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LARRY AND OSCAR
Like a praying mantis trying to get comfortable on a lawn chair, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stretched out as best he could over a hotel couch in Houston that couldn't come close to containing all of his haunches, hinges, and high-tension wires.
"At first," he said, "basketball was something I did when the lights were on in the playground, just because I liked it." He was Lew Alcindor then, a bookish Harlem Catholic who developed a hopping hook shot out of necessity, because most of his straightforward attempts were being blocked.
"I saw a movie, Go, Man, Go!, about the Harlem Globetrotters. In one scene, Marques Haynes dribbles past Abe Saperstein in a hotel corridor. After that, I worked at handling the ball. I didn't want to be just a good big man. I wanted to be a good little man, too."
He had to come to terms with his size, estimated at seven foot two. "In school," he said, "I was ashamed that my head was so high over the rest of the class. I searched for positive role models so I could be proud of myself. For a long time, I couldn't find any."
"But you eventually did?" I asked him.
"Who were they?"
"I'm not sure I want to say."
"Are you crazy?"
We laughed together, but Kareem stopped first.
"The Empire State Building," he said softly. "The redwood trees."
Of all the caravans in sports, basketball's were the most intimate. Because of their numbers, baseball and football teams always traveled on chartered planes and customarily filled out the cabins with lawyers, advertising men, and other supernumeraries. But a basketball troupe typically consisted of a dozen players, a coach or two, a writer or three, a radio broadcaster who was his own engineer, and a combination trainer-travel secretary who taped the ankles and organized the plane tickets.
We waited with everyone else for undependable commercial departures, inevitably the first flight out in the morning, the only defense against a huge fine for blowing a winter game. So the band was up every day around 5 a.m., bleary-eyed vaudevillians playing one-night stands.
On a hotel van to the airport, the topic among the Celtics who weren't still comatose was rock-and-roll music.
"Who's Bruce Springsteen?" Larry Bird wanted to know.
The first one to get his breath back, the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy, answered perfectly. "Larry, he's the you of rock 'n' roll."
Bird sighed. "Where have I been?"
On a basketball court, of course.
With a very good eye and a pretty good mind, Bird grew up in the southern Indiana town of French Lick. He sharpened his eye in endless games of schoolyard "horse," and wasted his mind in the process. "Wasted" may be too strong. "Neglected" is better.
It isn't precisely true that he thought only of basketball, but he thought of everything else only in terms of basketball. He perfunctorily went to class and mechanically did his homework only because he noticed that the kids who skipped class and ditched homework were the same ones who missed the foul shot in the end.
His best friend was that way. In high school, when the other players practiced free throws at 6:30 in the morning, his friend slept in. At the regional finals their senior year, the friend missed the front half of three one-and-ones and the team lost in overtime. Nothing was said afterward. But when their eyes met in the locker room, they both felt a collision of parting. The one going on to college was filled with unbelievable loneliness.
Bird lasted exactly twenty-four days at Indiana University. In years to come, the common assumption would be that he was intimidated by coach Bobby Knight, an undisciplined disciplinarian given to ordering haircuts while throwing furniture. In fact, nothing about basketball daunted Bird. Everything about Bloomington did.
Just the process of registering for classes was overwhelming. The thought of attending them was petrifying. Suddenly self-conscious about his countrified grammar, he sat mute in the midst of his new society. Actually, what finally put him to rout was the chilling sight of a half-empty closet. His roommate was a preppy little guard named Jim Wisman, who as a sophomore would attain a kind of immortality as the party of the second part in a famous photograph in which Coach Knight is tugging at a player so vehemently that the uniform shirt is straining like a bowstring. Wisman's side of the closet brimmed with herringbone jackets, button-down shirts, and madras ties. After waiting for Wisman to fall asleep, Bird silently packed his few pullovers and jeans and hitchhiked back to French Lick, the weary old spa town that, in its day, provided sulfurous cures to Al Capone and FDR. Knight is not the type to chase after any player who runs away, but something about this boy made him wish he could be softer. "Have you seen him lately, Coach?" someone asked about a year later. "You ought to see him. He has shot up from six-six to six-nine." Besides growing, Larry spent the year cutting grass, painting park benches, manning a municipal garbage truck, and imagining a life in construction. His father, a wood finisher at the Kimball Piano & Organ Company, killed himself that year with a pistol. His father had gone directly from eighth grade to a life of work. Still awash in basketball offers, Larry decided to try again, at Indiana State in Terre Haute.
