) or Danny (Ainge) can catch anything.'

In the Celtics-Philadelphia 76ers playoff, Bird and Moses Malone were fighting for a loose ball in the corner. Malone fell out-of-bounds and as Bird dove for the ball he twisted his body, looking for a teammate. None was open so Bird twisted his body further and hurled the ball off Malone -- Celtics ball.

For Bird there is always the spur of working harder at his profession. He has improved his scoring from 21.3 his rookie year to 28.7 this season. The reason is no secret, he shoots every day, sometimes for as many as five hours.

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'There are some guys who can stay away from basketball all summer then come in and score 50 points. I don't know if Kiki Vandeweghe works out, but he's just a great shooter who shoots it the same way all the time with the proper rotation.

'But I shoot so many off-balance and wild shots that I have to shoot all the time to have a feel for the ball and the rim,' said Bird.

That he performs the impossible so often is bewildering to other teams, including Detroit Coach Chuck Daly who has only one answer for Bird's success.

'He isn't mortal. After you play him enough times you begin to wonder. He's the best on the planet. He's as tough as anyone in the league, physically and mentally he's the toughest,' said Daly.

Cleveland Coach George Karl said, 'I think you can tell a lot about a player from his eyes. You can tell whether he's nervous, whether he's fired up or whether he wants to be there. Bird's eyes are intimidating.'

A hero in Boston Garden, the Celtics forward willingly casts himself as a villian. Before the final game of the Cleveland-Boston playoff, he sounded more like Mr. T.

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'Those people don't want me. They don't want no part of me,' declared Bird. 'Ain't no question what I'm going to do. I'm going at them bad,' declared Bird, who later said he thought it was fun to get the Cleveland crowds into a frenzy.

There is sufficient other talent on the Celtics so Bird can play the all-around game he prefers, but there are times when his scoring is most needed. He sounded a little wistful talking about the role of Lakers guard Magic Johnson.

'Magic's role is a little different than mine. He's got Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) to pass to, I've got McHale. Sometimes I have to score 30 points, I don't think Magic ever gets in a game where he has to score 30, though sometimes he's going to do it. Scoring is the hardest part of the game. The difference between me and Magic is I've got to score and he doesn't.'

But now, when he has the confidence, when the flow is there and the shots are dropping, Bird is at his happiest.

'When I'm hot and playing good, I feel I can score 60 points,' as he did March 12 againt the Atlanta Hawks. 'It's amazing when you get the ball and just know it's going to go in. There are nights when Jesus Christ couldn't guard me and that's one of the best feelings in the world.'

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