A fistful of Bird history
Big Baby got into a fight with a friend at 4 a.m., broke his thumb, and won’t be able to play until at least December. He is young and foolish and he hurt the team. The Celtics owners are mad at him. Fans are mad at him.
It’s not a good situation. But let’s not throw Big Baby out with the bathwater. This stuff is as old as dirt. Young athletes have been doing goofy things at odd hours since before the days of the original Big Baby, George Herman Ruth.
It even happened to Larry Bird.
On the night of May 16, 1985, in the middle of the Eastern Conference finals between the Celtics and Sixers, Bird was involved in a scuffle that started at a now-defunct bar called Chelsea’s and spilled out to the corner of State Street and Merchant’s Row. After the altercation, Mike Harlow, a bartender/former Colgate football player, claimed he was sucker-punched by Bird. Nick Harris, a man who was with Bird and Quinn Buckner on the night of the incident, was treated at Massachusetts General Hospital’s emergency room that night.
There was a lawsuit and a settlement. The Celtics told Bird to stay away from Harris. None of the parties ever talked about it.
Pick up a copy of Jackie MacMullan’s spectacular book on Bird and Magic Johnson (“When the Game Was Ours’’) and check the index for the Chelsea’s fight. You won’t find it. Bird won’t talk about it. It was the same when he did a biography with Bob Ryan in 1989 (“Drive’’), and another one with MacMullan (“Bird Watching,’’ 1999). Bird has addressed his father’s suicide in books with Ryan and MacMullan, but he will not discuss the Chelsea’s fight.
Cedric Maxwell finds this interesting. Max, now a local commentator and color analyst on the Celtics’ radio flagship, gets crushed in the new Larry-Magic tome (the book is bad for Isiah Thomas as well, but trashing Zeke is like making fun of soccer - it’s just too easy). In Chapter 6 of MacMullan’s book, Bird talks about Maxwell laying down after signing a big contract before the 1984-85 season.
Maxwell was MVP of the 1981 Finals and famously said, “Hop on my back, boys,’’ before carrying the Celtics to victory over the Lakers in the ’84 Finals. Unfortunately, his post-Finals contract negotiation was protracted and contentious.
According to the MacMullan book, when Maxwell finally came to terms just before the 1984-85 season, he said, “Career’s over, boys. Slam the books. I got my money.’’ In February of that year, Max suffered a cartilage tear in his knee and underwent arthroscopic surgery. He was never a factor the rest of the year, and Red Auerbach shipped him to the Clippers for Bill Walton after the Celtics were beaten by the Lakers in the Finals. Red also went to his publisher and removed a flattering passage about Maxwell from an upcoming book.
In MacMullan’s new book, Bird says, “Max was out of shape when he came back. He didn’t do the rehab the way they asked. I was so pissed at him, because he was so good . . . He got his money, and he quit. I like Max, but that’s the bottom line.’’
“So it was all me?’’ Max said before the Celtics’ home opener Wednesday. “We got four Hall of Famers on the team, but the reason we didn’t win was all my fault? I must have been a beast!’’
He was laughing, but he was serious.
“Hey, we got a guy who gets his hand busted up in a barroom fight. That wasn’t me. But I’m never going to win this one. He’s Larry Bird!’’
Max has a point. Bird’s right index finger was badly swollen in the days after the fight. He claimed he injured it May 18 in a game at Philadelphia, two days after the fight. He shot 46 percent in the ’85 playoffs. In his other two MVP seasons, when the Celtics won the championship, he shot 52 percent each year.
Bird didn’t speak to me for seven months after I wrote the Chelsea’s story in 1985. Twenty years later, when I teased him about it, he said, “I hit that guy [Harlow] with my left hand!’’
We’ll never know. But something happened, it hurt the team, and the teammates all knew.
“When I played, sometimes players didn’t do everything they could do to win games,’’ said Danny Ainge, who played with Bird and Maxwell in ’85, and today serves as Big Baby’s boss. “When guys stay up and go to nightclubs, it prevents them from playing their best. I witnessed many things that were not conducive to winning and in my opinion prevented us from winning particular games.’’
It can happen.
Even to Larry Bird.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.