As long as he could remember, he had dreamed of glorious victories on the basketball court. But, it's funny, in none of his dreams did he ever make the winning shot. He always made the good passes. So this was the way he played. Without much help, he almost took Indiana State to a national championship. Earvin "Magic" Johnson and a better supporting cast took Michigan State instead. Accepting the College Player of the Year trophy, Bird showed how reticent and rural he still was by the inappropriately casual clothing he wore to the luncheon and the solitary word he uttered to the assembly. "How's your finger?" the presenter asked. "Broke," he replied.
Crafty Red Auerbach had already claimed him for Boston through a junior-eligible loophole, and the floundering Celtics immediately were themselves again. Alumnus Bob Cousy declared he had never seen such a passer. Old center Bill Russell said this was a player who would improve everyone else on the court. Away from the court, Bird worked to improve himself. In the middle of a three-year run as the National Basketball Association's Most Valuable Player, he was spotted in the Oakland airport reading Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s thick paperback Robert F. Kennedy and His Times. Glancing up from page eighty-eight, he moaned, "This is going to take me three years."
"Then why are you reading it?" I asked him.
"I dunno, I saw a made-for-TV movie . . ."
This was a lie.
He was reading it because a man who lives in Boston has to know something about the Kennedys.
Basketball couldn't be his whole life, could it? "Last summer," he said with a wry laugh, "I caught myself shooting around one day for five hours. I thought, 'What's wrong with me?' "
As Bird strode through the Oakland terminal, the public plumped and patted him in that way they do that takes some getting used to. "Everyone wants to be a part of something, I understand that now," he whispered aside. "In college I didn't. But I've gotten better."
On the plane, he took the least convenient seat for himself in order to accommodate me, insisting to one teammate after another that I was with The New York Times Magazine. Larry seemed unable to hold the concept of Time magazine in his head.
Bird and Wayne Gretzky, the reigning Most Valuable Players for the defending world champions, would be together on the cover of Time. The proposition was that they were fundamentally the same person: straw-haired country boys, one too fragile for the business, the other too agile for his size. (The day I went to see Gretzky, believe it or not, free concert tickets were being passed around the Edmonton locker room, and Gretzky wanted to know, "Who's Neil Diamond?" Where had he been?)
Bird and Gretzky saw and played their games from the same vantage point, several moves ahead of the moment, comprehending not only where everything was but also where everything would be. Shown photographs of unremarkable instants on the ice-like the wall decorations in the Oiler offices-Gretzky could place the unpictured performers here and there around the borders and even recall what became of them the next second. Glancing at the basketball photo in the morning paper, Bird's automatic thought, essentially a reflex, was to note what time the photographer had to snap the picture in order to make the deadline.
"I'll be going to Brantford, Ontario, to see Gretzky's little brother," I told Bird. "Then I'm off to French Lick to see yours."
"Do you know Bob Ryan?" he asked.
"Of the Globe? Sure."
"I knew him for six years before I let him go to French Lick."
"Larry," I said, "I'm not applying for a visa. I'm going to French Lick. I'm sure I can show myself that burg in five minutes."
He laughed, at first silently and then loudly. "I'll make you a deal. Leave my little brother alone-he's as shy as I used to be-and I'll have my big brother pick you up."
As a boy, Bird was not so much aware of the NBA, either at seven or seventeen. He knew everything about every contemporary Indiana high school basketball star, but he never saw Elgin Baylor on television. What little lore he had, he drew from a French Lick dwarf called Shorty, proprietor of Shorty's Pool Hall, who informed Larry and his brothers that their father had been a terrific basketball player and might have gone places had he not left school after the eighth grade and succumbed to a tragic thirst.
"People always ask me, 'Who's the best of all time?' " Bird said. "I have no idea. People probably tend to forget how good players really were. I'm definitely one of the top ones today, but calling anyone the best ever is too harsh a statement. I put myself in the same category with John Havlicek, someone I know worked for everything he got. Who do you say was the best?"
That's an easy question to answer but a hard answer to explain.
Oscar Robertson, of course.
Excerpted from The Bases Were Loaded (and So Was I) by Tom Callahan Excerpted by permission.
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