BORN IN FRENCH LICK, USA : LARRY BIRD : After 6 Years in Boston, He Still Likes Fishin', Willie Nelson; 'Bruce Who?'

Times Staff Writer

In one breath, Larry Bird tells you that the ultimate satisfaction comes from being the best player on the best team and winning championships.

In the next breath, the best player on the Boston Celtics, perhaps in the National Basketball Assn., tells you that if he had it to do all over again the team wouldn't be the thing. Instead of one for all and all for one, it would be Larry Bird for Larry Bird.

"I'd rather play an individual sport," he says. "I'd rather not have to depend on four or five other guys. A lot of nights, two guys might be playing well and the other guys might not be into it. It's tough to win if guys aren't going to give everything they've got.

"I just wish I could be in a sport where I didn't have to depend on anybody but myself. Then, if I lose, I've got nobody else to blame."

What sport would you choose, someone asks.

Without hesitation, Bird says, "I'd be a race-car driver."

Because of the speed?

He shakes his head.

"I'd just want to see if I could make it through one of them crashes," he says.

"Those guys, going 200 miles an hour, crash into walls, and then they climb right back in their cars. Those are the toughest individuals ever. They're a different breed."

You've heard the testimonials for Bird.

"He's slow, and he can't jump," Boston Coach K.C. Jones says. "But he shoots the eyes out of the basket. He can pass brilliantly. He can bring the ball upcourt, and he can hit both boards as well as anyone.

"Then, there are the little things he does, game after game, like diving for loose balls. He's a superstar. He doesn't have to hustle every second, but he does.

"I put him as the best of all time," Jones says.

New York Knick Coach Hubie Brown says: "People are still wondering who the best player in the league is. People must be blind."

You've studied Bird's statistics.

This season, he was second in the league in total points to Michael Jordan (2,295-2,313), second in scoring average to Bernard King (28.7-32.9), second in three-point field-goal percentage to Byron Scott (.427-.433), sixth in free-throw percentage (.882) and eighth in rebounds per game (10.5).

In one game, Bird scored 60 points. In another, he had 19 rebounds. In another, he made 16 of 17 free throws. Against Utah in February, he had a triple double through three quarters and needed only one steal for a quadruple double. But, because the game was decided, he resisted his teammates' efforts to persuade him to return in the fourth quarter.

You've witnessed his accomplishments.

In all six of his NBA seasons, Bird, 28, has been on the first team of the Eastern Conference all-stars. He was the league's MVP last season, when he also was MVP in the playoffs, and probably will be the league's MVP again this season. It is considered no coincidence that the Celtics were 29-53 the year before Bird's arrival but have been one of the NBA's elite teams ever since, winning championships in 1981 and 1984.

Michael Cooper, who has the responsibility of guarding him when the Lakers play Boston, goes so far as to say the Celtics would be an average team without Bird.

"He gives them 35 to 40 wins, just by being on the court," Cooper says.

You've watched him play.

How many times have you seen Bird, a 6-9, 220-pound forward, pull up on the dribble, fake a shot, draw two defenders and then pass to an open man under the basket? Or pull up, fake a pass, send defenders scurrying in search of the ball and then stick it in the basket from 20 feet?

Bird is an artist, making spectacular, no-look passes, leading the fast break, breaking open close games with timely three-point shots. But Bird also is a blue-collar worker, crashing the offensive boards, diving for loose balls, guarding the passing lanes on defense.

Above all else, Bird would like to be known as a winner.

"You can hold me down, but you can't hold me down in the fourth quarter," he says. "The fourth quarter is my quarter.

"I'll take most of the shots in the fourth quarter. I don't care if the defense knows it. If they try to do something about it, I'll make the pass so someone else can score."

Asked one day last week whether this has been his best season, Bird thought for a moment and said, "It's hard to say. If we win the championship this year, it probably will be my best year, my best overall year. But the championship is the bottom line. If you don't win the championship, you're a failure."

That's the player who says, "I eat, drink and sleep basketball 24 hours a day."

As professional basketball players go, he is a different breed.

But, despite what he might want you to believe, there is more than that to Larry Joe Bird.

Self-proclaimed as The Hick from French Lick, a resort town of about 1,800 people in south-central Indiana, Bird still commits flagrant fouls against the English language and never, ever wears a tie.

