Subject: The Yellow-Crowned French Licker, also known as the Hoosier Hoopster, Throwback Thrush, Larry the Loon, and just plain Bird.
Habitats: A creaky old building called the Boston Garden, an antiseptic newer nest named the Hartford Civic Center, other arenas throughout the country.
Habits: Migrates northeast to New England for the winter, where it gathers with a similarly green-breasted brood called the Celtics and engages in a game of prey called professional basketball.
Characteristics: Pronounced beak, puny mustache, tall, thin, slow, doesn't fly very well, aggressive, determined, confident.
Behavior: Despite apparent physical disadvantages, usually dominates games, particularly in waning moments.
General: Extremely popular, revered in many places, constant object of attention, usually followed by flock of odd ducks called sportswriters.
Field trip: In an effort to add to the ever-growing body of knowledge, subject was observed on three occasions, before during and after recent games in Hartford and Boston.
Date: Oct. 22, 1987. Site: Hartford Civic Center. Opponent: Philadelphia 76ers. Score: Celtics 111, 76ers 107.
Bird is standing on the court. It is two hours before gametime. Contrary to popular belief, Bird is not always the first one out on the floor. This night that distinction belongs to Danny Ainge, a feathered friend known for his whining song and pained facial expressions.
Bird shoots alone. He doesn't talk to anyone. The only sound is the clean rip as ball parts net. At one point he hits 16 in a row. A Civic Center usher approaches the ballboy and asks if he can throw one back to Bird. The ballboy demurs, the usher persists, pleads, outright begs. Finally he is rewarded. He bounces a pass to Bird, who takes it without acknowledgment and shoots. The awestruck usher rushes away to a giddy group that pats him on the back and shakes his hand.
Just before the opening tip, referee Earl Strom walks past and makes a crack about Bird's new haircut. Bird laughs. He should be suing his barber. In addition to the trimmed locks, there is also a new slimness to Bird, more muscle tone, even the suggestion of a tan. On the court, this manifests itself in quickness. As the game progresses, Bird shoots, tips, dives, defends, rebounds, passes, excels. There is little doubt the 15,134 are devoted Bird watchers.
Fifteen minutes after the game, Bird is surrounded by the odd ducks in the locker room. He is wearing a red polo shirt and jeans. Two cans of Lite beer sit unopened next to him. He is very patient, often answering the same question several times as waves of questioners surge and retreat. Awe doesn't stop at the locker-room door.
Date: Nov. 6, 1987. Site: Boston Garden. Opponent: Milwaukee Bucks. Score: Celtics 125, Bucks 108.
As the fans file in, the question is always the same. Where is he? Where's Bird? A middle-aged man with two teenage sons sits in one of the chairs at the end of the Celtics bench. A guard promptly shoos him away. "I just want to be able to tell my grandchildren I sat in Larry Bird's seat," he says.
Another man approaches Celtics trainer Ed Lacerte and asks to shake his hand. He does, then looking at it cries, "Larry," as in I just touched the hand that touched the hand -- or more probably taped the ankle. All the while a platoon of people with square black cameras fires away. Can presence be captured on film?
Fittingly, Bird scores the first official Celtics hoop of the season on a drive down the lane. If they are surprised by that, they are in semishock a short while later when he goes high to block a shot at the other end. But the best is yet to come. In the fourth quarter, Bird slaps away a shot under the Celtics' basket, then gathers in a full-court pass to score an uncontested layup at the other end.
In between the assorted heroics, Bird's behavior is usual: lots of time sliding across the floor, stares to kill at the referees, the constant wiping of his hands on the soles of his sneakers.
The media is gathered around an entrance to the Celtics locker room after the game. The questions and questioners ebb and flow.
"We turned it on in the second half," Bird tells the first group.
"We turned it on in the second half," Bird tells wave number two.
"We turned it on in the second half," Bird tells the final wave.
Eventually, the media gaggle dwindles down to a few. Bird makes no attempt to fly. Only after the last question has been asked does he get up.
Date: Dec. 11, 1987. Site: Boston Garden. Opponent: Los Angeles Lakers. Score: Lakers 115, Celtics 114.
Two hours before game time, Bird is in a folding chair next to an announcer for WTBS-TV, which will broadcast the game nationally. The interviewer asks about Bird's consecutive free-throw streak in the Garden, adding he hopes the question won't prove to be a jinx. (It does.) At the end of the interview, the announcer tells Bird, "You know, you're a very nice man." Bird blushes a bright red
In the first quarter Bird scores 17 points, two on a drive in which he passes under the rim, switches hands in midair, then reverse spins the ball off the glass. At the half, he has 22 points, four rebounds, four assists and four steals. Johnson may have the Magic, but Bird's been the show.
But after Johnson makes a spectacular running bank shot to win the game and Bird's 35 points, nine rebounds and eight assists have been rendered moot, he still is ready to talk.
He is seated, as usual, on the training table when the media enters.
Though Bird's tone is even, the disappointment he feels is heard in his words: "It's sad we aren't playing the kind of basketball we're capable of . . . We let them come in here and beat us . . . This game could have made our season."
After 10 minutes, the questioners dwindle. "Is that it?" Bird finally asks. "Thank you," he says, getting off the table and leaving for the inner sanctum of the training room. As he walks away, he does so stiffly, the painful Achilles' tendon injuries he incurred earlier in the season apparently troubling him. He won't admit it, though. And you couldn't have told by his play.
This is indeed a rare Bird.