Much of the time, Larry Joe Bird played basketball alone, dawn to dark, in the schoolyards and driveways of his tiny hometown in southwest Indiana. "Larry'd play anywhere he could find a hoop in French Lick," said his mother, Georgia Bird. "He felt he had to be perfect, and a lot of people say that's the way it turned out."
It was never easy to find a real full-court game in French Lick or, for that matter, in Loogootee, Paoli, Santa Claus and all the other towns off State Highway 56.
"French Lick's only got about 2,000 people, so you can figure out the numbers," Bird said. "You ran out of kids to play with after a while and you ended up playing by yourself. There just weren't that many people around."
If you walk through the streets of Boston these days on a spring afternoon, be it in the tony sections like the Back Bay or Beacon Hill or in low-income areas like Roxbury, you can hear school kids on the basketball court assigning themselves Celtic identities. The lankier ones will assume the role of Kevin McHale or Robert Parish. The guards will be Dennis Johnson (if they like to shoot) or Quinn Buckner (if they can't). Only the local braggart or genuine prodigy will dare say, "I'm Bird."
But whether he was playing with friends or by himself, Bird never assumed a mask. When he was shooting a desperate jumper as the scoreboard clock in his mind ran down to the final buzzer in some far-off championship final, he was never John Havlicek or Elgin Baylor.
"I was just myself," Bird said. "I didn't need none of that to keep me in the game. I always knew I wasn't very quick. I knew I couldn't jump too high. The only way I could succeed was on know-how. So I didn't watch anybody else, really. I watched myself."
Teammate Kevin McHale comes from Hibbing, Minn., a small town that was also the home of Bob Dylan. "I have this theory," McHale said of himself and Bird. "Us country boys who didn't have a city playground to grow up on learned how to shoot right away because there's not much else you can do. You can get some pick-up games, but you're always playing the same guys. Sometimes they can challenge you because they've learned all your moves, but after a while you learn on your own. You spend hours and hours out there by yourself."
It's hard to hit fly balls without someone around to shag them. It's not much of a challenge to play football with trees as tacklers. Of all the major American sports, basketball is the one that adapts best to solitude and imagination.
Bill Bradley, who grew up the son of a prosperous banking family in Missouri and went on to play for Princeton and the New York Knicks, used to put slivers of lead in the soles of his sneakers and play hundreds of games of 'round-the-world against himself. He would drill himself on shooting with the opposite hand, dribbling blind-folded, following up missed shots.
Bird does not possess Bradley's intellectual ambitions. Instead of a career in the Senate, Bird's immediate retirement plans run more toward "going back home" to fish in Lake Potocha and be with old high school buddies like John (Beezer) Carnes. And yet Bird's ability to teach himself the game so thoroughly and properly that the extraordinary becomes instinctual is reminiscent of Bradley. The difference is that Bird, now 27, is four inches taller and a world more gifted.
"People said I was from a small town and wouldn't be able to play college ball, but I knew I could," Bird said. "People said the same thing about the pros, but I knew I could play in this league. I taught myself things like a fadeaway shot because I knew I wouldn't be jumping over too many people. I just worked at it, that's all.
"Sometimes, though, I wonder how much better I might have been if I'd grown up playin' in the city. Hard to tell, I guess."
Until the game begins, Larry Bird is not exactly anyone's athletic ideal. True, he is 6 foot 9. That does distinguish him from most mortals, but beyond his height, Bird has the musculature of a weekend racquetball player. He hardly leaves his feet on jump shots or rebounds.
"I don't care what you say about his athletic ability," said Celtics Coach K.C. Jones. "He's the best all-around player I've ever seen. He can do it all and he makes everybody around him better. He's a winner. I can't imagine this team without him."
"The best ever," said Bob Cousy. "I used to think it was Elgin. Then when Doctor J. became really consistent I thought it was him. But no one in all my years in this foolish game has ever been able to do so many things so well."
Bird operates in a time warp. He is the science fiction character who sees everything around him in slow motion while he, and only he, has the chance to make just the right move that changes the course of events. Like a rock garden in the middle of Tokyo, Bird provides a certain stillness, a tranquility to the furious traffic around him.
While everyone else is racing up and down the court and from sideline to sideline, Bird has the presence of mind to thread a pass, make a steal or just take a little step that meaks all the difference.
That is why Bird is so dangerous when he is holding the ball. The opposition seems almost nervous waiting to see what he will do because he can do everything. You can let Magic Johnson shoot from long range. You can guess that George Gervin won't pass. Oscar Robertson may be one of the few players to compare with Bird, yet Bird's height gives him an advantage even there.
In the current playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Bird has attracted double and triple coverage as if he were a dominant center on a mediocre team. But since Bird plays with excellent players and is about as selfish as Mahatma Gandhi, the Milwaukee defense has failed.
Bird's tricks are manifold. When he is guarded one on one, he will hold the ball above his shoulders with his right side facing the basket. From that position, Bird can throw in a jumper, pass or make a head fake and drive to the basket. From the sideline, Bird's fakes look as obvious as something out of an Adolph Rupp instruction manual, and yet Bernard King found himself chasing Chimeras for two weeks.
"He's the best forward in the game," said King, Bird's principal competition for the most valuable player award.
Because of his relatively slow feet, Bird is not as good a one-on-one defender as Los Angeles' Michael Cooper, for instance. Instead, he usually lets Cedric Maxwell play the opposition's big scorer and assumes a middle-linebacker role on defense. Of all the league's glamorous forwards, including Julius Erving, King and Marques Johnson, Bird is the best defender.
