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Open since October 21, 1998. Copyright PowerBasketball 1998-2000. All rights reserved.
Bird Watching: On Playing and Coaching the Game I Love
by Larry Bird and Jackie MacMullan
On August 18, 1992, I announced my retirement from the Boston Celtics. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
You have to understand how screwed up my back was at that point. I had been playing through back problems for almost ten years, and I just couldn't take it anymore. The pain was relentless. No matter what I did—whether I was standing up, sitting down, lying down, leaning over—I couldn't escape it. It had completely taken over my life. There were some days I couldn't even bend over to pick up a basketball, never mind try to shoot one. Some nights, I had to eat dinner sitting on the floor. Even lifting up my son, Conner, hurt so much that I had to stop doing it. When I'm hurting, and not able to play the way I want, I can be a pretty miserable person to be around. I don't know how my wife, Dinah, lasted through that last season of my career, because I was in pain all the time, which meant I was in a bad mood all the time too.
Maybe that's why when I walked up to the podium at my press conference in the Boards and Blades Club at Boston Garden and finally said out loud that it was over, I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. I can't tell you what a relief it was not to have to push myself through all that pain anymore.
I can honestly say I hated basketball at that point.
As soon as that press conference was over, me and some of my good friends, including my physical therapist, Dan Dyrek, went out and celebrated. There was nothing to be sad or sentimental about. It was time for me to be done. I had known for months before the actual press conference that I wasn't going to play anymore. When my back started flaring up in training camp, before the start of the 1991-92 season, I knew that was probably it, but I don't think I actually admitted it to anyone—probably not even to myself, really—until January or February of 1992. I wasn't afraid of life after basketball. It was more a matter of finishing a job. I don't believe in giving up in the middle of anything. But it really wears you out when you are in constant pain. I had what they call a nerve impingement, which meant the L-4 vertebra was sitting twisted and compressed on the L-5 vertebra, and there was a nerve trapped in between the two. It left my spine very unstable. The bone kept pushing itself into the nerves in my back, and it was just terrible. Dan Dyrek would work on it so he could temporarily push the bone off the nerve, but before long I'd be feeling that burning pain shooting down my leg, and I'd be in serious trouble all over again.
By this time Dan had been treating me for almost a decade, and he was really concerned about the permanent damage I might be doing to myself. There were a whole bunch of times we had serious discussions about retirement. We came to a compromise, and worked out a system where we'd make decisions from game to game. Dan would examine me, and if my back was really "hot," or agitated where the disc was, he would tell me I had to sit out. If Dan gave me a thumbs-down, that was the final word for that night. Neither the Celtics nor I questioned him—most of the time. Looking back, it was a ridiculous way to finish my career, but at the time I just put my head down and tried to get through it.
I missed 37 games in my final season. People knew I was hurting, but very few of them had any idea how bad it really was. It got to the point where I was wearing a brace almost all the time except when I was practicing or playing. I even had to wear it to bed. I really hated that brace. It was made of a quarter-inch of fiberglass and went from my chest all the way down to my hips, and it was really uncomfortable. But I knew it was necessary. One thing is for sure: I wasn't going out much at that point. I didn't want anyone to see me in that thing.
The day I finally didn't need that brace anymore, I took it outside and destroyed it.
Even though I knew I was playing my last season, I kept it to myself. The last thing I wanted or needed was a big commotion at every city we went to. I had no interest in a retirement tour. Our team was still pretty competitive at that point and that's all I wanted to concentrate on, getting as deep as we could into the playoffs and, if we caught a break or two, maybe into the Finals. Of course the media was speculating on how much longer I'd play, but I wasn't saying a word.
Well, not publicly anyway. I do remember walking into Dan's office early in 1992 and telling him, "Dan, the back is really bad. Just get me through this season and I'll quit."
Dan said what he had been saying for over a year: "Larry, you should quit right now. Your back is unstable. Every day you go out there, you are risking further damage. It's over. You have to stop playing."
I knew Dan was right, but I couldn't see quitting in the middle of the season. I promised myself I wouldn't do that, because people had bought season tickets that year thinking they were going to see me play. Most of them knew my back was bad and I might miss some games, but they were counting on seeing me at least some of the time, and I didn't want to let them down.
