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BOB RYAN

A day to celebrate Bird's greatness

Yes, it's true. Larry -- no surname needed -- turns 50 today.

"It didn't mean anything to me," he says. "But everybody's talking about it."

"It doesn't bother me at all," he maintains. "We'll see. I was looking forward to my 40s, and they turned out to be up and down."

One thing he will not be doing is paying any attention to a 12-hour celebration of his 50th birthday that commences on NBA TV at 9 a.m. and that will feature a one-on-one interview conducted by ex-teammate Bill Walton (7:30 p.m.).

"I don't have to see it," Larry says. "I lived it."

Given that among the program items will be "Larry Bird Through The Years" (what they term the "best of the best" clips from the NBA video library), to air at 5:30, and "Larry Bird's 50 Greatest Moments," to air at 6:30, this will be definite TiVo or videotape material. It will be a chance for the young'uns who think Paul Pierce represents the apex of basketball artistry to see what the greatest forward of all time actually looked like, and for the rest of us to relive some of our happiest days as sports enthusiasts.

Just as older Bruins fans will tell you that hockey has never been the same for them since Bobby Orr retired, so, too, do many local basketball fans assert that the game will never again have the same allure as it did when No. 33 and friends were not only winning three championships as well as losing twice in the Finals, but were doing so with a brand of basketball that often transcended the mere entertaining to creep into the realm of inspiration.

And that's not hyperbole. That's the gospel truth.

Larry doesn't think in those terms, of course. He did the playing. He didn't really care if the rest of us put what he did in a larger philosophical context because he was enjoying himself -- most of the time, anyway.

"I had fun," he points out. "I can tell you right now I did smell the roses. Any time I felt good, I completely loved playing. If I felt good during the warm-up, if I had my balance, I could definitely tell you that somebody was going to get an ass-whipping. Of course, I remember it all. I remember that first game in the Garden. There were only about 10 or 11,000 people there and I remember the place smelled like stale beer. Probably why I liked it."

The big "if" was health. If it weren't the heels, it was the elbow. If it wasn't the elbow, it was the back. You could pretty much say his last four years were a constant struggle just to get into the lineup. It was difficult, and it was frustrating, and when it was time to quit, he had no regrets.

"I knew it was pretty much over during that Cleveland series [first round, 1992]," he says. "I could barely move during the Olympics. I made the retirement announcement, and the next day I felt great because I knew it was over."

That was one back fusion surgery ago. Larry was not going to be one of those guys flirting with a comeback.

"Playing seems like a long time ago," he says. "I can remember it all when somebody asks me, but I never dwell on it. And college? That all seems like a blur."

He had an ill-defined role with the Celtics and he coached the Pacers. He got to the Finals once, came within 20 seconds of getting there a second time, lost in yet another conference finals, and then he quit, just as he said he would. He's still amused that people didn't seem prepared to take him at his word. Hadn't he told them when he took the job it was for three years? And didn't he coach for three years? Well?

"I said I'd coach for three," he shrugs. "I coached three and I'm never coaching again."

He's a front-office guy now. His title with the Indiana Pacers is president of basketball operations, which makes him second in command to CEO/president Donnie Walsh.

He likes it just fine, but it isn't quite as fulfilling as coaching, just as coaching wasn't quite as fulfilling as playing.

"It's nothing like playing," he admits. "And you don't get the high you do as a coach. But front-office life is interesting. I guess I've really come full circle. It's enabled me to stick around the game. You still bleed these wins and losses, but you don't have your hands directly on it."

One thing his general manager and personnel experience has taught him is that nobody was ever smarter than Red Auerbach.

"What a genius," Larry marvels. "The way he found older players to bring in. The way he used his draft choices. He never wanted to give up a draft choice to get someone once a season started. He'd say, 'It looks good now, but you never know. You don't know how a season will go and you never know when you're going to need that draft choice.' The Knicks gave up two No. 1s to get Eddy Curry. That's exactly what I'm talking about."

He'd like to see the Pacers playing better ("I think we should have won two or three more than we have"), but life in general is pretty good. Connor Bird is 15 now, and Larry loves watching him and his team play. "A completely different player than I was," Larry submits. "He'll take one shot a game and be happy. He's the quickest guy on the team."

That's different, all right.

He's living where he wants to live, among the people he's most comfortable with, and he's just bought a piece of Indiana on which he will retire. He's got no complaints.

No, we're the ones with the issues. Larry Bird really did spoil us. He gave those of us who truly love basketball our ultimate highs, and it's downright depressing to think we've already experienced the best example of how to play this game we can ever hope to see.

If you don't get NBA TV, you'd better buddy up quickly with someone who does.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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