For those who have spent any time around Larry Bird, there was never any question that he would reclaim the Boston Celtics' single-game scoring record. It was just a matter of how soon.
According to Bill Fitch, coach of the Houston Rockets and the Celtics' head man for Bird's first four seasons in the league, "You could go up to Larry on any given night and say, 'We want you to go out and get 50 points tonight and forget about all the other things you do,' and he would easily get the 50 every time. That would be like a night off for him."
Four days after Boston's Kevin McHale set the record of 56 against the Detroit Pistons March 3, Bird was asked how long it would be before he scored more than 56. "If I'm hot, playin' good and in the flow, I could score 60. You can't predict it, though. It'll come when you least expect it."
Yet there were any number of indicators in the air in New Orleans on March 12. The Celtics were coming back from three days of rest. They were playing a team, Atlanta, that had upset them at Boston Garden the last time they met, at the time only the Celtics' third home-court loss of the season.
In addition, the player that Bird would be guarding, Dominique Wilkins, had scored freely against Boston during the season, twice getting more than 40 points. Throw in the fact that the Hawks had played the night before in Atlanta against tough Central Division rival Milwaukee, and what happened at the Lakefront Arena might not have been such a surprise.
Bird would score exactly 60 points. He shot 22 of 36 from the field, including a three-pointer, and had 15 points from the foul line. Exhibiting the showman's flair for the dramatic, he broke the record with the three-pointer. After the game, he said, "The only person that could have stopped me was K.C. Jones (by pulling him from the game)."
Bird has total confidence in his abilities, on his impact on the basketball court. Winner of a close contest for the NBA's most valuable player award last season, the 6-foot-9 forward has no true competition for the award this year.
Averaging almost 40 minutes a game -- tops in the league -- he shoots 52 percent from the field and averages 29 points, second only to the New York Knicks' Bernard King. He is 11th in the league with 10.5 rebounds per game and third in three-point field goal percentage. He shoots 90 percent from the foul line, best in the NBA. His 439 assists lead the league's front-court men.
But as impressive as they are, those numbers tell only the end result of his game and not what it took for him to get there. It has often been chronicled that Bird, 6 feet 9 and 220 pounds, isn't the quickest player in the NBA, or the highest leaper, and that's indisputably true. But it's also unquestioned that at 28 years of age he roosts at the pinnacle of his profession.
Perhaps his deficiencies are the biggest reasons why he has excelled. Perhaps unlike more naturally gifted athletes, basketball is Larry Joe Bird's life. Philadelphia's Julius Erving is a walking conglomerate, the Lakers' Magic Johnson a People magazine-esque sensation.
Bird plays basketball. "I heard Julius say that it's harder for him to get enthuiastic about games," Bird says. "I hope that never happens to me. I eat, sleep and drink basketball 24 hours a day. I hope I never lose that."
With Erving's days in the NBA dwindling, Bird realizes that the league, more corporate and public relations conscious than ever before in its 38 years, will be looking for someone to assume the Doctor's mantle as spokesman and ambassador. Already it's starting. Chicago Bulls' Coach Kevin Loughery says Bird is "the best we've got."
But Bird hopes that the league looks right past him.
"Doc said that he never asked to be Mr. Everything, that people put him in that situation," Bird says. "I won't let that happen to me. I think you should do what you do best as long as you can, and that's it. They'll ask more, the league, but I don't want to give my time to the NBA.
"I don't work for the NBA; I work for the Boston Celtics. I don't even like being the captain, shakin' hands with the refs and askin' 'em how's their family, then be out there cussing them out an hour later."
Just basketball. Of course, there are many NBA players who profess the same intensity and love of the game as Bird, yet their games fall woefully short in comparison. It's hard to explain why. K.C. Jones feels it's because Bird is a "total student of the game. There's so much talent now. Players say, 'I've got moves. Go ahead and score. I'll get back at you.' They rely on talent and instinct, but you need brains to play, and that's what Larry's got."
In discussing the player that he is, Bird quickly recalls the player that he was, back in French Lick, Ind. But, still, he contradicts himself. One time he says that the biggest influence on the way he plays was "myself. You can just observe other people and see the right way and wrong way of doing things. Besides, there weren't too many people willing to hang around a playground for four or five hours dissecting my every move."
A bit later, however, he'll talk about how "I've never had a bad coach," or talk about someone like Jim Jones, a "biddy ball" instructor during Bird's formative years. "He was always around. It could be six or seven o'clock and a bunch of us playin' outside and he'd come by and stop and make pointers. He did it so much that what he said just started coming naturally."
Bird didn't really get the chance to put everything together until his sophomore year at Spring Valley High. He remembers that while playing, or rather sitting on the bench, while his team played Middletown in the sectional round of the state tournament, he was startled by hearing someone call his name.
"I kept lookin' in the stands, wondering which of my friends it was, but it turned out it was the coach, and he wanted me to go into the game," Bird says. "Later on I was at the line with a chance to win the game, and I remember thinking, 'Hey, I could be a hero.' I liked that, being on center stage with the ball in my hands making things happen."
Today, the attention that he receives is both frightening and amusing. No matter what he does with the basketball, even a flinch gets a reaction. Recently against the Dallas Mavericks, he faked a cross-court pass, a ploy that no fundamentally sound player would try. The move still drew two defenders toward him, arms flailing. Then, coolly drawing the ball back, he made a shorter pass to a teammate, open because of the fake, for an easy basket.
Two days earlier, the Celtics had lost yet another home game, this time to the Chicago Bulls. Although Bird had been relatively controlled and the outcome decided, Chicago Coach Kevin Loughery couldn't relax.