On the day he accepted the MVP trophy last summer, Bird mowed his mother's lawn in French Lick, and then took a private plane to Salt Lake City, where he showed up at the black-tie awards ceremony in a short-sleeved sport shirt and blue jeans.

"I knew it was a banquet and all that, but I didn't care," Bird told the Washington Post. "I hate doing things like going to restaurants where you have to wear coats and ties. What for? All they want is your money, feed you and get you out."

When in Boston, Bird still lives in the same suburban upper-middle class home he bought as a rookie and with the same woman he dated in college at Indiana State, Dinah Mattingly. He drives a four-wheel-drive Blazer.

"I don't need a Mercedes," he once told Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe. "They're nice cars, but I can't see putting $50,000 or $60,000 into a car, when our house (in French Lick) was worth $10,000."

Even though he frequently is the subject of articles, he seldom reads newspapers or magazines. Neither does he watch much television.

Overhearing a conversation earlier this year about Bruce Springsteen, Bird asked who Springsteen was.

"He's the you of rock 'n' roll," Shaughnessy told him.

"Where have I been?" Bird said.

Asked to name someone he admires, Bird has to think for several moments.

"Nobody really," he says. "Oh, I like Willie Nelson. I don't know why. I don't know him at all. I just like his singin'."

Bird seldom goes out on the town because he doesn't like to be the center of attention, which he is whenever he goes to a restaurant or a movie or even to a department store to buy a pair of socks.

"It's strange when you have all this money but you can't go into a mall and spend it," he says.

Bird says he has never seen Cheers, the television show about a Boston bar, but he has his own favorite bar here, which he frequents because the regulars don't treat him as special.

It's for these reasons that he enjoys going home in the off-season to French Lick, where his mother, four brothers, a sister and his daughter by a previous marriage live. There is a full-length basketball court in his mother's front yard, where he spends several hours each day. But his friends aren't as impressed by his hook shots as by what he does with a hook, line and sinker.

"Here, in Boston, we talk about basketball," he says. "There, it's fishin'. I don't know half as much about it as I think I do. Those guys down there are fishin' all the time."

One of Bird's worst fears is that people in French Lick might get the idea that stardom has gone to his head.

In a conversation two years ago with Mike Littwin of The Times, Bird said he went shopping for cowboy boots and fell in love with a pair that cost $285. But he didn't buy them.

"How can I tell the people in French Lick I spent $285 on a pair of boots?" he said.

But Bird has changed.

While he has not necessarily become more sophisticated, his tastes have.

"When I left French Lick and went to college, I couldn't believe how big Terre Haute was," he says. "It only has 75,000 people, but I thought it was a big city. After two years there, it seemed so small.

"When I came here, I thought I didn't belong in the city. But by the time I had a chance to give it any thought, I'd adjusted to it. Boston's a great city for me. It's a tough city, but a great city."

Tough?

"Yeah," Bird says. "I almost got hit by two cabs on the way over here."

Sounding like the director of the Chamber of Commerce, he speaks excitedly about Boston's charms, particularly its ethnic diversity.

"Have you been over to Chinatown yet?" he asks. "You've got to try it. It's like a whole different world. Same thing over in the Eye-talian section."

Bird recently was observed reading Arthur Schlesinger's "Robert Kennedy and His Times." Since he is hardly an avid reader, his friends interpreted it as further evidence of Bird's acceptance of his environment. How can you live in Boston without a working knowledge of the Kennedys?

Asked if he will continue living in Boston when his basketball career is behind him, Bird says: "If you had asked me that a couple of years ago, I would have said no way. But, yeah, I want to live in Boston.

"I've changed quite a bit. Nobody says anything when I go back to French Lick, but I'm more aggressive. It always takes me a couple of weeks to calm down. It's laid back, not like L.A., but quiet.

"I'll go back some because my family and friends are there, but I'm sure I'll always have a place here."

As Bird talked, still dressed in his practice uniform after a workout last week at Boston Garden, other reporters began to crowd around his locker.

He would have avoided the scene in his college years, when he refused to grant interviews. But each year as a professional, he has become more comfortable with the press. While he jealously guards his privacy, not allowing reporters or photographers to visit his home, he will talk openly in locker rooms.

Early in the conversation, CBS analyst Tom Heinsohn, a former Celtic player and coach, interrupts to ask Bird for an interview.