For the rest of the season I lived on anti-inflammatory drugs and wore that stupid brace. Both Dan and the Celtics trainer, Ed Lacerte, did the best they could to hold me together. It seemed we'd be talking every two weeks or so about retiring, but then I'd have a period of ten days or so where I felt okay, and that would be the end of it. Then, like it always did, the pain would come back. Both Dan Dyrek and Ed Lacerte have told me I played that last season in a state of unconsciousness.
The truth is, I should have retired a couple of years earlier, after I had my first back surgery in the summer of 1991. We had played Indiana in the first round of the playoffs that spring, and I was in really bad shape. The burning down my leg was so bad I couldn't feel my toes. I couldn't sit down, I couldn't stand up. I was in shock, really, but how could I stop in the middle of the playoffs? I remember after we lost Game 4 in Market Square Arena, it was about the worst I had ever felt. I wanted so badly to be healthy, because we had to go back to Boston for a deciding Game 5, and there was no way I could let that team beat us, because I didn't want to hear about it all summer from my friends who lived in Indiana.
I went to see Dan, and he started feeling around, and he said, "There's nothing more I can do for you." I left his office thinking, "Boy, this really is it." I got in the car and started driving, but the pain was so intense that I had to stop after about a mile and get out and walk around.
Somehow I managed to play Game 5 at the Garden. A lot of times I would feel lousy heading into the game, but after Dan worked on me a bit, and all my adrenaline got pumping, I could block it out. I knew I'd pay for it later, but that was later. We beat the Pacers in Game 5 and won the series, but not before I banged my head on the parquet floor chasing after a loose ball. I don't remember much of it, to be honest, because when they took me into the locker room I was in a daze. But I do remember one thing: after all I had been through with my back, no lump on the head was going to keep me out of the playoffs. I remember sitting in the locker room with our team doctor, Arnie Scheller, and after my head started clearing a little bit, I said to him, "Do I have a shot? Can I get back in there?" He said, "Hey, you've done enough. That's it for you." So we sit in that training room some more, and I keep hearing the crowd. They're chanting, "Lar-ry! Lar-ry!" I look at Arnie, and I said, "Aw, hell!" and I get up, I run through that tunnel, back onto the court, and the place goes absolutely nuts. Later, when I got hired by the Pacers, Donnie Walsh said he knew I would play. He said he knew I'd come back, and the place would go crazy, and we'd win the game, which is exactly what happened. Even so, we couldn't sustain the momentum. We ended up losing to Detroit in six games in the next round, and a couple months after that I had my first back surgery.
The procedure involved shaving the disc, as well as widening the canal where the nerves that led to my spinal cord sat. I knew the surgery was not going to solve all my problems. In fact, the pain was back within a couple months. Fusion surgery had been an option, but the surgeons warned me that very few professional athletes had ever played again following fusion surgery, and I wasn't interested in being a guinea pig. The truth? I was just trying to buy myself some time.
The same day I had my first surgery, I went out and walked ten miles. My surgeon was very optimistic. He said, "You should come back in January and I'll take another look, but I think you are going to do just fine." Well, Arnie brought the surgeon to one of our first games of the season. This doc knows nothing about basketball—he's an old hockey player. He came in after the game and he said to me, "Larry, the way you play this game, you're not going to last another month. I had no idea you did all this stuff. Hell, you don't spend any time on your feet." He looked kind of worried, but I didn't pay much attention. I was feeling great!
At the time, we were 28-5, and on our way to the best record in the East at the All-Star break. Not very long after that, I was shooting around before the game, and I turned a little funny, and boom! There goes my back. I couldn't believe it. I knew right then that was the end of it. I was in and out the rest of the season.
Once I realized my back was still going to mess me up no matter what, I seriously considered retiring right then and there. Dave Gavitt, who had come to the Celtics in 1990 to run the team, kept talking me out of it. Not too many people can change my thinking when my mind is made up about something, but Dave was different. We hit it off from the first day we met. Dave had a lot of innovative ideas about how to help the team, and I loved talking about basketball with him. You can tell he was a former coach—he had some really good Providence teams back in the seventies—because of how he approached people. He understood how a player saw the game, and understood that a team needed to have an identity, and that whatever went on in the locker room, or on the floor, was something that should be shared among each other, like a family.
