It was just a matter of time for Larry Bird. And now that time has come.
A rule that players must be retired five years has kept him out of the Hall of Fame. But he's eligible now and set to win a spot in the basketball shrine on Monday.
Will he react with a huge smile? Or will his poker face mask his emotions? After all, Bird stood, expressionless, as Indiana's coach when Reggie Miller's 3-pointer with 0.7 seconds left tied this year's Eastern Conference finals with Chicago.
Bird gave no clues, saying he wouldn't talk about the Hall of Fame until Monday.
"It's kind of hard to speculate on what somebody's feeling," said Robert Parish, Bird's frontcourt partner for 12 seasons with the Boston Celtics. "I'd like to think that would be a proud moment for him. It's the crowning jewel of his basketball career."
Just as it's likely to be for the entire Class of '98, which will be inducted Oct. 2 in Springfield, Mass., the hall's home.
Each year, it admits at least three nominees from the regular category and one each from the women's, veterans' and international categories. A panel of 24 unidentified selectors makes the final picks.
The four first-time nominees among the 11 in the regular category are Bird, Adrian Dantley, Chet Walker and former Harlem Globetrotter Marques Haynes. The other seven are Larry Costello, Artis Gilmore, Gus Johnson, Sidney Moncrief and coaches Alex Hannum, John Thompson and Tex Winter.
Jody Conradt, coach at Texas the past 22 seasons, and Harley Redin, who coached at Wayland Baptist, were nominated in the women's basketball category. Grady Lewis, a shoe company executive, and Arnie Risen, who ended his 13-year NBA career in 1958 with Boston, were nominated in the veterans' category. The nominees in the international category are Yugoslavian coach Aleksandar Nikolic and Ubiratan Pereira Maciel of Brazil.
Last Tuesday, Lenny Wilkens joined John Wooden as the only two-time inductees. Already in as a player, Wilkens was honored as a coach.
Bird would be the 24th Cetic chosen, joining Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, John Havlicek and coach Red Auerbach, among others.
"To me, it was obviously a lot different than it will be for Larry Bird because I had absolutely no confidence in the world that I would get in," said Bill Walton, a Hall of Famer who joined the Celtics late in his career. "I had the most frustrating and disappointing and exasperating career in the NBA."
After a brilliant career at UCLA, he played just 468 NBA games over 13 years, counting the four complete seasons he missed with injuries.
Heinsohn made the Hall as a player in 1986, the year the Celtics last won the NBA title, and is now a broadcaster for the team.
"Bird will be elected into the Hall of Fame in the first year he's eligible, which is an unusual feat," Heinsohn said. "Mine was like 21 years after (retirement) so I learned to live without it."
K.C. Jones, another of the Boston legions in the Hall of Fame, coached the 1984 and 1986 Celtics to championships with Bird as their leader.
"For me, it was a surprise that I got in the Hall of Fame," he said.
Jones averaged just 7.4 points a game but was an outstanding passer and defender.
"I was the quarterback and I was the best defensive player in the league," he said. "I mastered my position on both ends of the court."
So did Bird.
He joined Boston in 1979 after leading Indiana State to the NCAA finals and was a three-time regular-season MVP, two-time playoff MVP and 12-time All-Star before retiring in 1992 because of back problems. He was rookie of the year in 1980, holds or shares 27 Celtics records and led them to three titles and five finals.
"Regardless of what era he played in, he'd be going in," Heinsohn said. "The great ones are supreme competitors."
And Hall of Famers.
"It's the greatest honor that anybody could have," Walton said. "It's just the greatest feeling, incredible satisfaction when you sit back and realize years after you're done playing that other people remember this guy did something for the game of basketball."
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