Bird reigns as prince of parquet Embraced in return, coach shows Boston he's still a winner

Parish aids 'awesome' day

Afterward, he admits 'biggest' Pacers win

January 19, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

BOSTON -- At first, Larry Bird refused to look up. Not even a glance. Even as the FleetCenter faithful erupted when he was introduced, even as the fans chanted, "Larry, Larry, Larry," Bird's singular focus was on the parquet floor.

The crowd just got louder. And louder. And, finally, Bird looked up to acknowledge the fans. He even raised his left arm and waved. By that time, even Bird knew that -- as much as he wanted to -- he couldn't treat this as just another day, just another game. This day was special, a time to celebrate a part of the fabled past of the Boston Celtics.

Bird was back in Boston with the Indiana Pacers, coaching a game for the first time in the city where he established himself as one of the NBA's best clutch players. Robert Parish also was back, returning to help raise his "00" jersey to the rafters of the FleetCenter -- the 21st time a Celtics number has been retired.

Two of the 50 greatest players in league history were center stage in Boston again. And in the end, not even a 103-96 loss by the home team could ruin the day.

"It was a great moment, great to see Robert's number retired and great to see Larry here coaching," said Minnesota Timberwolves vice president Kevin McHale, who shared a moment with Bird and Parish at center court during the halftime retirement ceremony. "We spent a lot of time on that court together. Those days are all in the past now. All we can do now is sit back and watch everybody else play."

Coming back to Boston wasn't a game that Bird circled on his calendar. In fact, Bird said he didn't really think about the game until a month ago, when he remembered some friends wanted tickets.

Extremely wary of the media spotlight, Bird tried his best to avoid becoming the event.

"That [coaching against the Celtics] means absolutely nothing to me," Bird said before the game. "I always had a good rapport with the fans, and the reason is I played hard, I played hurt and I won championships for them. But that's all in the past."

Not to the people here, who still remember Bird's 13 great seasons. The newspapers here had huge profiles on Bird. Fans wore No. 33 Boston jerseys and held aloft homemade signs.

Bird's entrance was magical: He walked onto the playing floor precisely as the digital clock in the arena struck noon. As he came into full view, the theme song from the television show "Welcome Back, Kotter" blared over the public address system.

The fans roared.

"If the game was played next door [at the Boston Garden], it would be different," Bird said when asked before the game whether the moment would be emotional. "I have absolutely no ties to this building. To me, we're playing a different Celtic team. There's really no one, other than Dee Brown, that I really know.

"For me, emotionally, playing against the Boston Celtics really doesn't mean a lot. Playing for the Celtics meant a lot."

And Bird was present for the ceremony honoring Parish -- the final honoree of maybe the best front line in basketball history. Together, Parish, Bird and McHale won three NBA titles.

When Parish entered the court at halftime, the crowd began chanting, "Chief, Chief, Chief," the nickname Parish picked up because teammate Cedric Maxwell thought he resembled the stone-faced Indian in the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

Longtime Celtics executive Red Auerbach assisted Parish in hoisting his banner to the FleetCenter rafters.

"As Red and I were raising the flag, I was flattered for the acknowledgment, that the Celtics thought enough of Robert Parish to retire his number," Parish said. "It ranks right up there with winning a championship, being selected as one of the 50 greatest athletes in the NBA. It's definitely a highlight in my career."

Maybe the highlight of the day was the moment when Parish, McHale and Bird walked to center court together and were showered with applause. The three shared a brief laugh at center court.

"Kevin said that if the three of us were playing that we'd be up instead of down one," said Bird, whose team trailed by a point at halftime.

But with Rik Smits scoring 25 points and Reggie Miller hitting 20, including a Bird-like three-pointer with 1: 23 left, the Pacers prevailed, sending Bird into a high-fiving frenzy when he let his guard down in the locker room.

"It was like the Toyota commercial, with everybody jumping up and down," the Pacers' Jalen Rose said, describing Bird in the locker room after the game. "He was going crazy. A lot of us were surprised, but we understood. I mean, it's Larry Bird in Boston."

Even Bird admitted: "It was definitely the biggest win since I've been here, for personal reasons. The fans know how I feel about them."

With yesterday's win, the Pacers maintained the best record in the Eastern Conference (26-11). Should that continue, Bird would earn the right to coach in the All-Star Game in New York, although he repeated his intention not to do so.

"Yeah, I'll be in Florida when they're playing that game," Bird said. "Those plans were made back in October. I have no desire to coach an All-Star Game. I have no desire to ever go to an All-Star Game again."

All Bird wants these days is a low-key existence. He seeks no special treatment. His post-game news conference was in the coach's locker room -- and not in a room set up to accommodate the hundreds of media members that mobbed him.

But in a city where he became one of the greatest players in league history, Bird yesterday could not be just another guy.

"It was just so awesome to be out there today," Bird said after the game. "I remember the first time I came here and told [the fans] I would play through pain and do my best to win championships for them.

"I feel like I held up to my promise. And they held up to theirs."

Pub Date: 1/19/98

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