I was really excited when Gavitt took over as the team's CEO. We needed someone with his basketball expertise making personnel decisions. I was sure he'd be the one that would win us our next championship—until my back interfered.
I went into Dave's office about four months after my first back surgery and told him, "Dave, I don't think I can go on like this. I'm not the same player I was. I can't play the way I want to anymore, and I'm thinking I should retire." He put his arm on my shoulder and said, "Larry, I didn't come here to throw you a retirement party. I came here to help you win a championship." He gave me a little pep talk about how special our team was, and how the NBA would probably never see another front line like me, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish again, and then he got into the whole thing about the Celtics tradition and what it meant to the city of Boston, which was why he had given up his job as commissioner of the Big East to take over the Celtics. I'm telling you, Dave was a pretty persuasive guy. He could get you all fired up. I knew he would back me up, whatever I decided, and I guess I didn't want to let him down. Besides, I agreed with him on one thing: we still had a chance to win a championship. As long as we still had a crack at that, it was going to be hard—impossible, really—for me to give up playing.
The last championship we won was in 1986. It was a dream season. Everybody played at the top of their games—me, Robert, Kevin, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge—and we had a great bench. We also had the two best centers in the league. That was the year Bill Walton played with us, and he was just phenomenal. He is the best passing big man I've ever seen, and I marveled at the things he could do, even though his feet were a mess and he wasn't anywhere near the player he had once been. That didn't matter on our team. Bill did what he could do, and that was more than enough. But what people tend to forget is that one of the big reasons Walton was able to have that kind of success was because of Robert Parish. Robert was an All-Star center, and he started every game, but there were many times when it was Walton, not Parish, who was on the floor in the fourth quarter. On a different team, with a different guy, that could have caused all sorts of problems. Some players get really protective about minutes, or when they are on the court and how much credit they're given, but not Robert. He was a true pro. He really didn't care how much he played, or when, as long as it worked for the team. That's why that year was so great, because it was all about winning. I'm sure there were some days that Robert wished he was out there, but he would never have said so. I'm sure, also, there were times Robert got tired of all the media attention Bill got—and believe me, it was a lot, which I appreciated, because it took some of the spotlight away from me—but in the end, Robert knew his team respected him, and that's all that really mattered.
Those are the kind of things I told my Indiana team when I took the Pacers job. Never mind what the outside world thinks—what do the guys who are on the court with you, day after day, think? Because they are the ones who know whether or not you've given them everything you have. I used to laugh when I read things in the paper about how important this guy was to our team, or how that guy wasn't helping us. Because many times they had it all wrong. Take Greg Kite. He was a center from Brigham Young who got drafted by the Celtics in 1983, and Bob Ryan, a sportswriter for the Boston Globe, was constantly killing him. He'd say things like, "He's a twelfth man that doesn't belong in the league, this and that," but what people don't understand is that most fans only see the games. They don't see practice. I always thought the practices were so important—I still believe that—to prepare other guys to play. That's why our 1986 team was so successful. We had Walton going against Parish every day. We had Scottie Wedman going against me for a number of years, pushing me every day. To the second unit, those practices were their games, especially to a guy like Kite who didn't play much. He wanted to beat us every day in practice. He never took a day off. He couldn't afford to. He was excellent for our team. He was a smart player, he knew everything we were doing, and he understood exactly what his role was. I wish I could find me a Greg Kite right now for the Pacers.
After that 1986 championship, everything fell apart. Walton stuck around another season, but he was hurt almost all of it, and he retired after playing only ten games in 1987. The Celtics drafted Len Bias that spring, and he died of a cocaine overdose. That was a real shock. I was taking a shower, and my mom came in and told me. I thought it was somebody's idea of a cruel joke. Then Kevin hurt his foot the next season, and by the time we got to the Finals against the Lakers, he was playing on a broken foot. It just seemed like we couldn't catch a break.