"When you get through with these guys, I want to talk to you about illegal defense," Heinsohn says.

"I don't know what an illegal defense is," Bird says.

"I don't think anybody does," Heinsohn says.

An hour and a half later, while Heinsohn waits on the court with a camera crew, Bird still chats with reporters.

More evident now than in previous years is Bird's sense of humor.

Speaking of the inconveniences that go along with being a highly visible superstar in a sports town such as Boston, he says: "I bet 90% of the people in this town know who I am now. You know what makes me mad? What are those 10% doing?"

Bird's humor sometimes carries over onto the court, such as when he made several long-range jumpers in a game this season against Detroit?

"Where'd a white boy from the farm learn to shoot like that?" Piston guard Isiah Thomas said, teasing Bird.

"Tossing cow chips," Bird deadpanned.

In the playoffs against Atlanta two years ago, Bird taunted Hawk forward Dominique Wilkins.

"Get ready to have a nice summer, Dominique," Bird said whenever he got close to Wilkins.

But Bird doesn't always leave them laughing.

The reason Philadelphia forward Julius Erving pounced on Bird in a game early this season, it has been rumored, was because Bird kept chanting, "42-6," while guarding Erving. At the time, Bird had outscored Erving, 42-6.

Bird is not afraid to speak his mind.

Talking about the differences in his first coach with the Celtics, Bill Fitch, and K.C. Jones, Bird says:

"Coach Fitch is the best coach I've ever played for. When he got here (in 1979), the team had won only 29 games the year before. The franchise was going nowhere. We needed a coach who was more like a drill sergeant.

"But after we started winning, the players rebelled against that. It got to the point where we played to win in spite of him. Everybody started turning against him. That's why he left.

"We brought in K.C. Jones, who's a better person than he is a coach. But that's what we needed. All of our success in the last couple of years has been because of K.C. He's always been a winner."

On his own role on the court, Bird says:

"When you play with individuals long enough, you start knowing where to get them the ball. Now with Kevin McHale, I take chances with him that I shouldn't. I give him the ball in some spots that I know are out of his range. He's either going to make the shot or he's going to walk. But he's such a good athlete, I want to give him the chance.

"Dennis Johnson, I can get him the ball anywhere, and he can make things happen. The same with Robert Parish. Danny Ainge is the one guy I can't figure out. He runs around so much, he's like a wild man."

Other Celtics describe Bird as the consummate teammate, whether it's with his unselfish play on the court or his one-of-the-guys attitude in the locker room.

When Eric Fernsten was the Celtics' 12th man, Bird diverted endorsement offers and speaking engagements his way.

"I need my teammates more than they need me," Bird says. "It takes more than one guy to win a championship. If I stood around and didn't do the work, I'm sure there'd be some resentment. But I'm not that type of individual.

"I believe in this organization. The Celtics won a heck of a lot more championships before I got here than since I got here."

As for individual goals, he says the only one he has is to improve each year.

For that reason, he would like to avoid off-season surgery on his right elbow. Bone chips have limited his effectiveness off and on for the last two months.

"I wouldn't be able to play basketball for 10 or 12 weeks if I had surgery," he says. "That doesn't sound so bad now because I'm playing a lot. But if I go a week or two without playing, it gets pretty nerve wracking.

"I want to keep improving. If I lay around, I can't improve. People keep saying I can't improve every year, but I want to show them they don't know everything. I've still got five more years left."

That's the amount of time remaining on his contract, which pays him $1.8 million a year.

He says that when his current contract ends, so will his career.

"When it's time to go, it's time to go," he says. "I've played basketball for a lot of years. When I go off the court for the last time, that'll be it."

Considering he will be 33 at the time, might he not reconsider, someone asked.

"I know in five years, I'll be done," he says. "When I sat down and talked contract with Red Auerbach before last season, we argued and negotiated over the number of years. We decided on six, which is what it was at the time.

"I said I should play six more years and let that be it. He realized that was all I had left. He said, 'We'll get the best out of you, and you'll be done.' "

What then?

"I'm going to go fishin'," Bird says, "and do all the other stuff I've missed out on."

'I need my teammates more than they need me. It takes more than one guy to win a championship. If I stood around and didn't do the work, I'm sure there'd be some resentment. But I'm not that type of individual.'

--LARRY BIRD

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