Larry Bird is the best basketball player on earth.
Everybody's entitled to one wildly personal opinion; that's mine.
At the very least, it's overstatement in a good cause.
After all, in the current fan balloting for the NBA all-star game this Sunday, Bird ranks sixth.
No, not sixth among all players, which might conceivably be correct. Not even sixth among forwards, which would be preposterous. But sixth among forwards in the East.
On top of that, when the NBA cream rises in Cleveland this weekend, Bird may not even play. He bruised his thigh badly this week when he stepped in front of the 7:55 p.m. Darryl Dawkins Limited while trying to draw a charging foul.
The next night, in another city, Bird tried to play. "The worst experience of my career . . . just misery. I was useless." Why did he hobble pathetically for a half, when, by resting, he could prepare for glamor exposure on Sunday?
"That wouldn't have been the right thing for the team," he said.
After playing in 144 consecutive NBA games, it's appropriate -- almost a Boston Celtic badge of honor -- that his first absence be in the NBA All-Star game, since it's a showcase for every sort of selfishness the Celtics abhor.
A truer test for Bird came in Boston's 104-101 victory over the 76ers here Wednesday, Boston's 25th victory in 26 games. Bird began by making his first six shots with a mix of long jumpers and inventive, twisting inside moves. Then he stepped into Dawkins' tracks and was trampled. He was helped to the locker room.
One minute later, despite a leg numb from the hip down, Bird was back.
"I don't know how he played," said Boston Coach Bill Fitch. "On the other hand, I don't know how I could have kept him from playing."
Bird performed on one leg, finishing with 24 points, eight rebounds and six assists -- a typical evening. More important, he was the adhesive in every aspect of the Celtic triumph. Bird is the only player in basketball who not only does everything, but does it all the time.
Bird can shoot from the outside. In fact, he has ranked third and eighth in the league in three-point percentage in the last two years. No other front court player, with Rick Barry retired, can approach the range of his jumper.
At 6-foot-9, 220 pounds, Bird can score inside, too. In fact, because he can drive, stop and pop, draw fouls, hook with either hand, fill a lane on the break and score off his own deft dribble, Larry Bird can score as much as he wants, any night he wants. In Boston's first meeting with Philadelphia this year, he went off for 36 when four other Celts fouled out.
"Bird can score 35 to 40 points any night he's asked," says Boston veteran M. L. Carr. "He's scoring exactly what's best for the team (21 points a game in both his NBA seasons). He could adjust his average anywhere up to at least 30 points, if there was a reason."
Luckily for Boston, Bird knows that almost everybody in the NBA can score. But only he can do all the other tasks with greatness, night after night.
Bird is so agile that he plays small forward, allowing mooses like Kevin McHale, Rick Robey and Cornbread Maxwell to molest folks underneath. In truth, however, Bird is the fourth best rebounder in the NBA (10.7), and the best board man among all forwards big or small. Of note are the two gentlemen ranked just behind small forward Bird in rebounds: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Artis Gilmore, both 7 foot 2. Bird had more than 275 more rebounds last year than Julius Erving, Marques Johnson or Adrian Dantley, the only other all-around forwards who are in his exalted class.
If Bird's incredible toughness, timing and cussedness as a rebounder have been his biggest surprise as a pro, then his gifts as a passer were his trademark before he ever left Indiana State. Bird leads all NBA forwards or centers in assists (6.2) this year and does so on a team where the ball is constantly in Tiny Archibald's hands.
Unlike John Havlicek, another great passing small forward, Bird almost never takes the middle on the break, thereby killing many assist chances. Bird is already the most creative, daring and exciting passer among all the frontcourt players in history. As soon as he trims his turnovers (3.9) a bit more, he will move ahead of Havlicek and Barry as the best passing forward ever, as well as the most ingenious.
As if this weren't enough, Bird has also proved to be a determined, mean defensive player. Only one forward or center in the NBA has more steals than Bird; that's Erving, 2.24 to 2.04. Bird won't make the NBA's all-defensive team, but he's greatly improved this season. He can now play an aggressive, gambling style because the Celts have gone, in a year, from having the worst shot-blocking centers in the NBA -- Dave Cowens and Robey (0.9 a game) -- to the best -- Robert Parrish and McHale (4.8 per 48 minutes).
Bird is the most complete and creative player in basketball. No one else combines all the game's major skills like the shy, monosyllabic Hick from French Lick. He was meant to play basketball and lives to do nothing else.
Maybe that's why, a year ago, the Celtics underwent the greatest statistical transformation in NBA history, going from 29-53 to 61-21 (the league's best record) in one season. Maybe that's why they've ripped off a 25-1 streak this year and are 15-5 in games decided by five points or less.
And maybe that's why, on Thursday night, when Bird was "useless" for the first time this season, the Celtics were blown out of the gym, 108-85, by a Chicago team they had crushed five straight times this season with a flying Bird.
In basketball, the game of flow and chemistry, Larry Bird, the guy who five years ago thought he'd just be a garbageman and only play ball for fun, is the player who has achieved the most total unison with that flow and chemistry.
That the basketball voting public can overlook his skills would suit him fine. There is a sardonic, bitter, even tragic strain in the personality of this man who went through a father's suicide and his own divorce while he was still a teen-ager. Basketball has been his escape, his joy, his salvation.
It hardly matters if the world grasps him. The solitary Bird revels in every apsect of a game with which, perhaps, only he is thoroughly familiar.