Just before the 1988-89 season, both of my heels started really bothering me. This wasn't a new injury. I had always had some pain down there. Dan said it didn't help matters that I never stretched those Achilles tendons. He also said there had been some inflammation in that area for some time. But what took this pain to an unbearable level was that, over time, with repeated trauma to that area, I developed bone mass in both heels. There shouldn't be any bone anywhere near there, and it was embedded in the tendon. I tried to play through it, but it wasn't going to happen, so they decided to do surgery on both heels and take all that bone out. Dan was against the surgery. He thought he could treat me without it, but I wanted the pain to stop. I told him, "Let's just get the stuff out of there and worry about the rest of it later." Originally the doctors said I would miss about three months, but I ended up missing the whole season. I was miserable. It's no fun watching your team struggle while you're sitting there on the bench in street clothes.
When I started my rehab that summer I knew I would never be the same. My legs felt different. The surgery took all the life out of them. I did all the exercises and all the workouts they gave me, but I couldn't move the way I used to. I could still score and rebound and all that, but defensively it really affected me. I didn't have the same lift, or side-to-side movement. It was very, very frustrating, but there wasn't much use in talking about it. I could either play on or give it up, and I figured I had a lot more playing to do.
Of course, that was before I had any real idea of how bad my back would get. I guess I should have known. The doctors had told me I had congenital problems. I was born with a narrower canal than normal where the nerves lead to the spinal cord. Then there are the joints in my back, called the facet joints. They are supposed to be aligned a certain way. The left and right joints should be parallel to each other, but the ones on my right side were at all sorts of different angles. What all of this meant was my disc was going to slowly break down over the course of my life. Dan says I would have had back problems whether I was a professional athlete or not. Just through the wear and tear of every day, my spinal area was deteriorating, and the disc was degenerating. And the worse that disc got, the more excessive motion it caused in my back. That created a wobbly area that had very little stability.
All of that may have been true, but when you are a kid running around playing basketball and baseball and everything else, you don't want to know that stuff. I didn't have any major injuries as a kid growing up, unless you count a broken ankle that I got playing basketball. I had no way of knowing my back was going to give out on me.
My first real back problems cropped up in 1983, when I went home to my house in French Lick for the summer to do some work on my property. One of the first things I wanted to get done was to install some tile around my basketball court, to help with the drainage. I was never much on hiring people to do work I was perfectly capable of doing myself, and this job shouldn't have been a problem. I needed some gravel to seal it, so I got my brother and his friend Eddie to help me spread it. They weren't doing it the way I wanted, so I said the heck with it, and I took that truck full of gravel and did it all myself. It wasn't the best idea I ever had. I woke up the next morning and I said, "Something is wrong." My back was killing me. I couldn't walk around, much less work out, and I was worried. I had only been with the Celtics for four seasons at that point, and we had already won our first championship, but I knew that if we were ever going to win another one I was going to have to be even better than I was the year before.
I didn't want to have to tell the team I was hurt, so I didn't do anything for about two or three weeks, hoping the rest would make it all better. But by then it was July, and I knew I had to get moving with my conditioning and everything for the season, so I called the Celtics team doctor, Tom Silva, and told him what had happened. He told me to put lots of ice on it. I did that for the rest of the summer, but it wasn't helping much.
I remember really suffering through training camp. Doc Silva would alternate with heat and ice, heat and ice, but it wasn't working. I remember after we played Philadelphia in an exhibition game at home, the pain was so bad I went to Silva again and said, "We've got to try something else." He said, "Larry, I don't know what else to tell you." He called in Dr. Robert Leach, who examined me, then recommended I be seen by this physical therapist, Dan Dyrek, who he thought could help me. I agreed to see Dyrek at my house the next day.
He examined me in my living room, with Doc Leach and our trainer, Ray Melchiorre, watching. He was twisting me this way and that way, and digging into certain areas of my back, and everything he did hurt a whole lot. He explained what he was doing as he went along, and I was listening to everything he said, but I kept looking at Ray and Leach, because I knew them, and I wasn't sure what the hell was going on. I was only twenty-six years old, and I didn't like the looks on their faces.
My first impression of Dan was pretty good. At least he wasn't telling me I needed heat and ice, heat and ice, because it was pretty obvious that wasn't going to work. I remember about an hour after they all left, I got up to turn on a light, and they were all standing in my driveway, still talking. I went back and told Dinah, "They're still out there. You know what that means. My back must be pretty screwed up."
