LARRY BIRD RETIRES : It Was Just a Hate-Love Relationship : Basketball: The Lakers wanted to kill the mocking Bird, until they got to know him. Then they just wanted to beat him.
If you want to know what the Lakers thought of retiring all-time basketball superstar Larry Bird, it’s simple.
They hated his trash-talking, hick-from-French-Lick Celtic-green hide.
Of course, they admired him too--grudgingly--and became so friendly with him over the years, he seemed to have evolved into their godfather from Boston, earning a spot in the hearts of Laker fans far different from those of Red Auerbach, Kevin McHale or Danny Ainge.
When Bird appeared in civilian clothes at Magic Johnson’s retirement ceremony last February, he was cheered loudly by the Forum crowd, surprising him so much he winced.
Said Bird, to laughter: “I’m not the one retiring.”
By the mid-1980s, Bird and Johnson had gone from non-speaking rivals to friends. Johnson talked a reluctant Bird into coming out for the Dream Team and, a year in advance, refused to pose for a Sports Illustrated cover until Bird was included.
Bird made commercials with Michael Cooper, with whom he’d wrestled for a decade, all the while carrying on a woof-and-counter-woof duel, and with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is portrayed as winning a bet from Bird and making him shave his head, too.
But if their rivalry turned friendly, it was always a rivalry.
And for years, there was nothing friendly about it.
Bird and Johnson, foes in the 1979 Indiana State-Michigan State NCAA tournament final, still TV’s highest-rated college basketball game, fell neatly into the old Celtic-Laker rivalry, such as it was. To that point, the teams had met in the NBA finals six times, with Boston winning all of them.
It took five seasons before the first Bird-Magic faceoff in the finals. By then Johnson and the Lakers had two NBA championships, Bird and the Celtics one. To paraphrase the immortal words of ABC’s Keith Jackson, they were still two guys who . . . didn’t like each other very much.
“He hated me,” Johnson said in a 1987 interview. “I hated him. We really didn’t know each other. . . . We didn’t even speak. We might hit hands before a game, that’s about it.
“The media played a strong part, but when you’re a fierce competitor like we are and you’re used to winning, and you run up against a guy who’s similar to you, it’s like, ‘I don’t like this guy.’ Because you know he can beat you. You always respect a guy for his ability. That doesn’t mean you have to like him while you play him.”
Said Bird: “Hate is a strong word, but I sure wanted to beat him.”
Then came their first NBA finals in 1984. That was the series the Lakers gave away--their view--or folded--Boston’s view.
Gerald Henderson stole James Worthy’s pass in Game 2 for a game-winning layup and a 1-1 tie.
McHale pulled down Kurt Rambis in Game 4, the Lakers blew a five-point lead in the last minute of regulation and the Celtics won in overtime for a 2-2 tie. Bird had 34 points and 17 rebounds, Johnson missed two key free throws.
A Forum fan threw a beer in M.L. Carr’s face after Game 6 with the series headed back to Boston. Bird advised the Lakers to “wear hard hats on the bench instead of oxygen masks.”
Bird scored 20 points with 12 rebounds as Boston won Game 7, making it Boston 7, Lakers 0 in NBA finals competition.
Nor were Bird and his teammates loath to mention it.
“The Celtics would talk to us, ‘Magic tragic,’ things like that,” Cooper said in “Winnin’ Times,” by Scott Ostler and Steve Springer.
“They’d sing to us, ‘Off to see the Fakers (to the tune of “Off to See the Wizard”), that kind of. . . . They were the Muhammad Alis of basketball. You might get a couple players here and there, but not like the Celtics, constantly, the whole team almost.
“Larry tells me one time, ‘I’m going to wear you out on this play, Mike.’ He comes off a cross pick by Ainge and I’m trailing him like I’m supposed to, around Robert Parish. Bird takes one dribble. Parish rolls to the hoop, Bird makes a great pass, and Parish dunks. And all Bird does is laugh at me: ‘Ha, ha ha!’ That kills you when they do that kind of. . . . “
Said then-Laker coach Pat Riley: “To me, they have no class at all. Psychological warfare--if that’s what their ploy is--so be it. That’s their personality, but it’s classless.”
A year later, the Lakers toppled the Celtics in a rematch, breaking through in the Game 6 finale at Boston Garden.
Soon after, Johnson and Bird met for the first time off the floor. Converse, their shoe company, asked them to do a commercial together, and they discovered they didn’t dislike each other at all.
So, they moved into their friendly rivalry phase, highlighted by a last playoff meeting in the 1987 NBA finals and their classic Game 4 shootout at Boston Garden.
With 12 seconds left, Bird hit a three-pointer for a 106-104 lead.
With two seconds left, Johnson drove right and hit his “junior, junior skyhook” over McHale and Parish to put the Lakers up, 107-106.
At the buzzer, Bird squeezed off a 20-footer out of the corner . . . but hit the back of the rim.
With a 3-1 lead in the series, the Lakers closed it out in six games, ending an era.
The Lakers made the next two NBA finals. The Celtics, meanwhile, were eliminated by the Detroit Pistons in 1988, then saw Bird’s back give out the next season, rendering him day-to-day for most of the rest of his career.
When Johnson retired last November, he called a handful of friends first, including Bird. Bird was so shaken, it took him a week to say anything publicly.
“I don’t really think of him as a brother, but every time I’ve seen him, I’m always happier,” Bird said. “If I ever had an idol, he’s probably my idol because he plays the game like I try to play it.”
Johnson chose the Celtics’ lone appearance at the Forum last season for his retirement ceremony so Bird could attend. As it turned out, Bird was in the midst of an extended absence because of his back, hadn’t appeared in public for weeks and wasn’t expected to make an exception, but he got on a plane and flew across the country.
Both men had long since noticed that their destinies seemed intertwined and had long since decided they liked it that way.
“When we retire, we’ll probably build a house next door to each other and not even know who the neighbor is,” Bird once said. “It’ll just happen.”
It’s one step closer to happening.
Times staff writers have special memories of the Lakers’ nemesis. C4
Around the NBA, the Celtics’ forward is called one of the greatest of all time. C4
Larry Bird’s career statistics and highlights. C9