Where Have You Gone, Larry Bird?

Paul Simon slipped Joe Dimaggio into his song Mrs. Robinson, an idealic talisman of yesterday who slipped across the expanse of the outfield at Yankee Stadium and swung a gracefully heavy bat at the plate. He made baseball look easy, like water filling a glass. A natural. He might not have been the best hitter of his time (Hello, Ted Williams) or the most gifted outfielder to ever don the pinstripes (I think Mantle was a more dynamic player) but pure smoothness? A natural? That was Joltin’ Joe.

It’s also not something I can really feel any similarity to. I can’t relate to it. Who can? We have all had moments where everything slid into place and whatever we were doing just worked the way we envision it. But to seem so naturally gifted that this was the natural state?

This isn’t to say Larry Bird wasn’t crazily gifted.  Beyond the hours in the gym, the years playing, he just seemed to have an affinity for the sport of basketball.

At the same time, he was a big white guy with a two inch vertical. He was big, he was gifted at the sport, but he wasn’t necessarily physically gifted in the way of someone like Jordan or Dominique Wilkins or Lebron James. Where Bird was gifted was between the ears and in the heart.

Watch highlights of Bird playing, diving for loose balls, falling into the crowd, using his two inch vertical to pull down a rebound and you see someone who knew the game and knew where to go and when to be there, but who also just plain fought for everything. Larry Bird was determination given human form.

That’s the athlete I can identify with. I might not be as naturally gifted at anything as he was at basketball, but that need to have to scrap for everything? Yeah, I can get that. Having to work at something, to slog through the crap, and end up with a broken nose or smashed finger, yeah. That I understand.

It seems like there aren’t many Larry Bird’s any more. I see a lot of athletes who look very natural doing what they do, who look smooth and pretty and nearly effortless. Who go out and you can tell that there is a touch of separation from the person and the act, from the person playing the game and the game.

It’s a distance most of us can’t afford in our lives. If we allow ourselves to become detached we lose our edge, we lose our place, we lose. And in our lives it matters when we lose. It’s not just a game, it’s not just a tick in the win or loss column in the standings. It’s a house payment. It’s health insurance. It’s the well-being of our kids.

It’s a distance we didn’t see in Larry Bird. It’s a distance we don’t see in our mundane normal person lives.  I miss Larry Bird the basketball player. I miss athletes I can relate to. We need more Larry Birds.

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