I owe my love of basketball to three people: my cousins Pat and Billy, and Larry Bird.
My cousins were older, and if you grew up in a close family you know how that goes. I didn't just like my cousins; I idolized them. I wanted to replicate everything they did, from the way they talked to the way they dressed to the way they acted. Fortunately for my parents (and me), Pat and Billy weren't into drugs, booze or partying. They just loved basketball.
They created a gang we called "The Man's Club." I say gang in the loosest sense of the word -- we weren't a bunch of hoodlums running the street corner; we were fun-loving kids who would rather play tag in my cousins' swimming pool. Pat and Billy elected themselves President and Vice President of The Man's Club, meaning they had the final say on who earned membership into the "elite" club. I can still remember the initiation tasks they made me and my other cousins do. Once, Pat told one of my cousins (I'll leave his name out of this, for reasons which will soon become clear) he could only join The Man's Club if he defecated on the floor of our rental beach house. As I said before, we idolized our older cousins, so my unnamed cousin did what was natural -- he took a poo on the floor. He spent the next week in time out, but that didn't matter. He was a proud member of The Man's Club.
The Man's Club had one other stipulation: we HAD to live, eat and breathe basketball. Revering my cousins, I did what I was told. Little did I know it, but a monster was born back then -- a basketball-loving, basketball-obsessed monster. Everything I did was related to basketball. I watched games on TV whenever it was on. I played every second I could. When I wasn't playing or watching basketball, I did the next best thing: I played basketball video games. When I wasn't doing any of that, I was probably begging my mom to buy me a pack of basketball playing cards. And the obsession all started because I looked up to my cousins.
The same way I admired my cousins, they idolized Larry Bird. I was too young, still, to fully appreciate Bird's gifts, but I heard the tones Pat and Billy used while describing him. They discussed him like royalty, like he was everything they ever dreamed they could be. To hear them speak of Bird, one would have expected him to be like Moses, capable of parting the sea, or Jesus, capable of walking on water. Bird was a mythical figure to us, the embodiment of what we wanted to grow up to be. We didn't just want to become NBA players; we wanted to become Larry Bird. We wanted to wear short shorts, and win the NBA Three-Point Contest, and -- if we could have -- we probably would have grown wispy, blonde, disgusting mustaches.
One of my very first memories is traveling to the old Boston Garden to see Bird play. Bird was in his final season, and his Celtics were playing the New Jersey Nets. I still don't know if the Celtics won that day. I don't remember that part. But I can vividly recall sitting in the stands, on my father's lap, shaking like Mt. Vesuvius right before eruption. Sitting in the Garden, about 40 or 50 rows away from the court, I couldn't believe I was actually in the same building as Larry Bird. Bird was my hero. He was the idol of my idols, and as such he was like a god to me.
As I grew older and ESPN Classic (not to mention old-school DVDs) became my friend, I only learned to appreciate Bird further. The excitement bubbling out of five-year-old Jay slowly decreased, of course, but in its place grew a fantastic respect. Larry Bird played the game like I always wished I did, like everyone should. He dove after loose balls, even in the waning moments of a blowout. He found open teammates, even when every teammate was less talented than he. He played with a bravado that said, "I'm better than you, you, you, you, and you," yet he stayed humble enough to remain the hardest-working Celtic, and team-oriented enough to play an infectious style of unselfish basketball.
Bird didn't have an immortal playing style, and in a way that was endearing. He wasn't Michael Jordan, turbo-boosting and elevating his way over and through defenders. No, Bird mostly stayed stuck to the ground, playing the game in a stratosphere I was used to. There was something more tangible about the way Larry Bird tallied his gawdy statistics, something that made you think, "I bet I could do a lot of the things he does."
Of course, you couldn't. Bird was 6'9" tall, with the coordination of a point guard and the court vision of an owl. He was singularly focused on maiming every opponent he played, and thus entirely dedicated on improving himself and raising his teammates to his own level. He wouldn't stop until he beat you, and even after he beat you, still wanted to play the game the right way. I never met Larry Bird, but I imagine there was little -- and maybe nothing -- in his life more sacred than competing on a basketball court.
It's Bird's birthday today, 54 years from the day the earth welcomed one of its finest basketball players. If I owe him one thing, it's my love of basketball and everything related to the game. Even though I was only five years old when Bird finished his career, he inspired me in a way no other player has, before or since.
My relationship with Bird began when I was a child striving to earn a place in The Man's Club. Now that I'm actually a man (or something reasonably close to it), I can look back at his career with the new perspective of maturity.
Oddly enough, very little has changed. To this day, I still look at Larry Bird as a god.