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Larry Legend Enters The Hall

With three NBA championships, almost universal respect as one of the game's greatest players, and now a place in basketball's pantheon, Larry Bird still won't take a full bow.

About 7,000 players, coaches, basketball officials, many home state fans and others set off throaty chants of "Lah-ree, Lah-ree, Lah-ree" for two minutes to celebrate Bird's induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame Friday night at this city's Civic Center.

Sometimes put down as a hayseed during his spectacular career, Bird was full of down-home, self-mocking humor at his induction. He recalled asking for a first-class airplane seat with the Celtics in his second year there.

"I said, `Excuse me ... . Go tell coach (Bill) Fitch that I'm a first-class player; I expect a first-class seat." The answer came back: "Tell him to get his butt on the plane."

Earlier in the day, Bird said, "It's not about me playing. It's about me and my team."

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The Boston Celtics great enters the shrine with two other players - Marques Haynes of the Harlem Globetrotters and Arnie Risen, also of the Celtics.

Other inductees are coaches Alex Hannum of the 1967 NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers, Jody Conradt of the University of Texas and Aleksandar Nikolic of Yugoslavia.

Atlanta Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens, inducted as a player in 1989, was honored again, this time as the NBA's winningest coach. He has an NBA coaching record of 1,120-908, including a 1979 championship with Seattle.

But it was Bird alone who was besieged at a morning news conference. Clearly uncomfortable with the hoopla, Bird at times stared at the ceiling.

"Certainly it is an honor to be here - for me to attend Larry's party,"said.

Along with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, Bird and his clutch shots and breathtaking passes fueled the explosive growth of contemporary basketball.

Through it all, Bird, who grew up outside French Lick, Ind., stayed almost enigmatically private. Only on the court did he compete with the game's most flamboyant and self-promoting stars.

"Everywhere I go, people ask me about my playing days. It seems like it's getting worse, not better," said Bird, now 41 and coach of the Indiana Pacers. "Once this is over, I think I can close the book on my career and look forward."

From his entry in the NBA in 1979 to his retirement in 1992, Bird averaged 24.3 points, 10 rebounds and 6.3 assists a game. The 6-foot-9 forward led Boston to NBA championships against Houston in 1981 and 1986 and Los Angeles in 1984. He was a three-time NBA Most Valuable Player and twice a finals MVP.

Voicing worry about the NBA lockout, Bird said he hopes the outcome will help keep players from too much team hopping.

"I think it's great for the fans to be able to identify with certain players in certain places," he said.

Wilt Chamberlain, in Springfield to honor his former coach, Hannum, said he would pick Bird first, even over Jordan, for a spot on a personal dream team.

"If you're going to go out with a ... team effort, you want people to be able to blend in," said Chamberlain, who acknowledged his contrasting solo style of play.

Indeed, Bird brought success to every team he joined. When he was a senior at Indiana State, his team lost only one game: the NCAA championship to Johnson and Michigan State.

With the Celtics, the frontcourt of Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish dominated through much of the 1980s.

Even when his bad back had almost ended his playing days, Bird won a gold medal in 1992 with the U.S. Olympic team.

"He's out of the old school," said Tex Winter, assistant Chicago Bulls coach and winner of this year's Hall of Fame John Bunn award for lifelong service to the game. "As a team player, he surpasses anybody I've ever seen."

Bill Walton, who was Bird's teammate on the 1986 championship Celtics team, said Bird beat opponents by preparing and playing harder than anyone.

"He was a player who didn't really have the physical playing skills ... of other great players of the game," Walton said.

After five years as a Celtics special assistant, Bird took over last season as coach of the Pacers. He led them to a 58-24 record, their best since joining the NBA in 1976. He was chosen Coach of the Year, yet remains a team player as coach, crediting assistants and players.

"I didn't go out there and turn this team around myself," he said.

"I can't see myself doing it for a long time," he added, speaking of the responsibility of motivating others. "Maybe next year I'll be working as vice president for Bill Gates. Who knows?"

© 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved

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