Dyrek called me the next morning and explained that there was what he called a real "hot spot" in my back around the disc that he wanted to treat by mobilizing the tissues and tendons around that area. The idea was to manually manipulate that area to restore normal motion and take pressure off the disc. I said, "Let's start today."
That's how my relationship with Dan Dyrek came about. It started out as professional, but he's become one of my close friends. When you spend that much time with somebody, you find out what kind of person they are, and Dan was always a professional. I never worried that he would be talking to anyone about my treatments. And I could tell early on he knew what he was doing. When I first started seeing him, I was getting these major pains in my side that would last for more than ten seconds when I sat down. It was brutal. But after two or three weeks of seeing Dan, that pain gradually started going away. I ended up receiving treatment every other day for two years.
A couple of months after he started helping me, I offered Dan a couple of my tickets to a Celtics game. I knew he'd never ask for anything. I didn't even know if he was a sports fan until I saw his face when I gave him the tickets. He looked so excited, and surprised. I'm not the type to just go out and give my tickets to anyone, but I really appreciated how much Dan was helping me. So I gave him two tickets to each game for the rest of the season. We spent so much time together that our pregame treatments turned into little challenges. Just before it was time to take the court, Dan would ask, "How are you doing?" and I'd say, "I'm feeling like I can score forty-three points tonight." If I actually got to 43 points, we'd have some kind of prearranged signal, like a salute, and I'd turn and give it to him.
It was really important that I could trust Dan not to discuss my injuries. I didn't want the fans and the media to know every little thing that was wrong with me, but even more important, I didn't want the teams we were playing against to know! That's why nobody knew about the neck problems I was having about this same time. But that was nothing compared to my back. My next serious back episode was in the summer before the 1989-90 season, when I went to a fund raiser that the singer Kenny Rogers put on each year. I love Kenny Rogers's music, and I had been doing his charity event for three years or so and it was a lot of fun. He got four pro basketball players, four fishermen, four tennis players, and four golfers, and we all tried to play one another's sports. I was still having some trouble with my back, but Dan had gotten me to the point where I had long stretches of being pain free. I was feeling pretty good about the upcoming season.
We were in the final minutes of this charity basketball game when I went up for a rebound and came down a little sideways. Michael Jordan was going for the ball too, and he landed on my back. Right away I knew I was in trouble. My back started tightening up, and I could feel the pain coming on. The game was almost over, which was a good thing, because I was done. I just kind of stood there until it ended, and then I walked off the court without telling anybody what had just happened. Dinah was there with me, and she got on the phone to Dan and told him we needed to come up to Boston to see him. It was awkward, because the fund-raising people kept asking me to play tennis, but I couldn't, and I really didn't feel like explaining why.
Within a couple of days we were in Dan's office, and I could tell right away the news wasn't good. I had torn additional portions of the disc wall, and my back was really traumatized. I didn't know it then, all the way back in 1989, but that was the beginning of the end. Dan was able to treat me so I got better and was able to play, but I never came all the way back. For the rest of my career I had to rely on Dan to continually treat me and put things back in their proper place. We told the Celtics what had happened. They took it pretty well. The truth was, my back was so unstable, it was going to give way sometime. It wasn't like it was this violent collision; Michael didn't even land on me that hard. I was just at the point where I was an accident waiting to happen.
Nobody ever found out about that charity game—until now—which was good. There was nothing I hated more than talking about my injuries. It never helped them feel any better, and to me it always sounded like an excuse. Also, I found myself getting kind of superstitious. I remember one time, I had just finished practice at Hellenic College, which is where the Celtics used to hold all their workouts, and I was feeling fantastic. Peter May, a reporter who covered our team for many years, asked me how my back was feeling. I answered him, "Great!" I drove home from practice, lay down to take a nap, and I woke up with that horrible burning pain down my leg again. The next day, I was at the hospital getting injections. That's when I decided, "That's it. I'm not talking about my injuries anymore." I know it was hard for the reporters covering the team, but they got used to it. They knew that if I was cranky, it meant something was hurting. Near the end, that was every day.
