Boston Globe reporter Dan Shaughnessy reflects on covering Larry Bird, '80's Celtics
Back in the 1980s, NBA stars still wore Converse All Stars, flew commercial flights and stayed in musty Holiday Inns.
Then, a group of young upstarts led by Los Angeles Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird changed the game forever. Bird and a merry band of trash-talking teammates put together by dynasty maker coach Red Auerbach romped to three NBA championships.
Courtside sat 29-year-old fledgling sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy. The players, who called him “Scoop,” alternately respected and resented the Boston Globe writer.
Shaughnessy has now written about that glorious time when he was watching his newborn daughter get passed around a plane by the world champion Celtics and shooting baskets with Bird. The book is called “Wish It Lasted Forever: Life With The Larry Bird Celtics.”
In the ‘80s, Shaughnessy says reporters were with basketball players all the time — on planes, waiting in lobbies and hotel bars. Despite the occasional awkwardness, “that’s where we did our best work,” he says.
For no apparent reason, Celtics center Robert Parish “hated” the reporter, he says. Bird once pointed out how quiet the locker room got when “Scoop” walked in. “They didn’t trust me entirely, and I didn’t want them to,” Shaughnessy says.
For a trash-talking team, Bird’s comment was mild. The Celtics wanted to get in people’s heads, he says.
M.L. Carr would pound on the Lakers clubhouse door, calling the Los Angeles team “L.A. fakers” and yelling for “Tragic Johnson,” Shaughnessy recalls. Cedric Maxwell made choking signs at James Worthy, a seven-time NBA All-Star, on the free throw line.
The Celtics “would tell you they were going to beat you and then go and do it,” he says, “and they didn’t care.”
On Bird keeping to his word
“He was ridiculous. Larry Bird, I don’t know, sometimes it was like he was playing at another level. He saw the game in slow motion and he could hold things in his head while he was out there. He was banking 3-pointers in New York during practice one time. And the Knicks trainer Mike Saunders said, ‘What do you do with that? You couldn’t do that in the game.’ [Bird] says, ‘Well, if you give me $5 I will.’ Late in the game, the Celtics are riding the Knicks. Bird banks a 3-pointer [and] runs by the Knicks bench with his greedy hand extended looking for the $5 bill. I mean, he was thinking about that while he was playing.
“Larry used to come out warm up in the old gym, the dark Boston Garden, and he’d come over and say, ‘Scoop, what are you up to?’ I said, ‘Larry, you got a free throw streak going. Calvin Murphy’s got the NBA record [with] 88 in a row, and you’re in the 60s now, so I’m writing about your free throw streak for the early edition of the Globe. Don’t make me look bad by missing in the first half.’ So sure enough, he gets fouled in the first half, goes to the line, makes the first one. He looks over and winks at me before making the second one. He was thinking about what we talked about before the game while he’s playing a game. Who does that?”
On talking with Bird from the sidelines of a game
“I remember one night in Utah, Larry had a triple-double and he had nine steals, so you could get a quadruple-double, which never happens. There’s only been a couple in NBA history. He came out of the game in the third quarter because they were leading by so much. I ran down to the other end where he was sitting on the bench. I said, ‘Hey, get back out there, you could get a quadruple-double. It’s only been done like twice in history.’ He said, ‘Get the hell out of here, Scoop. I don’t care about that.’ You could just run up to him and talk to him during the game.”
On a rookie mistake Shaughnessy made in the beginning of his reporting career — sending two rounds of drinks to Bird and Quinn Buckner at a bar once
“I still turned beet red thinking about it. It violated every drinking code of man. Larry rejected the second round, and I asked Quinn Buckner about it 37 years later. He said, ‘I could tell you what that was. He didn’t want to be beholden to you. He didn’t want to owe you. He was smart then. He’s smart now, and he was not going to let the new guy think that we could be bought off.’ And [Buckner] was right. It was the most rejection I’d felt since my first high school dance.”
On the “Hick from French Lick” label Bird was called when he first came to Boston from Indiana
“He was shy and he did not trust strangers. He grew up very poor, but he was street smart. And it really served him well. He was never going to be sophisticated, but he noticed everything. When you traveled together, he was the instigator. He noticed little feuds between the writers, or I got hit in the head during warm ups one time by a Portland Trail Blazers’ errant pass, and he’s down the other end warming up. But he saw that he couldn’t wait to run me down the bar that night to say, ‘Scoop, I saw you get hit in the head. You was pissed.’
“But when he came to the league in 1979, the NBA was in trouble. Seventeen out of 23 teams were losing money. The NBA Finals were broadcast on tape delay. They weren’t even primetime. It was small time, and we were staying in Holiday Inns. There was a vending machine next to the rusty old pool downstairs. Snowflakes were coming through the cracks of the windows. It was not the NBA of the five-star hotels and the charter aircraft and all that. Larry and Magic kind of brought the league into prominence, and then Michael Jordan came in ’84. David Stern took over as commissioner. By 1992, the dream team in the Barcelona Olympics is a global entity — and the league has never looked back.”
On when Bird and Kevin McHale, another white player, were drafted to the Celtics
“I think Red [Auerbach] was really good at assembling rosters of guys who could work together. Cedric Maxwell, he was the man, but then they draft Larry Bird, and Cedric Maxwell is going to realize he’s not going to be the man anymore. He took that. Robert Parish again would have been the star player on most teams. He’s going to subjugate his ego. But he got a lot of great passes in traffic to get easy dunks because he was playing with Larry Bird. Max didn’t think white guys could play. He says this in the book. And then he comes to the Celtics, and Max says ‘God’s a funny God, because he not only gave me the greatest white player of all time, he gave me two of the greatest white players of all time.’
