by Mark Montieth
Bill Walton remembers the team meals at the Scotch and Sirloin, the restaurant in Boston where the Celtics players could get a free meal. The players’ only financial obligation was to leave a tip.
“At the end of the meal, Larry would surreptitiously wait until everybody left and he would go around and see how much money was left on the table, and he would supplement the tips,” Walton recalled. “He wouldn’t let anybody see him. But I’ve got good peripheral vision.”
It would take X-ray vision to recognize most of Bird’s acts of charity. He prefers an under-the-table approach – or on-the-table, when necessary. He tries to keep it quiet. No press releases, no press conferences, no speeches, nothing … unless there’s a benefit to that as well.
That’s why Bird participated in One Legendary Night Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Masquerade’s annual fund-raising banquet for the Simon Youth Foundation and Pacers Foundation. He might have preferred to stay home with his family, but duty called.
“I don’t necessarily like to get up and speak,” he said beforehand. “But tonight I’m going to get up and talk about Bill Walton, and that’s going to be fun,” he added, laughing.
Walton was an invited guest, flying in from his home near San Diego, to help honor his former Celtics teammate. And while Bird is nearly as reluctant to talk about his charitable acts as he is about his Hall of Fame playing career, Walton has never been shy about bragging for Bird.
“Larry’s life is charity,” Walton said before the ball. “He tolerates people like me.
“His ability to inspire others, his ability to make others’ dreams come true … Larry Bird is so similar to John Wooden, so similar to Jerry Garcia, because it’s never about them. They only want the group to succeed. The list of things Larry does for others is endless. But you never hear about it.”
Bird, Walton said, would begin each day in Boston with a large wad of cash in his pocket. By the end of the day, it was likely empty. Sometimes tips needed to be supplemented, sometimes people simply needed help.
Bird learned the value of empathy while growing up in French Lick, in a poor family that sometimes needed help from others.
“We didn’t have a lot,” he said. “We were greatly benefited by gifts and different things during my childhood so it’s only fitting that I give back.”
It’s not always easy for Bird. He grew up in French Lick, went to college in Terre Haute, played his professional career in Boston, lived in Naples, Fla. after retiring, and has lived in Indianapolis while working for the Pacers as a coach and president. A lot of towns and cities claim him, and a lot of people and organizations ask for his help. He can’t say yes to everyone. But he says yes to many.
“My wife (Dinah) and I try to do as much as we can,” he said. “You can never do enough. You’ve got to give back. That’s what it’s all about.”
Walton spoke at the ball for more than 15 minutes, praising Bird as a friend and teammate. He ended with a story about a scrimmage in practice, when Bird was playing with the starters and he was playing with the reserves. The reserves had been dominating, but the assistant coaches who were officiating the scrimmage began showing blatant favoritism to the starters. So, a fed-up Walton grabbed a rebound and walked it over to head coach K.C. Jones to complain.
Jones took the ball and replied, “Bill, you know full well that we can never get out of here until Larry’s team wins a game.”
Bird spoke for about 17 minutes, telling a story about attending a Grateful Dead concert with Walton when the Celtics were in Oakland during their playing careers, and joking about the effect of all the substances in the air that night.
“Having an out-of-body experience with Bill Walton, you can’t beat it,” he said, laughing.
Bird concluded with a few comments about the current Pacers team, currently handicapped by injuries.
“I love every player,” he said. “Our players play. We always talking about putting it on the line, doing the right thing. You can’t beat this group of guys. You’re going to have injuries. It’s how you come out of it. Who steps up. Who pushes harder. That’s what it’s all about.
“We’re all blessed to be in the NBA, where we make good money and can do good things for charity, but when it comes down to it, it’s all about competition. It’s all about fighting hard, it’s all about working hard. That goes for everyone every day in life. Not just the NBA.”
The evening also included video tributes from various people associated with the Pacers, along with NBA greats such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Pat Riley, Jerry West, Ralph Sampson, former commissioner David Stern and current commissioner Adam Silver.
David Letterman also provided a lengthy video in which he told a story about how, when he lived in Indianapolis, he was accosted one evening by “some young toughs” downtown. He was saved by a stranger who gave him a ride, took him to dinner and gave him $500. Letterman said the man only described himself as a guy from a small town who played a little basketball.
Letterman said he took the money and moved to Los Angeles to begin a new career in television. Then one day he was reading the Los Angeles Times and saw a picture of an athlete who looked familiar. It was the guy from a small town who played a little basketball.
“It was Rick Mount,” Letterman said.