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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

New England Sports 366, #77: Larry Bird

For St. Patrick's Day, it's mandatory to turn to a Boston Celtic for this list. While Bill Russell might be one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Larry Bird is the historic face of the Celtic franchise. He is our generation's greatest Boston sports hero, our answer to the Ted Williams of our grandfathers, the Bobby Orr of our fathers, the Tom Brady of our sons. Larry Legend was this improbable superstar, this lanky and languid white dude who looked like he ambled out of the corn fields of Hoosiers to dominate a sport that was evolving from its rural roots to become a faster, more physical, more urban game. Bird and Magic were more than the saviors for a struggling league - they were the missing link, the transition from the world of Cousy and Cowens and Havlicek to the world of Jordan and Iverson and LeBron. Basketball was growing up, and these guys were the last of the old and the first of the new.

Bird resonated with us for his aw-shucks Hick from French Lick persona, for his unmatched skills as a passer and shooter, and yeah, probably because he was a white guy. I have no doubt that just as young black kids have a primal need to see Black Panther hold his own among the celluloid superhero set, white kids saw themselves belonging on the basketball court in Larry Bird. I know the racial politics and implications are far more complicated than that, and there are those far more qualified to opine on that aspect of the conversation. I'll just stipulate that I know it's a factor.

Larry Bird ranks among the top five NBA players of all time, and I will not argue this. He could shoot from anywhere on the floor (and sometimes even off it), could find teammates with an almost sixth sense, and was an underrated defender. He was a full-blown predator on the court, able to sense a weak spot in an opposing team and viciously exploit it, capable of almost sleepwalking through three quarters of a game and then taking control late for a win.

He was a damn wizard, is what he was. A champion. He showed up in Boston when I was five and retired when I was seventeen. His shootouts against Dominique and his finger raised at the three-point contest and his trench warfare against Magic were the DNA of my sports childhood, the soundtrack to our driveway pickup games. I was 11 when his Celtics won the NBA Finals in 1986, and it wouldn't be until 2002, when I was 27, that we'd have another title in New England. It seems impossible to young Boston fans of today, but we went an entire decade and a half without rooting for a champion before the Patriots broke the logjam and the millennium of dominance began. In that time, our memories of 1981 and 1984 and 1986 and Larry, Kevin, and Robert kept our fandom warm.

I have a lot of favorite players. There is no list that doesn't have Larry Bird in the top three.

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