A few weeks ago I stood with a wired shrieking crowd behind police barricades and watched as men and women stepped out of black sedans and black luxury trucks pulled up in front of a museum. In dark suits and epic gowns they walked beneath a white canopy and onto a red carpet. There they posed for pictures before going into the marble building. Cops directed traffic. The crowd called out names. A sparkling model, a fervid, newly-minted Oscar winner, a once-precocious songstress, an aged fashion designer. They looked fantastic. The spring weather was perfect. It was all very exciting.
Every so often I see one of these people I only had seen before on a screen or in a magazine. Suddenly, there they are! On the street or at the restaurant or red carpet, and it’s a thing. Always it’s a thing. Excitement! Delight! Joy! Which got me wondering, why? Why is it so exciting to see in real life people that you have only watched in movies or read about in books? What is it? Honestly, what? What is the actual, psychological or philosophical thing of it that makes it a thing?
Because it’s not as if they are giving you money or stock options or advanced degrees or grave life wisdom or sandwiches just for having seen them. They’re only there, usually for a moment, and then they’re gone. And that’s it. You go on. You saw someone famous. Who cares?
But you do! You do care. Why?
After some serious thinking on this, I finally realized why: it is because we are finding out that they actually exist. We see that this distant famous person is actually a real person, of flesh and blood. The fashion designer is really alive, and the young songstress and the new minted Oscar winner. All real. Their bodies, their eyelashes, their hair, their teeth. Real! They exist! And it is exciting to see that they exist! We haven’t been lied to! Things are good in this world! There is hope! All these years we were not just led astray, caught up in a fantasy land, led to believe in something that wasn’t real.
Clutching this new insight, I began to wonder what if I, a believer, a spiritual seeker, a pilgrim in this earthly sojourn, were actually to meet that man I’d read about my whole life but had never actually seen. What if I were to encounter that person whose mere existence perhaps I even wondered at, no matter all the evidence accrued over the years that he did.
What if I were to actually see Larry Bird.
Larry Bird! The name rises into the air and casts a horrendous pale shadow on all those caught in its wake. Larry Bird! The name that begins with magnificent if earthy duo-syllabic promise and then just ends with a single thud: Larry!!!….Bird. Larry Bird, dribbling over parquet in thigh-high shorts, tufts of dirty blonde hair flowing, expressionless beneath a loathsome blonde mustache. Larry Bird, with a face that arises beneath the sink in your mother’s kitchen, telling her that rust has set in and he’ll need to order new piping. Larry Bird. Larry Legend. The Hick from French Lick. A Larry who will never, ever be known as Lawrence.
If there is a God in the universe, no basket Larry Bird ever shot ought to have made it into the hoop. This is because one of God’s names, according to some theologians, is Beauty, and Larry Bird who was one of God’s finest basketball creatures threw up shot after shot that was not beautiful. Nothing Larry Bird ever did was beautiful. And yet the shots went in, and, those same theologians insist, God does actually exist.
I think about seeing Bird, not because we just witnessed the ending of another professional basketball season, or because I sure wish there were more ballplayers like him, or anything like that. I bring him up because, in one way or another, I am always thinking about Larry Bird.
Though I did not play hoops as a kid in the 1980s, I spent a fair amount of time not just watching Larry Bird but reading about him as well. And while I could cite for you a fan’s adulation over his NBA championships, league MVP’s, career-long rivalry with Magic Johnson, all those triple doubles, makes the players around him better, and on and on, none of that would quite get at it. What really gets at it is this. In the March 21, 1988 issue of Sports Illustrated, Frank Deford wrote that when Larry Bird was twenty one and a Celtics’ recruit, he visited Boston for the first time. And on that visit he went to a Celtics game wearing “a hideous tan sports shirt”.
A hideous tan sports shirt. This, this is it. All of my life I have wanted to see that hideous tan sports shirt, so that I could properly love it and hate it at the same time. Oh Larry Bird. Oh Larry Bird. Why dost thou exist? Do you even exist? What if I were actually to see you?
And then, just as quickly as I can ask that question, I remember that I did see Larry Bird. I witnessed the man, in the flesh, play the game. It was in 1992, the spring of my sophomore year of college. The Celtics were playing the Milwaukee Bucks. I got tickets and went with a few other Bird fans from Marquette. It was late in his career. He had a lousy game. He scored 7 points. Larry Bird! 7 points! (Along with 7 assists and ten rebounds, just to mention).
But there was in this game one moment. Larry got a pass at the top of the key and immediately did a terrible thing to us all. He flipped it back behind his head, like a reverse soccer throw-in. Robert Parrish, or someone, caught the ball and laid it in. It was a wretched thing to watch. It was the passing equivalent of that tan sports shirt. It had all the grace of something that doesn’t have a lot of grace. Parrish scored, we all died, and Larry Bird rendered proof of his existence.
All those people strolling onto the red carpet that evening a few weeks ago were going into a party called the “Met Gala”, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Larry Bird, now an executive with the Indiana Pacers, was not among them. Later the night of the gala, a well-known rapper who had attended the party was attacked in a hotel elevator by his sister-in-law. You may have heard about this. She attacked the singer because–and this is unclear–he wanted to go and party later into the night with another famous and sultry female singer? Because at the Gala he had stood too close to still another woman? We just don’t know.
I wonder, though, if Larry Bird had been attacked by his wife’s sister in an elevator after a museum ball, what would he have done? Furthermore, what if Larry Bird’s wife did not have a sister but a brother and that brother was Bill Laimbeer Would Bill Laimbeer have attacked Bird in a hotel elevator for wanting to party later into the night with, say, Jon Koncack?
Larry would have said–and this is only speculation–but surely he would have said: Bill, let’s me and you figure this thing out right now. Jon Koncack needs a boost. Nobody goes to his parties. I mean, he’s Jon Koncack. But I’m gonna go, and I don’t wanna hear another word about it. We clear?
And he would have gotten off the elevator, dignity in hand, Laimbeer left to pound the elevator walls in ragged grief.
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The cover image, La Ultima Cena by Juan Felipe Rubio, can be found here.