During the Celtics' training camp before this season, Larry Bird and Red Auerbach were playing 90 minutes of intense tennis, the player awkwardly flapping his ring wing on each shot, trying so hard to master this unfamiliar game, while the general manager hit enough winners to taunt:
"Your (butt) is grass and I'm the lawn mower."
Auerbach picks up the story line: "We get off the court, go back to the gym and all of a sudden I see Larry changing shoes. I ask what he's doing and he tells me he promised the rookies he'd work out with them at 3. So he does that, and then he scrimmages (with the Celtics) that night."
What we have here is not quite an athletic machine, but inspiringly close to the ultimate work-ethic player, a two-year veteran who one day may well be acclaimed is equal to his artistry.
Of all the splendid athletes in our major sports, Larry Bird is the one whose flaws are most obvious, who all but announces before each basketball game: "I'm one of the slowest guys out here, and I don't get too high off the floor." then he might add: "But my team will win."
It usually does. He is a rare basketball bird, usually scoring at least 20 points and getting at least 10 rebounds each game. This Bird is unique because he also works so hard at the drudgery of his game, is so willing to sacrifice his numbers for one letter, the almighty W.
"We is (John) Havlicek," said K. C. Jones, "only three or four inches taller. You don't actually realized how big Bird is till you're up close to him."
You don't actually appreciate Bird's beauty without seeing him over several games. Even the you must pay strict attention, to how he will be diving onto the floor to swipe a loose ball to a teammate one moment and scoring the winning basket the next.
"The intangibles," Chris Ford said. "That's what makes him the best player in the game."
"The best i've ever seen," said Jones, "as far as the total spectrum of the game: attitude, hustling, shooting, passing and rebounding. And cocky, in his own way. He doesn't say; he does."
He does so eloquently, and Auerbach says:
"He must do what he's done over a period of years before I'll make the statement. But if he does, Bird and Julius Erving have a chance to surpass my two favorite forwards ever, (Bob) Pettit and (Elgin) Baylor. I think they (Bird and Erving) will take their place.
"Baylor would go strictly to his right, but he was so strong and quick. Pettit was a center-forward, 6-9 and a great hustler and rebounder. But neither of them could pass like Bird. Pettit was as good a rebounder, Baylor about equal.
"But neither of them was in his class at seeing the court, at passing, at doing all the little things that end up so important.
Lots of players, although almost none earning his estimated $600,000 per year, would dive and flail at the ball during the fourther quarter of the seventh game against the 76ers in Boston a week age. Only Bird could keep them traveling while he controlled the ball and somehow slapped it to Keven McHale.
For most players, the instinct on prying the ball loose from an opponent is to clutch it and wait for help. After a steal earlier in that one point Celtic victory, Bird's instinct was to flick it in midair to a fast-breaking teammate for a layup.
Much of what makes Bird-watching almost thrilling goes unrecorded and unappreciated. His game is so economical and understated, with not one dash of flash, and basketball has yet to count dives and keep-alives. But when Bird needed to be spectacular to score in the first game of the championship series against Houston, he was.
In the fourth quarter, the Celtics trailing by three, Bird took a jump shot from the right of the foul line, about 17 feet from the basket, and missed. His Houston defender, Robert Reid, forgot about Bird's intensity just long enough to leave a path to the rebound. Bird took it, and the ball.
He should have taken the ball out of bounds, for he was almost over the end line when he caught it. To throw up any kind of conventional shot should have been futile. So Bird invented a move.
Like The Doctor, The Bird can be fancy in flight when he has to. Bird controlled that ball and, still soaring, with almost no angle left, switched it from his right to left hand, scooped it ever so slightly off the glass and into the net.
I've never seen a play like it," said Auerbach.
Or a player quite like Bird.
"He motions for me to come over during warmups before practice after the first (Houston) game," Auerbach said, "and says to me, frantically, 'I gotta see you. It's important.'
"So what is it?"
"'I left two tickets for my girlfriend's hairdresser,' he says, 'and somebody stole 'em.' That was his big worry."
Another is the press. Bird is comfortable doing whatever it takes to become a star, but he is skittish in the spotlight. Unlike teammate Robert Parish, who often rudely dismisses reporters, Bird eventually tolerates them most days. But he works his fingers nervously during even the most routine question before what passes for the mass media (five reporters) in the NBA before one practice.
"I'll never get used to being a star," he said. "Or will I ever like it."
In time, the face that makes Bird look like the outsized younger brother of comedian Martin Mull may break into a smile during such sessions. He is certain to be more at ease with more practice. He is candid enough now, preaching a separatist theme encouraged by second-year Coach Bill Fitch.
Somebody wondered about the cliche "Celtic Pride" and how it applied to this team.
It doesn't, Bird said.
He added: "We're making our own tradition."