"I just kept waiting for him to do something," Laughery says. "When he doesn't, you don't know why. You just hope that whatever's been going on keeps going on."
Bird says that "even in the second quarter of games you hear fans sayin', 'Okay, Larry, take over now.' As if I can say, 'Okay, Chicago, move over now so I can take over.' "
But what else would someone expect? They've seen him win two games in less than a week with last-second shots, then reply, when asked why he took the final shots, "Because I wanted to; unless someone was wide open, there was no question that I would."
After the Dallas game, an admiring Mark Aguirre, an all-star forward, said of Bird: "He's just the scale to measure yourself by as a player. Passing, shooting, hustling . . . not many superstars play the game the way he does."
That comment is in keeping with the almost contradictory nature of Bird's game. Not many superstars have to play the game the way he does to be superstars. Surely there isn't another NBA great so dependent upon his teammates to bring out his individual brillance.
One of the prettiest sights in the game is Bird trying a three-point shot, releasing the ball almost flat-footed, his arms crooked at a less than ideal angle. Yet, why is he so wide open? Was it the faked pass to Kevin McHale or Robert Parish, posting ominously in the low post just outside the lane? Was it the defender's fear of rushing up to guard Bird, only to be pump-faked and dribbled around, then watching Bird make a layup? Or, even worse, drawing another defender to him, then passing to a teammate for an easy score, as in the Dallas game?
Bird plainly says that, "I use my teammates so much in order to make plays for me." Fitch says that, "He sold people on that 'Hick from French Lick' bull, but he knows his opponents -- and teammates -- better than any other player in the game.
"His rookie season we had a guy named David Thompson from Florida State who was determined to show the world that Bird was nothing. He went at him hard, and Larry, because his game is so grounded in knowing his teammates, really didn't do anything back. There weren't any no-look passes, no great assists, nothing.
"This goes on for about 10 days until we get to our first exhibition game. We're playing the Knicks in Madison Square Garden in front of 20,000 people and we can't decide if we should start him because we're worried that he's gonna get killed. We do it anyway and Larry goes out and scores 21 points and gets about 10 rebounds and assists. He hasn't looked back since."
One could suppose that Fitch's story was another example of Bird making those around him better; unheralded Thompson, strictly off of his play against Bird in camp, was one of the last players trimmed from the Celtics' roster that season.
But even if one doesn't want to stretch the point that far, one can't deny the effect that Bird has upon teammates. Surely it's no coincidence that the Celtics improved from 29-53 to 61-21 the year he joined the Celtics. It's also true that Parish, considered by many to be a nothing player when with the Golden State Warriors, hasn't missed playing in the All-Star Game since arriving in Boston five seasons ago.
Bird's knowledge is so acute -- or his confidence in his capabilities so great -- that he can be brutally honest about teammates. Yet he engenders no harsh feelings or creates no ripples of dissension. When he says of guard Danny Ainge, a former infielder for the Toronto Blue Jays, "He's got good hands; it's too bad he couldn't catch a baseball," or of McHale, "If Kevin's not in the right spot, I hate to throw him the ball, because all he'll do is shoot it, even though he can't hit from there," or of Cedric Maxwell, "His hands depend on if he wants to play that night or not," it sounds like statements of fact and not inflammatory commentary.
He is perhaps most brutal in his running verbal battles during games. After all, knowing who can be talked out of his normal game is almost as important as knowing a player's favorite spots on the floor. During the final game of a miniseries against Atlanta two seasons ago, anytime Wilkins got near Bird, he was told to "Get ready to have a nice summer, Dominique." More recently, it was rumored that the true cause of the early season fight between Bird and Erving was Bird's constant chant, "42-6, Doc; 42-6," the two men's point totals at the time of the fight.
The psych job can apply to teammates as well. Last season's championship series between the Celtics and Lakers turned around in the fourth game, more specifically when McHale lassoed Kurt Rambis with a clothesline to the neck. The play came days after Bird lambasted his squad's performance in the previous game, a 11-point defeat, by knocking the Celtics' macho pride, saying, "We played like a bunch of sissies."
Fitch has a rather pithy way of describing Bird's ego tampering, saying the forward "Is always two steps ahead of the dog catcher." Bird won't admit to the ploys, although one can get a measure of how his wheels turn when he relates the story of contract negotiations before his rookie season.
With Bird recovering from a broken index finger on his shooting hand, the result of a softball game accident, Fitch and Boston President Red Auerbach tried to use the injury as wedge in the bargaining, questioning its effect on Bird's game.
"They brought me to Hellenic College (the team's practice site), threw me a ball and made me take some shots," Bird says. "Like I couldn't shoot anymore! But I wouldn't have missed no matter where they put me on the floor, because what they didn't know was that I had been shooting there every day the week before."
About shooting, Bird says he can't: "I'm not a great shooter, I need to shoot and shoot and shoot to get it right. Some guys can stay off all summer, come back to a gym and get 50 points. I shoot so many wild shots, stuff like fadeaways and off-balance ones, that I need to play a lot to get a feel for the ball."
To that end, for most of the season, he usually arrives at the Garden as long as 2 1/2 hours before a home game, more than an hour earlier than he has to. Alone, he will wander about the court shooting jump shot after jump shot until they are second nature to him. He credits the routine for his banner season thus far.
"I don't have the talent that Dominique has," he says, "or the perfect way of doing everything like a Michael Jordan. Magic's awfully good; he can do a lot of things, the same with Isiah Thomas.
"I just try to do whatever it takes. Some guys can compensate (for their deficiencies); some can't. I'm one of the fortunate who can."