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Dan Shaughnessy

Getting the word from Bird

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / February 2, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS - Hoosier hospitality?

It has been all the rage since the Patriots arrived here in Nap Town Sunday afternoon. The locals could not be more helpful, and even the dour Bill Belichick acknowledged that he has received heaping helpings of Hoosier hospitality since his fourth-and-2 call here two years ago.

In our never-ending quest to serve you, I decided to find Indiana’s greatest gift to New England sports and ask him about Hoosier hospitality, the Patriots, Tom Brady, all things football, and beer in the clubhouse.

Say hello to Larry Bird.

“I’m rooting for the Patriots,’’ said Bird before watching his Pacers beat the Nets Tuesday night. “I always go with the Boston teams, and I could never root for a New York team. Come on!’’

Bird thinks he will be at the game Sunday.

“I got two tickets,’’ he said. “My son’s trying to get ’em for him and his buddy because he’s a big Patriots fan. He went out there for his birthday 10 years ago and Belichick let him in the locker room.

“I might go to this game, even though I don’t want to hear him complaining if the Patriots aren’t doing well. It depends on how badly my son wants that other ticket. They’re not cheap, you know.’’

They’re not cheap.

Nice to know Larry never changes. He has enough money to buy half of Indiana, but he is the same guy who let his wife join him in Los Angeles for the 1985 NBA Finals only because he was able to get her a plane ticket with frequent flyer miles. He is the guy who stormed out of a bar in Monte Carlo in 1992 because they were charging $7 for a bottle of Budweiser.

Bird loves free stuff the way sportswriters love free stuff. I think that’s why we always got along. And those Super Bowl tickets . . . well, they’re not cheap, you know.

Bird forever will be one of the most popular athletes in the history of New England. If our Boston pro sports Mount Rushmore allowed five heads, he’d be up there with Ted Williams, Bill Russell, Bobby Orr, and Tom Brady.

What does Bird think of Brady, who first played in New England a full decade after Bird retired?

“I think he’ll go down in history as one of the greatest,’’ said Bird. “I’ve been here for eight years watching Peyton Manning and I can’t believe how good he is, but Tom’s won so much. He makes the pass. He don’t try to force a lot of things. He takes advantage of what the defense gives him.

“I don’t know football, but he’s patient and makes quick decisions. Peyton gets the ball out of his hand real quick and relies on the receivers to make the right cuts, but Tom, he don’t care if it’s a 4-yard throw or a 10-yard throw.

“He just keeps pounding you and pounding you. A lot of it, I think, is just keeping the defense on the field for so long.

“Football is different. There’s just so many guys. And it’s like two teams - an offense and a defense. If you’re a quarterback, them guys in the lines are the ones protecting you, and if they’re not doing their job, it’s not going to be pretty.

“I think there’s a lot of good quarterbacks in this league who just don’t have the protection. Look at Andrew Luck in college. They didn’t touch him all year.’’

Bird’s football career was brief.

“It was eighth grade in French Lick,’’ he remembered. “I kicked off, I punted. I was quarterback. Linebacker. I was playing defense, trying to tackle somebody. There was a guy in front and I took him out, but he landed on my right shoulder and broke my collarbone.

“They told me they were going to stick a pin in it, which they didn’t have to, and that was the end of that. I was out for six, eight weeks. No more football.’’

Bird has two mementos from the old days with the Celtics: a framed copy of Frank O’Brien’s Globe photo that features a young Bird smoking Red Auerbach’s cigar and flashing a “victory’’ sign as he embraces Red; and a pair of Creamsicle-colored seats from the old Boston Garden, a gift from Rick Carlisle.

If you saw a blond, 6-foot-9-inch, confused parent wheeling bins of clothes toward a Commonwealth Avenue tower last September, if might have been a Bird sighting. Larry’s daughter is at Boston University and loves being a Terrier. He is happy for his daughter, naturally, but he can’t believe the price of tuition. No doubt it was considerably cheaper to go to Indiana State on scholarship back in the late 1970s.

Bird has an interesting take on fame and sports-crazed regions. When I asked him if Manning is as big in Indy as he was in Boston, Bird answered, “I don’t think anybody is as big as what Boston sports fans think of their top 10 guys. I don’t think it’s like that anywhere else.

“Everybody in Indiana knows Reggie Miller and Peyton Manning, but if Peyton Manning was in Boston - come on. Indianapolis is different. They all know him and think he’s God and everything, but Boston is just different.’’

The Hick from French Lick acknowledges that this event is bigger than any Final Four or Indianapolis 500. It’s the biggest thing ever to happen to Indianapolis.

“There are so many volunteers,’’ said Bird. “They came into our building Monday and did 7,000 charity baskets. They had 1,000 volunteers to put them together. That’s how it is all over the city. You’ll notice that everywhere you go, there’ll be somebody there to tell you where to go, or how to get someplace.’’

His sports allegiances reflect his Indiana roots and his Celtics career.

“I was a Green Bay Packers fan growing up,’’ said Bird. “They’ve always been my team. I’m mixed now because of the Patriots and the Colts here, but I’ve always been a Packers fan.

“In baseball, I was a Cardinals fan as a kid. When the Red Sox played in St. Louis in the 2004 World Series, they asked me to throw out a first pitch, but I couldn’t do it. Both my teams. I couldn’t root against either one.’’

He followed the 2011 Red Sox’ collapse and subsequent fallout. He said he drank an occasional beer in the Celtics locker room, but only on days when he was in civvies, too injured to play.

“When I wasn’t playing, at halftime, after the guys went back out, I’d drink a beer,’’ he said. “When I was injured. But you can’t be having beer when you’re playing, or about to go into a game. I mean, come on.’’

Not even if it’s free.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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