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Classic Sports Book Review: Drive by Larry Bird and Bob Ryan

Unfortunately, I don’t read as many books as I’d like to. This isn’t to say I don’t read enough — I spend more time reading online than I realistically would have spent combined on newspapers, magazines, and books a generation ago. However, as we devolve further and further into our screens, we will continue to consume less and less longform writing.

It was therefore refreshing for me to spend last week poolside at a resort in Punta Cana, almost entirely away from the Internet. This brief respite from eight browser tabs, six GChats, a constant Twitter stream, and a phone that buzzes every few minutes gave me the chance to read two outstanding books: Marvin Miller’s A Whole Different Ball Game (which I hope to review in the next week or two) and Drive: The Story of My Life, which Larry Bird wrote with Bob Ryan in 1989. (Bird retired in 1992.)

You can find Drive used for $.01 and the cost of shipping on Amazon.

I was born in 1986, so I didn’t get to see much of Bird’s career. I certainly missed his prime, which included three MVPs and three NBA championships. (However, my dad tells me I had floor seats at a scorching Boston Garden for the Celtics’ Game 7 victory over the Pistons in which Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson collided heads. I’ll have to take his word for it.)

Drive does a tremendous job framing the significance of Bird’s career and how he and Magic Johnson ushered us into the period of basketball history with which I am familiar.

Throughout the book, Bird’s genuine folksy charm stands out. A discerning reader who has seen Sarah Palin’s farcical insincerity or Brett Favre’s calculated attempt to woo commentators can be skeptical at first. But, the tone is so consistent and so understated that you have to believe it’s real. Bird regularly uses phrases like, “Boy, they’re good,” “What a competitor,” and “I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.”

Bird did not grow up a basketball fan — he had no idea about the Celtics’ illustrious history until he started playing for them. He believed in his coaches’ authority and used their guidance to get better. He deliberately chose to shoot less free throws than he could have because he believed that openly seeking to get fouled was the wrong way to play the game.

The only thing really missing from the book was tales of his supposed ability to drink Budweiser.

Here were some standout passages:

On his father’s suicide:

By Christmastime you could tell that Dad had lost the desire to go on. He was deeply depressed.

We all knew what he was going to do because he came right out and told us. Not that he wanted sympathy or anything. He simply said, “I am not going to be around much longer. No use me living this way. You kids would be better off if I was gone.” It sounded pretty casual, but that’s just the way he was brought up. It’s just the way around French Lick; everyone is very straightforward and matter-of-fact about everything. There’s no question Dad was strapped. After paying [child support], he only had about $20 left to show for a week’s hard work–barely enough to buy lunch for the next week.

[...]

I don’t believe he spent a lot of time thinking about it; I believe he made his decision quickly.

[...]

He called up Mom and told her exactly what he was going to do. I don’t know exactly how that conversation went…He got off the phone, took a shotgun and killed himself.

On leaving Bob Knight and Indiana University

The school was way too big for me. There were too many students. One classroom could have held half of West Baden–or so it seemed to me. Thirty-three thousand students was not my idea of a school–it was more like a country to me. It was too far to go to your classes. I’d be thinking, “Which building do I go to next?” I walked around for two days, trying to figure out where I was going.”

[...]

I never even made it to the official beginning of practice on October 15. When the time came, I just packed up, which didn’t take me long. I didn’t even tell Coach Knight. I just left.

On his rookie year (“Hi haters!”)

Once I started playing, I realized that I was farther along than I thought. All the things they had been saying–He can’t get a shot off. He can’t jump. He can’t run–turned out to be either not true or irrelevant. I was rebounding, I was filling the lanes on the break and I found out that my body was a lot better than I thought it was, as far as staying up with the guys and taking the beating and banging. The pushing and holding and the physical stuff wasn’t as big a deal as I thought it would be.

On Dennis Johnson

D.J. is simply the best player I’ve ever played with on the Celtics. Kevin [McHale] is great. Robert [Parish] is great. I’ve played with other great players. But when I look at other teams, there is always a player on that team who seems to symbolize the whole team. When I think of our own team, the guy I think of is D.J.

When I look at him, I think, “The guy will do anything to win.” And D.J. knows how to win. D.J. is a clutch player who can win the big game for you–no matter what it takes.

On Michael Jordan

What was amazing about Michael’s performance was that he scored sixty-three points in the flow of the game!

[...]

Michael Jordan was–and is–a completely different type of player from anyone I had seen before. He’s literally on a different level. Magic and I do all our stuff on the floor. When I first saw Michael play, I recognized there was a different era coming in. Ten years down the road, you’re going to see a lot of Michael Jordans out there. A lot of them will be taking the ball from one hand to the other and switching it around going underneath, spinning around and doing all this different stuff…The word I keep coming back to is “different.” He’s ushering a whole new era–a whole new style of play–into the NBA.

On Len Bias

There’s no question Len’s death was a tragic loss to everyone and a sadness that we will all carry with us, but I have to admit, when I found out Len’s untimely death was caused by drug use, I was filled not only with great sympathy for his family but also with a lot of anger and frustration. I will never figure out in a million years why anyone would get involved with drugs. How can anyone say they’re looking for a good time when you are looking death right in the face every time you use them?

[...]

I can say that I felt [Bias] was the player who would be able to take my place. He wasn’t Michael Jordan, but he was in that mold. He was a runner and jumper unlike anyone on our team and he was tough as nails. I think he would have been better in the pros than he was in college. I think he could do more things than, say, James Worthy. He had that Bernard King look to me and I’ve always loved Bernard as a player.

On the Isiah Thomas controversy

Apparently Rodman had said I was overrated because I was white and Isiah, when asked to respond to that, had laughed and said if I was black, I’d be just another good guy.

That didn’t mean anything to me. I said, “Hey, this isn’t Russia. They can say whatever they want. It’s a free country.”

[...]

I told the press again that what was said didn’t bother me and if it didn’t bother me, it shouldn’t bother anyone else. It was directed at me, but it did not bother me or my family. A guy was beaten in a big game. He was disappointed. He said something. He says he was misquoted, so why not leave it at that? I told them that everything was squared away between Isiah and myself, so what more was there to say?

The questions started coming at Isiah and the press wouldn’t stop. Poor Isiah was getting in deeper and deeper. I thought, “I’ve heard all I need to hear.” I said to everybody that I had said everything I had to say on the issue and that I had to start thinking about playing the Lakers. That’s when I got up and left.

On Red Auerbach

The immediate impression you get from Red Auerbach is that he thinks he’s pretty good. You know, the “I’ve been there and I am Red Auerbach.” Well, he’s right. He has done it all–better than anyone else has ever done it. People think that Red is real tough and he can be, but I know another side of Red, the side that instructs, supports and motivates young players. He’s always pushing us in his own way, trying to make us a little better every day. He expects a lot from us and never wants to hear any excuses as to why we can’t play or why we didn’t play well in a game.

Here are some good Youtube clips:


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