It was just a grueling process. Dan would check my back to see if it had lost its alignment, because things were so unstable, the bones were prone to shifting, and that set off all sorts of spasms. But the worst part about it was that my back prevented me from practicing, and without all that time in the gym, my skills were deteriorating. I loved to practice, and I needed to practice, and my game really suffered when I didn't.
That played a part in my decision to retire too.
My last game at Boston Garden was on May 15, 1992. We had beaten the Pacers 3-0 in the opening round of the playoffs and had Cleveland next. The Cavs were a good team, and had us down 3-2 heading into Game 6. It wasn't a memorable performance for me. I remember feeling a little off balance all night. My shot didn't feel the way I wanted it to feel, and everything was a little out of sync. But Reggie Lewis hit some foul shots at the end, and we won to tie the series 3-3. I wasn't thinking it was the last time I'd play in the Garden, because I truly believed we were going to beat Cleveland and come back home for the next round. But that didn't happen. The Cavaliers beat us at their place,and then—boom!—all of a sudden the season was over, and so was my career with the Celtics...
I hadn't told any of my teammates I was done, so there weren't any hugs or handshakes or anything like that. I'm sure some guys suspected, but nobody said anything. I just grabbed the game ball, stuffed it in my bag, and went home.
The official announcement didn't come for about another three months, because I had to play for the United States in the Olympics in Barcelona. When we decided it was time to let everyone know I was retiring, we called up everyone that morning and told them. I didn't want it to get leaked out ahead of time and have people camping out in front of the house. Better to get it over with all at once. Dinah decided to go back to Indiana. There was something going on in French Lick, and I think she really didn't want to be around to see it end. I remember she called me the night after the press conference and said she was getting her hair done at the beauty shop when the announcement came on over the radio. She said it got her all teary-eyed and everything. It was a big change for both of us. We had gone through all this pain and sweat, and now all of a sudden it was going to be over.
There were a lot of reporters at the press conference, even though we hadn't given them much advance notice. They wanted to know how I had spent the previous night preparing for the announcement. I told them I sat in my house in Brookline by myself, and watched old tapes of myself and cried. But that was crap, of course. I don't know why I said it. It just came out, and it sounded good. I remember I did sit home and I started thinking about it, and said to myself, "My God, this is really over. I'm really out of here." Then I started thinking back to when I first got there, and how I went in and saw the house that I really liked, and how much fun we had in that house, and then I started going through in my mind everything that happened during those thirteen years. More than anything, I was so thankful to have played in one place my entire career. That's something I believe is truly special, and I'm so glad it was with the Boston Celtics. I used to tell people, if you haven't played for the Boston Celtics, you haven't played professional basketball. I suppose that's a little bit of bull too, but it felt that way to me. I never tried to imagine wearing another uniform, because I couldn't have. I would have retired first.
Some of my friends think it's too bad the fans didn't know which one was my final game, because they didn't get to say goodbye, but they did. The Celtics held a retirement night for me, and it was one of the greatest things I've ever experienced. It was Dave Gavitt's idea. At first I didn't want any part of it. The way the Celtics usually retire jerseys is at halftime of a game, but Dave said it would be almost impossible to get the ceremony done in such a short time, and it would be disruptive to the game. His idea was to sell tickets to a Larry Bird Night, and donate all the proceeds to charity. The way he envisioned it was to have me onstage, in uniform, and have various people who were important throughout my career come up and talk with me. He also wanted to fly in Magic Johnson from L.A. to be there, which I thought was a great idea, because the two of us were so closely connected throughout our careers. Dave thought Magic should be in his Lakers warmups, and I should be in my Celtics warmups. I fought him a little on that, but I finally gave in. Dave also thought I should take one last shot, but there was no way I'd agree to that. I told him, "Dave, I've already taken all the shots I'm going to take."
Anyhow, once I said yes to this Larry Bird Night, I got concerned about it. Who would come? There wasn't any game being played. But once it was announced, it sold out in a matter of minutes. Everyone got pretty excited about it. Mark Lev, who worked in the marketing department for Boston, came up with the idea of selling 1,033 limited edition Leroy Neiman prints, signed by both Neiman and me, for $1,033 each, with that money going to charity as well. (The additional 33 was for my uniform number.)
