The Bird ventures farther from his public cage the closer Indiana State moves toward the NCAA basketball championship. He is most eloquent with his mouth shut, although now and then he hits you with sly, blindside lines nearly as delightful as his on-court passes.

For instance, Larry Bird was asked today for his reaction to ever so many coaches and players insisting that he was "good" before they played against him this season and that he was "great" after losing to him.

"Yeah," he said. "They know what they're talkin' about."

Because he laughed along with the rest of us then and actually was caught smiling a time or two later during his second press conference in as many days, somebody assumed he might be enjoying these sessions.

"Wrong," he said.

Then he added: "If you all were paying me, it might be different. But I know it's coming."

The reference was to perhaps as many as two commas in his pro contract, regardless of how he and State fly against Michigan State in the title game Monday night. Most neutral witnesses give the Spartans the edge, because they have one more great player than Indiana State.

But Bird volunteered: "They've got more talent; we've got some guys who play harder."

In the brief glimpses he has offered, usually under pressure either from his coaches or the NCAA, Bird has proved to be brighter than one would assume from all the ain'ts and double negatives that dribble from beneath that blond mustache.

Bird can be brutally blunt, arrogant at times, and yet quite defensive about his off-court life, admitting he is much more comfortable in French Lick, Ind., "where I belong, where I'd be bothered by nobody."

That is where he fled, hitchhiked in fact, about 3 1/2 weeks after enrolling at Indiana University five years ago. The enormity of IU, "the fact that I'd just turned 17, that it was a mile to some classes and I just got lost" forced him to escape.

"It was on a Friday night," he recalled. There was no problem hitching a ride for the hour-long trip home, "because everybody knows me. And when I got home I just told my mom I wasn't going back."

And Bobby Knight, who can out stubborn Bird and nearly anyone else in sport, would not come begging for his return. Knight, bless him, is one coach who will not allow a child to alter his life.

"I'm sure if I'd, stayed there, I'd be a better player now," Bird said, "because he (Knight) would have made me work on some other stuff. I'm not the greatest defensive player."

To his credit, Bird took a year off from school after leaving Indiana, honing his game on the playgrounds and amateur leagues. And drove trucks and tractors and hauled garbage, work that makes a young man realize there must be a better way to earn a living.

"I knew I'd be going back to college," he said, smiling slightly and glancing toward ISU Coach Bill Hodges. "I just wanted to make Coach Hodges wait a little bit."

Unlike the other pass-master in the NCAA title game, Earvin (Magic) Johnson, Bird became a feeder because he was a guard for much of his high school life, something of a shorty before sprouting nearly four inches, to 6-6 1/2 his senior year. And then 2 1/2 more inches in college.

If America can wince that Bird gives grammar the same inattention as defense, it can be grateful that on the court he speaks powerfully and gracefully. He is as fluent in every phase of basketball as nearly anyone in collegiate history and emphasizes the word too many great players ignore: teamwork.

"Passing is the most important part of basketball," he says -- and somebody ought to chisel that in every gym in the land. Of course, Magic preaches similarly. And that is why Monday's game excites us so much.

When was the last time two altruists determined the NCAA championship?

On the court and off, the contrast between the dominant players -- Magic and Bird -- is enormous. For every Magic smile, Bird offers a frown, although he says, "You c1n't laugh when the game's tied and there's two seconds left, or something like that.

"And he (Magic) probably is laughing at his opponents.I used to have a pretty bad attitude about refs... sort of like in the first half (against De Paul). I just hope he (Magic) doesn't laugh at me."

While Bird appears at press conferences only at gunpoint, Magic offers himself almost every waking moment. He plays the love role Duke enjoyed last season, to the Kentucky-counterpart heavy of Bird.

"I'm loving this, every minute of it," Magi3 said at his pre-Bird press conference. "I'm like a kid going to a birthday party. This is so exciting, the final four, getting all the attention, your name in the papers throughout the country."

Is Bird missing something by being so private?

"Now wait a minute," Magic said, moying verbally and physically backward. "Once I say something, something will happen. And I don't want it to happen to me. I don't want to say he's missing something -- and then again I might think he is. But let's just leave it at that."

It's a move Bird mastered months ago.