BOSTON -- The Indiana boys aren't stupid. In their minds, Larry was coming back into the game and there was no doubt that when he did it would be like George Bush welcoming Gen. Schwarzkopf back from the gulf, only somewhat louder.
"At halftime," recalled Indiana coach Bob Hill, "I said, 'Look, he's coming back into the game and the place is going to go crazy. They'll be pumped up.' Then I said, 'But he still has to play. Just being there will only take them so far. We've got to make him make his shots.'
"Well," sighed Hill, "he made 'em. And he passed. And he rebounded. All I know is that they'll be talking about him in Boston for the next hundred years."
In the world of sport, there are greats, greatests and there are legends. Ted Williams hitting a home run in his final at-bat is a legend. Nolan Ryan fanning 16 while throwing no-hitter No. 7 at age 44 is a legend. And right here on our stage, as Ed Sullivan used to say, Larry Bird continues to live out and expand his own legend.
With 4:23 remaining in the second quarter of this splendiferous NBA affair between the Celtics and Pacers, which Boston won, 124-121, to advance to the second round of the playoffs, Bird lost control of his dribble. The ball squirted loose. Larry went diving for it, landing not on his shoulder or stomach, but squarely on his right cheek. The other nine players ran to the opposite end of the floor. Larry Bird lay face down, motionless. The universal assumption was, "Oh my gosh. It's the back. Larry's gone for good."
But it wasn't the back, the oft-injured one that will require offseason surgery. It was his face. Larry Bird was groggy. The word after the game was "bruised right cheekbone." In Australia, they would probably say he was "concussed." OK, it wasn't the back, but it wasn't good news, either.
The Celtics were up by 48-46 when he left. When he came jogging out of the runway at the 6:46 mark of the third period, the lead was the same (73-71), thanks mainly to Reggie Lewis and Robert Parish. Let's just say the fans took note of his arrival. He told Boston coach Chris Ford he was ready to go, so in he went.
"When he first went out," said Ford, "I didn't know what to expect. He was back day-to-day again. I didn't know how many more minutes he could play, or even if he could come back out at all."
Concussed or not, this was Larry Bird, legend extraordinaire. In the last four minutes of the period, Larry was the '81, '84 or '86 Larry, the Larry whose omnipresence and basketball % 5/8 omniscience made him the individual personification of all basketball has to offer.
His deep jumper gave Boston a non-refundable lead. He ripped down rebounds. He started the first three fastbreaks the Celtics had managed since the opening period with artful lead passes. He conducted a "How-To" post-up clinic on all Indiana comers, driving baseline for a reverse layup three-point play out of one spin move and then turning to the baseline for a spinning runner for another three-point play. He triggered the Celtics to a 21-9 run in the final 4:46 of the period and a nine-point lead.
He would not discuss the injury, other than to say he had been knocked groggy. He just knew that as long as it wasn't his back, he was coming back in. A game like this is what he lives for.
And who knows about the back? We can't forget the back.
"I looked at the guy and I saw his face when he was making some of those moves on the baseline," said Hill. "The man was hurting. But he certainly finished the plays. Nobody is more determined."
Pain, says Larry. What pain?
"You don't worry about that stuff when you're on the court," he said. "You just go out there and play as hard as you can."
The Celtics needed every bit of Larry Bird's skill and guile to defeat a talented, well-coached and oft-inspired Indiana team. This was a championship series disguised as a first-rounder.
"It was a great game," allowed Bird, "because I was playing against the Pacers."
Life does get back to the basics, folks. Larry takes all this Hoosier stuff seriously. He had waited for 12 years to play in the postseason against the Pacers, and he wanted to be out there. Old wounds and feelings run very deep in the Bird psyche. He wanted to show those people in Jasper, Paoli, Logotee and assorted other locales in southwest Indiana that he was still Larry Bird and that the Celtics were still the Celtics.
And he wanted to win any woof-off with Chuck Person (each, appropriately, finished with 32 points). What Larry Bird is doing now has no Celtic parallel. He has not practiced in any real sense for over a month. Repeat: bad back, no practice, no chance to sharpen skills. He submits a triple-double in Game 1 and then heads to New England Baptist for traction. He goes out in the deciding game of an NBA series against a team playing superb basketball and hangs up a 32-9-7 line while shooting 12-for-19 (12-for-14 on twos).