The night itself is one I'll never forget. I still can't get over all those people showing up, just to cheer for me. When they cheer for you in a game, you never know if it's because of the play the whole team just made, or because they love the Celtics, or what. But that night, I really appreciated their applause. Bob Costas, who agreed to fly in and be the emcee at no charge, was great. Magic was his usual charming self. My mom made a rare appearance in Boston to attend, and my son, Conner, who was just a baby, helped me raise my number to the rafters.
We raised over $1 million for thirty-three different charities. We gave money to everyone from Celtics Wives Save Lives (to benefit breast cancer research) to Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children. It wasn't easy choosing where the money should go, because there were so many worthy causes. I remember that at the time, Conner loved the show Barney, so I asked that we give something to the public television station that aired it. I wanted to make a donation to the Colonel Daniel Marr Boys and Girls Club, because I had seen for myself all the good they had done, and I wanted to make sure we gave a new van to a homeless shelter in town called Rosie's Place. Some of the donations involved personal connections too. We gave money to an Alzheimer's foundation named after M. L. Carr's father, who died of the disease, as well as to the Red Auerbach Youth Foundation. I also wanted New England Baptist Hospital, whose staff had taken care of me all those years, to receive a donation.
People ask me all the time if I regret playing through all that pain, and if I would do it over again, knowing what I know now. When I list all of the things that went wrong with my body, it sounds like I'm whining about my injuries, and I hate that. That's why you didn't hear me talking about them when I was playing. It was the last thing I wanted to talk about.
I will say this: I should have retired after my first back surgery. I wish I had. But the mentality of our team was to play through anything, to do whatever it takes, and most of us did that. Like when Kevin had that broken foot. We knew it was bad, and if he had decided he couldn't play, we would have lived with it. We would have understood. But the truth is, we all knew Kevin wasn't going to sit, because he knew we had a chance at a championship that season, and those chances don't come too often. I'm sure McHale has some regrets. We lost to the Lakers in the Finals in 1987, and from what I understand, all these years later that foot still gives Kevin some trouble. You hate to hear that.
I think one of the problems with our league today is that guys will sit out more now if they're injured because they don't want to ruin their reputation of being a great player, and it's hard to perform at your top level when you're injured. The other thing is that guys whose contracts are up figure they stand to make a lot of money, so why push it if you don't have to? Then there's the agents. These young kids are letting other people make their decisions for them, and that's too bad. A kid like Marcus Camby, he's got all this talent, but he's hurt so much it doesn't matter. You feel like telling him that if he tries to play through some of the nagging injuries he might actually feel better. I played some of my best games when I had a muscle pull or I was sick. You come in that night figuring you can't feel any worse, and when you finally get out there and run around a little bit, you tend to forget about what was bothering you.
One thing I've tried to understand as a coach, though, is that everyone handles pain differently. Some people know how to play through it. Others just can't. You have to be realistic. I like to see guys play through twisted ankles, stuff like that. When it gets to more serious injuries, though, only you can decide how far you want to push yourself. My whole thing is, if you don't think you can play, then don't. And if you can, then go out there and do it, but don't spend a whole lot of time talking about it. Nobody else knows your pain threshold but you. Sometimes I'd complain privately to Dan Dyrek and say, "Why isn't this guy playing tonight? We could use him." But Dan would always tell me, "Larry, you have an unbelievably high threshold of pain. You can't expect other people to have that same threshold, because they don't. It's not fair to question how much people are willing or able to put themselves through. That's just not fair." I've tried to remember that in dealing with my own players.
So was all that suffering worth it? When you look around Boston Garden and see 15,000 people there, then it's worth every minute. I loved looking around and seeing every seat filled. That's a special feeling I'll never forget.
There are some other things I would rather forget. A few years after I retired, I was in Boston with a friend of mine who was having back trouble, and I called up Dan Dyrek and asked him if he could take a look at him. Dan's offices were in a new place, but even so, the minute I walked in there and started remembering all the pain I had gone through, I felt sick. Dan looked at me and said, "Larry, you look pale. Are you all right?" I took one look around and answered, "As long as I never have to come back here, I'll be fine."
© 1999 by Larry Bird
Excerpt posted with permission from http://www.twbookmark.com
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