On the team dynamic
“[Bird and McHale] took away [Maxwell’s] doubts right away. You read some of these quotes from Bill Walton. It’s just elegant prose. Bill said the Celtics saved his life. It was the greatest year of his life. He talks about the parking attendants and the mass pike toll takers and how everyone was all about one and the greatest team of all time at the same time.”
“They were secure in their own greatness. You didn’t have that fragile ego, needing to make more money than the next guy, needing to get more shots, score more points. And when they practiced together, it was very competitive but it was fun. And I think it’s because they all knew how good they were and they weren’t threatened by other good players. That’s a magical combination when you can achieve that, and Red Auerbach assembled that.”
On contacting people decades later to talk about those NBA glory days
“There’s some really lovely passages. I know Kevin McHale talks about this. He said, ‘Whenever I see those guys now, I get a glow inside me,’ just lights up. These are 60-year-old men now. It was a special time. And I know for me, even if athletes didn’t like you in the hard days when you were covering it and it’s critical stuff and nerve ends are exposed. But later on — 30, 40 years later when you interact with them — you remind them of really good times in their life when they were young and everyone knew what they were doing. They tend to really embrace that and be glad to see it.”
Book Excerpt: ‘Wish it Last Forever’
By Dan Shaughnessy
They are men in their sixties now, and all these years later there is still lively interaction, busting of chops, hugs of celebration, and sometimes sorrow. When you go through what these guys went through, winning the way they won, and laughing the way they laughed, green thread runs deep and connections don’t fade.
Periodically, Indiana Pacers administrative assistant Susy Fischer will take a call for consultant Larry Bird, ask, “Who’s calling please?,” then hear the person on the other end say, “Tell him it’s the best player who ever played for the Celtics.”
This means that M. L. Carr is on the line. Bird’s assistant is in on the joke.
“Hi, M.L.,” Fischer will say. “Let me see if Larry is in.”
Carr is the player who supplied protection when Bird was a rookie in the NBA. Anybody who wanted to get tough with Bird had to deal with M.L. A federal prison guard before he was a Celtic, Carr likes to say, “You can’t rattle me. I was in the big house. I told Maurice Lucas and all those other ‘enforcers’ that they’d have to go through me first. Those guys and those little NBA arenas were nothing compared with what I’d already dealt with.”
In a serious moment of reflection, Medicare-eligible Bird admits, “M.L. was my best teammate. He always had my back.”
M. L. Carr was “Froggy”—a nickname bestowed by Cedric Maxwell after he observed the way Carr’s legs bowed before he went up for a shot or rebound. Fans didn’t know about Froggy. It was an insider thing—the same with every team ever assembled. At every level, whether high school, college, or the pros, team members and those around them speak a locker room shorthand that they alone understand. Forty years later, hearing an old nickname or signature phrase is enough to transport a teammate back in time, the same way the smell of cinnamon toast puts you back in your mom’s cramped kitchen when you were five years old.
In 2021, if M. L. Carr walks through a crowded arena and hears “Froggy,” he knows that one of his former teammates is nearby. The only guys who call him Froggy are Bird, Maxwell, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, and other Celtics from the early 1980s.
Maxwell was “Cornbread” to NBA America, “Bread” to his teammates. Robert Parish was “Chief,” an homage to the gigantic, silent Indian in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. All Celtics fans knew Maxwell’s and Parish’s nicknames, but only folks in the inner sanctum knew that assistant coach Chris Ford was “Doc,” Rick Robey was “Footer,” Gerald Henderson was “Sarge,” and Rick Carlisle was “Flip.” Diminutive Boston Herald Celtics beat reporter Mike Carey was “Smurf.”
I was “Scoop.”
“You was always getting the damn scoop,” says Maxwell, who serves as a color analyst on Celtics radio broadcasts in 2021. “We knew we had to be careful around you.”
In 1984, after a forgettable NBA regular season game in which veteran guard Quinn Buckner struggled, I told Boston Globe readers that Buckner played “like a man with no clue.”
Maxwell, custodian of all the Celtics nicknames, loved it.
“Bucky is the man with no clue!” he hollered at practice the next day. “He is Inspector Clue-seau!”
“All these years later, Max still brings that shit up,” says Buckner, now a color analyst for Indiana Pacers broadcasts. “I’ll see him in the press dining room before we play the Celtics, and he’ll yell across the room, ‘There he is, Inspector Clue-seau!’ ”
“I’ll tell you one thing,” McHale says today. “When I see any of those guys across a room, I just get a gigantic smile on my face. It’s weird, and I noticed it years ago. If I see any of those guys a block away—Bill Walton, Max, Danny, M.L.—I get this visceral response. Something changes in me. I just get this big smile and this real sense of calm and cool and friendship. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something special that was there, and it remains with me.”
When I told Walton I was writing about my days with the Larry Bird Celtics of the 1980s, he said, “You cannot overemphasize in your book how much fun this was. It was better than perfect. Everybody couldn’t wait to get to practice every day. Everybody couldn’t wait to get to the airport, to get on the bus, to get to the games. Empty the thesaurus when you write this. You have license to print whatever superlative you can find. The basketball was superb and the community was remarkable. The people in my neighborhood in Cambridge and all the Celtics fans—the guy running the parking lot outside the Garden, the people in the restaurants, the people running the airport, and the people in the tollbooths at the tunnels. It was just such a joy. It was what you dream about and I wish it lasted forever.”
Excerpted from “Wish It Lasted Forever: Life with the Larry Bird Celtics” by Dan Shaughnessy. Copyright © 2021 by Dan Shaughnessy. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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