When he signed that $6 million contract with the Boston Celtics last summer, Larry Bird did it with a 10-cent finger. The index finger of his shooting hand is misshapen. It is bent inward. It is flattened at the middle joint, as if it has been struck by a sledgehammer. A thin, light scar traces a crescent of remembered pain through the mess. To scratch his forehead, Bird uses the middlefinger of his shooting hand, saving the shatered finger for important things.
Such as shooting.
"Not whatsoever," Bird said when someone wondered if the finger bothers his shooting.
The finger aches. He works it against the hurt a hundred times a night. As he spoke to newspapermen last night, he held the finger out of the way, lest an ink-stained wretch bump it.
The numbers tell the truth. For the Celtics, Bird is a 47 percent shooter. The last time Larry Bird shot 47 percent, he was 11 years old. Theoretically, a guy doesn't need much help from the index finger to shoot well. The middle finger guides and spins the ball. Theories don't throb like a toothache, either.
The finger is costing Bird maybe 10 percentage points, five for certain. "But he won't complain, never has, never will," said a man who watches Bird play every game. "It's his football mentality. He ignores pain. Remember the NCAA? All he did there was play with a broken thumb." p
Bird shattered the finger trying to catch a baseball hit to him by his brother in a sandlot game last summer. Surgery put it back together. At contract-signing time, the finger was grotesquely colored and swollen.
One hesitates to think what Larry Bird would have done to the moribound Bullets with a handful of real healthy fingers. He was 11 for 17 last night, including two of three from the Capitol steps for three-pointers. He had 24 points, a game-high 13 rebounds, as many assists as anyone (five) and was the catalyst in a third-period streak of brilliance that produced the Celtics' 119-103 victory.
Maybe if Bird had broken both legs this summer, the Bullets might have had a prayer last night.
These Bullets are sad. Especially when these geezers have to play three games in three nights. They led at halftime, 50-46, but in the third quarter the Celtics ran the Bullets into exhaustion. With Mitch Kupchak no longer able to give Wes Unseld a rest at center, the Bullets' 99-year-old front line of Elvin Hayes (34), Unseld (33) and Bobby Dandridge (32) is forced to play too much, too much for young gazelles, let alone "great veterans."
"They are great veterans," said Rick Robey of the Celtics, who is playing in place of the injured Dave Cowens. "It is just the injuries that have hurt them, like to Kapchak and to Kevin Grevey and Dandridge."
How kind Robey is. Look at the members. The Celtics' front line last night has six years' experience, Cornbread Maxwell the veteran in only his third season. The Bullets' front line has 35 years' experience, Dandridge the kid with only 10 seasons behind him.
If Robey, a diplomat, wouldn't say the Bullets have run out of time in this basketball life, he did admit that the Celtics, to name one team on one night, planned their game tactics around an idea the Bullets would be all tuckered out playing a third game in three nights.
"By halftime we hadn't gotten any fast breaks really," Robey said.
"And that's what we wanted to do tonight. We wanted to run them. We're a young team and we should be able to get out and run. But in the first half, we never got the ball up and down the floor. So we said, "Hey, running's the only way we can beat them, we certainly can't post up all night and beat them."
Did the man say "run?"
Run the Celtics did. It was 66-all with 5:08 left in the third quarter. In those 5 minutes 8 seconds, the Celtics scored 20 points to the Bullets' four. "Wrap this game in a Hefty bag and put a knot in it," said a wise guy at courtside.
And Robey was doing a lot of the running. As the Celtics ran off 11 straight points to take a 77-66 lead, Robey scored three times on stuff shots in 80 seconds.
I think Unseld got tired," Robey said. "Last week (when the Bullets won at Boston), I had a groin pull and couldn't run. I'd run side by side with Unseld.
Not last night, Robey ran past the tiring Unseld, who in the better days of the past two years would have been given relief by the sprinting Kupchak."So I got three or four easy layups," Robey said.
Two of them came on passes from Bird, who only does everything any basketball player ought to do.
And the joy of seeing Bird play is that broken thumb or bursted-up finger, the guy earns his $6 million every time out. No wily veteran saving himself. No bored old-timer taking a nap at the end of the third quarter. No selfish superstar with a $6 million contract and a 10-cent head.
Bird against Bobby Dandridge, one on one, was worth the price of admission last night. Every time Bobby D. touched the ball early in the third quarter he took Bird to the hole, dancing toward the basket with those quick, graceful steps that somehow leave defenders helpless at the moment Dandridge wants to shoot. One of Dandridge's running 12-footers, in which he looks like a man walking up stairs two at a time, left Bird dead in the water.
The Bullets, with that bucket, led 61-57.
From there on, though, it was Bird's game. He scored 12 more points to Dandridge's two.
"I give everything I got." Bird said, "I want to play all 82 games this way."
"He's as much a player as everyone expected" said Robey. The question everybody asked was about his defense. And he can play defense."
What about his shooting hand?
"That's when they had the big scare that he might not be able to shoot." Robey said.
But Bird can shoot, right?
Robey laughed at the questions some people ask.