Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Larry. Legend.

Larry Bird turns 60 today, and here's another of those "God, have I really been alive this long?" moments. Why, it seems like yesterday we were standing outside the Indiana State locker room, begging former coach Bob King to let us talk to him.

Bob King would not. He had a policy, that year Bird was a sophomore, not to have his star disturbed by clamoring media hordes. In retrospect, it was simply King trying to protect a  painfully shy young man from coming off as, well, a painfully shy young man -- or worse, a rube. But at the time, it just made us all grumpy, and a trifle pathetic.

"Please?" I remember one reporter whining.

Suffice to say it was not me. Not exactly a landmark moment in professional media behavior, though.

In any case, the painfully shy young man is 60 now, and much has happened since then. Bob King fell ill. Bill Hodges took over as coach. And Larry Bird became a phenomenon, a sensation, as Indiana State went undefeated, reached the NCAA championship game and lost to Michigan State and its own phenom, Magic Johnson.

That game, and what happened later, tied the two men together forever. It's probably not too much to say that no two men ever breathed who were as important to their sport as Bird and Magic were to basketball.

Essentially, they saved the NBA, which was fast devolving into a niche sport as the 1970s came to a close. Bird and Magic, and in particular their battles against one another, made the NBA appointment viewing again. It was a glorious revival of the NBA's most celebrated rivalry, Lakers vs. Celtics for a new generation.

Bird's role in this, it must be said, was far more complicated than Magic's. He was a white star in a predominantly black sport in a nation whose laws and power structure historically favored whites. And he was always seen through that prism -- even though he actively, and admirably, disdained it.

In truth, he turned every racial stereotype on its head. He was the white kid from the white-bread little town in southern Indiana -- the self-described "hick from French Lick" -- who proved to be far more comfortable in a racially diverse cosmopolitan setting than most. His game melded the prototypical deadly Hoosier jumpshot with the instinctual flair and swagger of a New York City playground. And in an era when whites considered talking smack to be disagreeable (i.e.: a blacks-only thing), no one in the NBA was better at it than Bird.

He was the best three-point shooter, the most intricate passer, the most astute judge of angle and physics of his time. Along with Magic, he made sharing the ball as elegant as scoring points; 30 years along, the best player of his generation, LeBron James, is an advanced version of both Bird and Magic in his ability to see the floor and distribute the basketball.

Bird, meanwhile, is an executive now, the president of the Pacers. And he has no problem speaking  out when he needs to. But in some ways, he's still the shy kid Bob King tried to protect that long-ago winter.

A couple of years ago, for instance, I found myself in Indianapolis, working on a magazine profile of the Pacers then-coach, Frank Vogel. I talked to Vogel. I talked to a couple of players. But Bird, I was told, would not be talking, even though he was draped over a courtside chair not far away.

It was that night with Bob King all over again -- except this time, for reasons I never divined, Bird changed his mind. He ambled over, shook my hand and amiably answered every question I had.

I didn't even have to whine.

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