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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Opinions are flying from Bird

Ted Williams. Bill Russell. Bobby Orr. Larry Bird. Maybe now Tom Brady. They are the top-shelf athletes for the ages in our town, and anything they say gets our attention. Williams is gone and the others sometimes can be hard to find.

But Bird is in town this week, and yesterday we learned that Larry rooted for the Red Sox in last year's World Series against his beloved Cardinals, and that Manny Ramirez is his favorite hitter. Oh, and Bird's seventh-grade son is a rabid Patriots fan living in the heart of Peyton Manning Country.

Perhaps you saw old No. 33 sitting in the loge section behind the Indiana bench Saturday night when the Celtics waxed the Pacers, 102-82, in the first game of their playoff series.

The best-of-seven series resumes tonight at the New Garden and Bird will be there again. He is president of basketball operations for the Pacers and while his still-in-shock ballplayers finished practice yesterday, he shared his thoughts on a variety of subjects.

"I love this place," he said when asked about returning to Boston. "Always have. But it's hard for me to come back and compete against these guys. And you know what? I would have never coached [against the Celtics] if I had to go back into the old Boston Garden. I would have never done that."

On his royal reception when his image appears on the big board at the New Garden:

"Still embarrassing, but I understand it. The fans here knew what I stood for and the way I played. Every day now I get up and my back is killing me, so I think about them every day. 'Cause of my back."

On the Red Sox' World Series triumph over the team of his childhood:

"My loyalty is with the Cardinals, but my heart is with Boston. In that World Series, I couldn't lose. But I wanted to see Boston win. Truthfully, I think the Cardinals, if their pitching holds up, they have a chance to win this year. So last year I said, `Let the Red Sox win.' It's amazing that Boston has them, and the Patriots winning three out of four. When I played here, it was just us and Marvin Hagler.

"In '86, I was home watching that last pitch and we had a bunch of us over and we were standing and ready to celebrate. We was all up. One strike away. Then all those bloops. Then Bob Stanley, that wasn't his fault. Gedman should have caught that ball. It was there. It hit the end of his glove.

"Manny Ramirez is my favorite player. I just love to watch him bat. There's something about him. He's always going to get a piece of the ball. There's just certain players that I really like and he's one of 'em. Every time he comes to bat I always try to watch. If I'm going to another game [via remote control], if he's coming up I stay and watch him bat. That's the first time I've ever done that.

"I've seen good pitchers pitch and I've seen good batters, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone like Manny. His eyes are unbelievable. If he looks back and says a called strike was a ball, it was a ball and it was the wrong call. I've never seen anybody like that."

On the Red Sox' Opening Day ceremony, which featured Russell, Orr, Tedy Bruschi, and Richard Seymour throwing out first pitches:

"I was one of the guys they called. They said they were gonna have a bunch of us. At that time, I thought I was going to be in Portsmouth [Va., scouting]. I don't know what happened. I love Bobby Orr. Somebody just sent me a picture to sign for charity from that night I did the show with Bobby and Teddy." (Bird appeared with Orr and Williams on "Sports Final" in 1992.)

On being a hero to middle-aged fans:

"People come up with their sons and say, `This is Larry Bird -- greatest this and greatest that. He was Daddy's hero.' They're doing it for themselves. They just have to drag the kid along because that way they can get in with that. The old con game. But the little kid, he has no clue. He's like my son. He has no clue. Which is good. My fans are starting to get older. The young kids just pick it up with all that classic stuff that's on TV, so some of it carries over."

On his own sports hero as a child:

"Probably Bob Gibson. I remember listening to him on the radio, striking everyone out in the World Series in 1968. My dad always listened and that day [Gibson fanned 17 Tigers in Game 1] my dad said, `He's gonna strike out everybody.' He was on a roll. We was picking my mom up. We had this old beat-up car and that's the only station we could get. We was waiting for her to get out and my dad was all excited."

Would he have asked Gibson for an autograph?

"No. I never asked anybody for an autograph. My thing is, even when I was little, I'd rather shake your hand than get an autograph."

On his children, who are in the sixth and seventh grades:

"Pretty amazing. They're a blast. Best thing I ever did. I have more fun with those kids. My son loves Bill Belichick. He thinks he's the best coach ever in football."

On winning team chemistry:

"When you get a team where everybody's tied in together -- like the Pistons last year and the Patriots now -- it's hard for another team to go in and beat them because they're well-prepared and together. We can still do it in our sport. What you have to do is get the right chemistry. Chemistry is everything. If you get a group of guys that are committed and really believe in one another and have the right chemistry, you'll win a lot of games."

On players changing over the years:

"Every 10 or 15 years it's different, I think. But all the media now, they sort of grab on to something and they hold on to it. Word gets around faster if a guy's an [expletive]. But I don't think it's that much different. Out of the 12 or 14 guys we have, or any team has, 10 or 11 of 'em are good guys. It's like that throughout the whole league."

On what his Pacers have to do to turn this series back in their favor:

"It all depends on how we go after it. Defensively, we've got to turn it up more than a notch. They're aggressive. They're up in us. We've got to set better picks. We've got to move the ball a little bit quicker. It's getting stuck in our hands a little too long. And we've got to compete. It's gonna be a battle. They've got athletes and we've got guys who are not 100 percent. But there's no excuses. There haven't been excuses all year and the way we've got to beat these guys is we have to take it at them instead of sitting back and waiting for them to do something."

"They've got talent," added Bird. "They've got some players. I know [Saturday] night they played one of their best games [and] these young kids will feed off that." His Pacers, he said, "have got to put [the Celtics] in position to let them make mistakes. Keep them down or keep it close and let them make mistakes."

And if Bird had heard Ricky Davis in the second quarter of the first game yelling "sweep," what would he have done?

"We could give a [expletive] about that. Some of the [expletive] that was said in my career? Coaches. Players. Kevin McHale telling Hubie Brown in the first quarter -- `I just don't see it. You got nobody who can guard me.' That's the same stupid stuff they do now."


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