When Boston was his town, Larry Bird breathed it all in. He lived in Brookline off Route 9, but you were likely to see him anywhere. "I was all over that place," he said. "I was everywhere. You were liable to see me anywhere in Boston, I liked it. I liked running around the parks. I used to go play tennis. I used to run in some five mile races. I was everywhere."
It's been 19 years since Bird retired, but his time in the city made him synonymous with it. Now that he's returning tonight to be honored at the 10th Annual tradition, he'll get a chance to once again embrace a city that fell in love with him.
He wanted to make sure the city knew the feeling was mutual:
"Just cause I ainít out there, donít forget I do have memories and theyíre all good ones," he said. "I went through a tough last three years out there with my back but the fan support that I had and the excitement that we brought to the Boston Garden was just something that you just canít envision ever happening and it was just an honor to play in the city. I used to love to play in the Garden. I loved playing in front of my fans, and I loved winning championships. Boston was a great fit for me."
His roots were in Indiana and so was his life after retirement, both coaching the Pacers and eventually taking on front office responsibilities. But Boston, Bird said, was where he became a man.
"I grew up in Boston," Bird said. "I went out there when I was 21 and it was the best time of my life. I was playing the sport I loved in a city where you had the ultimate respect for the athletes and if you do well out there, when your careerís over, they still talk about you and think about you. So it was a good experience for me.
"I came from one of the smallest towns in Indiana to the city of Terre Haute, about 100,000, and packed up my stuff and moved to Boston and go, ĎHere I am.í I was a little nervous, but after I was there a couple days, I felt like I was adjusting really well. I had already bought a house about two weeks before I went out there, so once I got settled in that house, I was fine."
Rick Robey and Dave Cowens were essentially his welcoming committee, picking him up for workouts.
"They really took me under their wing when I got there," Bird said. "We were playing ball two days after I got there. I was very comfortable with the situation, and if Iíve got a basketball in my hand I feel at home."
The history of Boston sports is undeniable and Bird said as soon as he arrived he knew that if he excelled he had an opportunity to go down as one of the city's sports legends.
"The thing is, when I first went out there, I watched the fans react to their older players that they looked up to," he said. "Carl Yastrzemski and Bobby Orr and I was thinking that if I had a great career that I could be like them guys. So, I knew where my place was. They had great athletes before I got there and they had a lot of them after I left. You just try to fit in."
Bird brought three championships to Boston but when he retired in 1992 it took the Celtics 16 years to win another one. Len Bias's death in 1986 was shocking. As was Reggie Lewis's death in 1993. The franchise was reeling. Bird watched as it tried to struggled through some darker years in the 90s.
"Being in this business, I know how hard it is to rebuild, but Bostonís a major market," Bird said. "It should be a little bit easier for them because of the major money and the ticket prices and all that. But itís always discouraging, you never want to see them do bad. I always root for them. If we canít win it, I want them to win it. My ties to Boston are still very strong."