INDIANA PACERS COACH Larry Bird wasn't even sure which play his team was running because his damn heart was kicking out again. He wondered if anyone noticed him sweating profusely, his shirt drenched under his suit and tie, an all-too-familiar symptom whenever his heart started rattling around his chest like a basketball in an empty trash barrel. The waves of nausea and dizziness overtook him next, muddling his concentration and leaving him feeling light-headed. When the sudden arrhythmia would occur during his training sessions in his playing days -- long before he'd informed any medical personnel about it -- he would always lie down immediately and nap for several hours, because if he didn't, he risked losing consciousness.
But on March 17, 1998, the 41-year-old coach of the Eastern Conference-contending Pacers, in the thick of a hotly contested game with the defending champion Bulls, could hardly recline and sleep it off. "Oh god," Bird thought as he tried to steady himself on the Indiana sideline. "Please don't let me pass out on the court."
Instead, the referees whistled the customary television timeout, allowing Bird to sink into the chair his team dragged onto the court for him during stoppages in play. When Bird had been hired in 1997, he'd made the unorthodox decision to entrust assistant Rick Carlisle with drawing up offensive plays in the huddle. Now, as Carlisle diagrammed Indiana's next move against Michael Jordan and the Bulls, Bird wiped the sweat from his brow (and his wrists and neck) and tried to regain his composure.
He finished the game without further incident, avoiding detection from anyone on his staff. Bird, who has an enlarged heart, was diagnosed in 1995 with atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heartbeat resulting from electrical signals being generated chaotically throughout the heart's upper chambers. With proper medication, exercise and diet, atrial fibrillation can be controlled, but Bird abhorred medication and was prone to skipping his pills. Part of the reason, he admits, was his own fatalistic view of what the future would bring.
"I tell my wife all the time, 'You don't see many 7-footers walking around at the age of 75,'" says Bird, who's 6-foot-9. "She hates it when I say that. I know there are a few of us who live a long time, but most of us big guys don't seem to last too long. I'm not lying awake at night thinking about it. If it goes, it goes."
It's a macabre outlook for Larry Legend -- but he's hardly alone in harboring it. Ask a bunch of NBA big men and the consensus is that their atypical size and the strains placed on their bodies during their careers cause them to deteriorate more quickly and die younger. The bigger they are, the younger they fall -- or so they think. Is it possible they're right?
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Every Hall of Fame scorer has a dutiful point guard who makes sure his teammate is fed a steady diet of passes and lobs. For eight seasons during his prime with the Atlanta Hawks, Dominique Wilkins had Doc Rivers as the giver of those transactions. Rivers and Wilkins, along with Kevin Willis, were mainstays on a team that had sustained success during the 1980s.
Rivers recently sat down to share some memories and impressions of his longtime teammate, who came in at No. 44 on ESPN.com's All-Time #NBArank.
Rivers on being Nique's point guard
"Nique was the best. I loved him. He had an amazing spirit about him. Before you even talk about basketball, Nique had this spirit about him on the floor, in the locker room. He was always on. I never remember Nique having a bad day.
"Guys like that are rare and it's really nice when you have them. It brings light to your locker room. I always look for guys who can bring sunshine to your team. It's usually not your best player. It's usually Tony Allen, you know? But Nique was the best player and he had that quality.
"The basketball part that made Nique extraordinary is, you would watch him in practice and it didn't look like he was doing much. He would kind of tell you he was going to work on his shot, but you never saw him do it. And then the next game, he's doing this shot that he told you he was going to start working on. And he's doing it in the game. The spin move off the glass. You remember that little jump where he spun? That's the craziest shot ever. And he'd make it.
"He'd say, 'I'm telling you, if I can jump and spin and throw it up, it can't be guarded.' I remember Randy Wittman saying, 'Fine, but you can't do it. It's impossible to do.' And the next game, he'd come down and make the shot and you're like, 'What the hell?!'
We used to say a lot of people get to the top floor, but very few people could get to the penthouse. Nique could get to the penthouse.
- Doc Rivers
"Spud [Webb] and I would joke to each other, 'He has to be working out somewhere else.' We always laughed about it because every summer, the last week before camp, and you'd work out with him and he was better, yet he'd only do his little crap in practice. We said it all the time: 'He's got to be working out somewhere else because no one can improve like that without working.'
"Some things people don't know: He was a great teammate. And when he wanted to defend, he was a lockdown defender.
"As his point guard, it's the best. You knew on the fast break you were scoring. Nique could finish like no other in transition. People would tell me, 'Man, you can throw a lob pass.' I'd say, 'No, I was an awful lob passer. I was just throwing it to Nique.' We used to say a lot of people get to the top floor, but very few people could get to the penthouse. Nique could get to the penthouse.
"The other funny thing about Nique was that he would acknowledge a bad shot before he took it. He would point at you. Like, let's say I had Muggsy [Bogues] on me on the switch and I'm on the post. He acknowledges that he sees you and he points at you. And then he would shoot."