This year Bird averaged 24.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 6.6 assists and 38.3 minutes per game. He hit 49.2 percent of his field goals and 88.8 percent of his free throws, tops in the league.
In the 1981 playoffs, the Celtics overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat the 76ers on Bird's winning jump shot in the seventh game.
"There was no other place in the world I wanted that ball except in my hands," he said then, and the ball has been with him ever since.
"The first time I negotiated with Red (Auerbach) for Larry it was a 100-day war," said Bird's agent, neighbor and close friend, Bob Woolf. "Nobody has to tell you how tough Red can be in negotiations. But the second time, it was easy because I never had to sell Red on the worth and value of Larry Bird. I felt he should be the highest paid player in the game. Every hall of famer and former coach you talk to will tell you that he's the best all-around player ever. Red didn't need much coaxing."
"Larry still surprises me," Auerbach said. "He makes the extraordinary play all the time. I always loved Bird's competitiveness, his passing and his shooting, but I never thought he'd be the rebounder or the leader he is. It was like (Bill) Russell. No one, not even me, thought the guy would ever be that good. Guys like that you don't mind paying."
According to Woolf, the seven-year contract Bird signed last year is worth $14 million, while Moses Malone's $13-million, six-year pact depends on performance bonuses.
"The money," Bird said, "that don't mean anything. I don't even think about it. It hasn't changed me or the way I play."
Asked what he thought was the most amazing thing he'd ever seen Bird do, M.L. Carr said, "I once saw him pick up the check."
It was Bird himself who came up with the tag "just a hick from French Lick."
The town got its name from the critters who used to come out of the local spring and lick the minerals off their fur and from the old French fort that used to stand in the area.
Bird's father worked as a piano finisher for the town's primary employer, the Kimball Piano & Organ Co., while his mother raised six children.
"I met Larry when he was a freshman. He was 14 years old," said Gary Holland, Bird's coach at Springs Valley High School. "He was no more than an average player at first. It's hard to say what happened. He just got better is all. Better all the time."
One of the transformations that helped turn Bird from an ordinary high school player into a potential pro was a serious injury.
"I broke my ankle and had to sit out almost an entire season when I was a sophomore," he said. "When I came back, I began to throw these fantastic passes I had never thrown before. I have no idea where it came from, but there I was, throwing all kinds of passes. I remember being in the locker room after the first day back and guys asking, 'God, Larry, where did you learn to pass like that?' Suddenly, I had a whole new way to play.
"It was great, because when you pass the ball like that, everybody likes you, and it was also great because when you pass the ball well it makes it easier to shoot. It just gave me a whole new dimension to my game."
Holland speaks with a certain reverence of his time with Bird.
"Larry was like he is now. He made everyone around him seem better than they were. He's just able to foresee everything that's going to happen. I was 25 when I had him, my first coaching job. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me. I'm almost sorry it happened so soon."
That dimension and some added inches and strength drew Bob Knight's attention at Indiana. But Bird was intimidated by a school with 33,000 students and he dropped out after a month.
Bird's parents had been divorced for a few years by then and soon after Bird left school, his father shot himself to death. Bird also had a brief, unhappy marriage to a girl who had been a cheerleader and friend at Springs Valley. Their child lives with Bird's former wife in Indiana.
After five years in the league, reporters know better than to ask Bird about those two events in his life. Even a close friend, like Woolf or former teammate Rick Robey, say they have never heard him talk much about it.
"Larry handled it very well," Georgia Bird said. "I don't want to dwell on this, but he learned a lot and grew up a lot."
While waiting for a second shot at college, Bird held a job with the city highway department painting white lines on roads and collecting garbage. After a red-shirt year at Indiana State, Bird had an extraordinary career there that culminated in a loss to Magic Johnson's Michigan State team in the 1979 NCAA final. The red-shirt year allowed Auerbach to draft Bird while he was still a junior.
The Celtics were 29-53 the year before Bird's arrival. With only Bird added to the starting lineup, they went 61-21.
"What more do you say when a team improves like that?" asked Bucks Coach Don Nelson. "What more can you say about Larry Bird?"
When Bird came into the league, some suspected he was little more than the hick he claimed to be. He still drives a Ford Bronco, chews tobacco, favors bib overalls or warmup suits to Saville Row suits, has a collection of 600 trucker caps, talks in fractured backwoods syntax and treats interviews like an appointment for root canal surgery.
"But he ain't dumb," Auerbach said. "He's dumb like a fox."
In the offseason, Bird spends his time in French Lick fishing on the lake or on Cape Cod in a house next door to one owned by Woolf. When the Celtics are at work, he allows no reporters--be they from the local penny-saver or CBS--near his split-level house Brookline.
"I'll tell you how much he's changed," Woolf said. "He still loves to do his lawn more than anything. There isn't a day I go over to his house and there isn't somebody there from Indiana, some teammate or school friends. He isn't impressed by celebrities or by himself. And the guy still calls me Mr. Woolf."
While Magic Johnson thrives on an emotional relationship with the crowd and radiates the pleasure of mastery and play, Bird creats a quiet aura on the court. It's the slow-motion world he can control, a replica, perhaps, of the game he played in his mind as he practiced by himself in French Lick.
"People here in French Lick--this is a real small town--they don't get impressed by much," Holland said. "Larry just likes to be left alone and play basketball. He's always been that way. I don't expect that'll change much. It hasn't so far."