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Scott Ostler

Behold This Birdman of Boston

May 30, 1986|SCOTT OSTLER

BOSTON — It wasn't bad enough that the Rockets had to play the Celtics in Boston Garden, where the most recent Celtic loss is believed to be to the Ft. Huron Tugboats, back in the days when basketball shoes didn't glow in the dark.

No, the home court wasn't enough. The Celtics got more help, from the NBA, CBS and EMJ (Earvin Magic Johnson).

The NBA presented Larry Bird with the league's MVP award Wednesday, just the inspiration Bird needed to play out of his skull Thursday night and send the Rockets reeling back to Houston, trailing in the series, 2-0.

Larry didn't "aw-shucks" about the award. He accepted it graciously and lovingly, and talked about himself.

"This year I started out slowly because of injuries," he said, "but once they faded away I was in total control of my game the second half of the season. I just felt there was no one in the league who could stop me if I was playing hard."

As if to prove his point, he played hard Thursday night, and nobody stopped him. He had 31 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals, 2 blocks and a partridge in a pear tree.

He guarded Rodney McCray, who scored five baskets, at least two of them when Bird took a 58-second breather in the third quarter, causing Larry to rush back into the game.

So, the trophy inspired Bird, then CBS and EMJ took over. CBS flew Magic into town for a one-game gig as game analyst and token Laker.

How sad it must have been for Laker fans to see Mr. Magic in a suit and tie, sitting up in the broadcast booth, eye-level with the 15 Celtic championship banners. Watching the game.

Before the series, Boston sportswriter Bob Ryan wrote: "Larry Bird will relish the thought of the Lakers watching him on TV, and will make this series his personal showcase."

Well, did Bird put on a show for Magic Johnson in the Garden?

"I think so, yeah," Magic Johnson said, before slipping out the Garden's back door and heading to the Bahamas for a little R & R (Remorse and Rehash of the Houston series), "which was great, I'm glad he did."

On behalf of the city of Houston, Magic, thankee kindly. And happy snorkeling.

Magic also gave a pretty good nine-word synopsis of why the Rockets have lost their cool, why the team that played so efficiently and confidently against the defending world champion Lakers is looking like a YMCA pickup squad against the Celtics.

"They didn't know what a championship is all about," Magic said of the Rockets.

The Celtics know. Bird knows. He is grabbing the Celtics by the throat and dragging them to the title.

Maybe these aren't new tricks that Bird is breaking out for the Rockets and Magic and the free world, but the overall package is as fine as you'll see in a championship performance in any sport.

In the second quarter, Akeem Olajuwon picks up Bird on the baseline 15 feet from the basket. Bird leans into Akeem and fakes a pass into the middle. Akeem holds his spot.

Bird fakes again, this time so convincingly that Akeem looks away and steps back to help guard the recipient of the pass.

Aha. Bird keeps the ball and fires in an easy jump shot. As he shoots, Akeem is still looking for the pass. He does not see the shot. He is puzzled.

It is the equivalent of the old "Hey-pal-your-shoe's-untied" trick.

OK, it was a team win, Bird didn't do it alone. It just looked that way most of the game.

"He more or less surveyed the game the first six or seven minutes," said John Havlicek, one of the many Celtic alumni on hand for the concert.

"It was just a matter of time. I told my wife, the closer the game, the more he'll take over. There came a point when he needed to turn it up a notch, and he did.

"An exceptional game for Larry? No. It was a very good game for him, but he didn't show you everything. What he did tonight was a common thing if you see him play. To the casual observer, those were monumental plays.

"But that's about one percent of his repertoire."

C'mon guys, admit it, this was a better-than-average Bird performance.

"Yeah, I'd say it was awesome, again," Bill Walton said. "He had it all going. He was everywhere. It was great to be a part of a special moment like that, a real thrill. He just did whatever he wanted out there."

Watch Bird as he shoots. His eyes narrow and focus on the rim and his jaw juts out just a little and he makes a tough-guy face. Make my day. The ball drops through the net and Bird clenches his fist and drops back on defense.

This was the game Bird wanted. This was the game the Celtics said they couldn't afford to lose.

So they called in the MVP trophy people, and they called in Magic Johnson, and they all worked together to fire up Bird so high that he played on his own little cloud above the other nine guys on the court.

And when they sweep up the Garden this morning, for probably the last time this season, they'll sweep up the beer cans and hot-dog wrappers and the Houston Rockets.

"Just get us back to Houston," the Rockets will groan. "Just get us out of here and into our own arena, with our own fans, with a real wood floor, and we can get right back in this thing."

Right. And maybe Larry Bird won't get it together in Houston's Summit. Maybe the Celtics will forget how bad they want to win this title.

Maybe Bird will let up for just one game, slack off just a tiny bit, give the Rockets just a sliver of daylight so they can ease their foot in the door.

Maybe.

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