BOSTON -- After nearly 2 1/2 hours of testimonials, of highlight video, of hugs and high-fives and endless standing ovations, the stage was cleared, the white spotlight shone down and Larry Bird stood alone.
Wearing his old Celtics warm-ups, and holding a microphone instead of a basketball, he stood on the center-court stage. The penultimate standing ovation from nearly 15,000 pairs of hands had finally subsided, and now, as Bird addressed the crowd, the voice of a male leatherlung pierced the air.
"We love you, Larry."
"I know what you're trying to do," Bird said. "You're trying to make me cry. And you probably will."
He didn't cry. At least, not publicly. What Larry Bird did was thank Celtics fans for 13 years of cheers that carried him to a level higher than he had ever dreamed.
The feeling was mutual. Which was why the Bird tribute last night was worthy of royalty. It was, like the man himself, unforgettable. For Celtics fans, it sent shivers down spines, tears down cheeks.
"I leave basketball, the game I love, forever," Bird said. "I dedicated my life to basketball, to the Celtics. I played through pain when I never thought I could get out of bed. I did my best to please the fans . . ."
"You did, Larry," a leatherlung yelled.
"I didn't do enough," Bird said.
Typical Larry. The man wins three league MVP awards, leads the Celtics to three NBA championships, establishes himself as the greatest forward who ever played the game, and he says he didn't do enough.
"This was a big night," Bird said afterward. "This was a great night. I was nervous coming out here. I was emotional before I walked out. I was scared. But that's OK. I've been scared here many times. I've always been nervous walking into Boston Garden."
Larry Bird wasn't the only one who got the standing ovations last night. There were standing ovations for Cedric Maxwell. For Dennis Johnson. For Robert Parish. For Kevin McHale. For Red )) Auerbach. They presented Bird with all manner of things that will end up in some trophy case.
And of course, there was Magic Johnson. They came into the NBA together in 1979, they retired together before the 1992-93 season. As pillars on separate coasts, they held up the NBA and lifted it to new heights. And the rivalry between them, and their teams, may never be equaled.
The Boston Garden has never rocked for a Celtics opponent as it did when Magic, clad in his gold Lakers warm-ups, strode across the red carpet, mounted the stage and embraced Bird. When all is said and done, when the battle's lost and won, we dream of moments when great rivals can come together and share the love and respect they have for each other. That's usually fantasy, but last night it was beautiful reality.
When Magic slyly opened his gold Lakers jacket to reveal a Boston Celtics T-shirt, what Celtics fan's heart didn't swoon? Sadly, this was one fantasy that would remain just that.
"We started a friendship that will last forever," Magic said, "but you know you've caused me a lot of sleepless nights. You were the most eager to play. I feared you more than anyone because I knew if there was a little time on the clock, this man would find a way to win that damn game. Thank you for helping me improve my game, and put me up to a level that I don't know how I got up there, myself."
"Magic," Larry said, "can you guarantee you're never gonna come back again?"
"Then get the hell out of my dreams."
It was a night of electric dreams, of old memories rushing back. But the flesh of the present, sometimes, too much flesh, %J reminded us of the inexorable march of time. As Rick Robey or Dennis Johnson waddled across the red carpet, we were reminded not just of their mortality, but of ours.
No one's mortality was more painfully obvious than Bird's. When the lights were up, he sat on a high stool with emcee Bob Costas, reminiscing about his brilliant career. But the second the Garden went dark, Bird stood up, his aching back too painful to sit.
It was such a wonderful, marvelous night, that rare night when athletes do more than perform, they talk about the wonder of their performances, opening a larger window on their world.
You've never seen Robert Parish or Cedric Maxwell smile as wide as when the crowd stood and banged palms so hard and so long you'd have thought it was for Bird. This was their night, too, a night when old Celtics came together to remember how great it was here, when they were united in green, and better than any basketball team in the world.
And before Bird stood alone at center court and said "Good night, Boston," he and Auerbach each took a rope and pulled and pulled until Bird's 33 had been raised to the rafters. Eighteen-month-old Connor Bird, nestled in his father's arms, didn't know what was happening. Someday, his father, and a million Celtics fans, will tell him.
"Getting your number up here, with the elite of the elite," Bird said, "is the ultimate."
# So were you, Larry.