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IT'S TIME FOR BIRD TO REALIZE THAT AGE HAS FINALLY CLIPPED HIS WINGS

Now that the basketball season is finally over, let's get one thing understood right up front. There is no athlete I have admired more than Larry Bird.

I've always considered myself fortunate to have seen his career. It's like a basketball version of what it must have been like to hang around Rome watching Michelangelo work on the Sistine Chapel.Given all that, it's time for Bird to realize he lives in a different world now. The days of Bird taking over a game virtually any time he wants are over. By his own admission, he no longer is one of the top five players in the game.

The problem is he still plays like he thinks he is.

It's no secret he's done what he wanted on the court for a long time now. This past season Jimmy Rodgers wanted him to play fewer minutes. Bird balked, even though there were many nights during the season when his production fell off noticeably in the fourth quarter. Rodgers wanted a more flexible offense. Bird essentially wanted to play the way he'd always played.

The Celtics have been Bird's team for so long now it was probably inevitable Bird would evolve into one part superstar, one part coach.

Case in point: in the first playoff game against the Knicks, Bird turned to the Celtic bench and angrily signaled for a time-out. Rodgers immediately jumped to his feet and called one.

Once upon a time there was no problem with this. Just as there was no problem with Bird constantly taking the big shot. He was Larry Bird, and that came with the territory, right?

But it's a different equation now.

Bird returned last fall from his year off and it was apparent he was not the same player he once had been. Not that anyone should have expected him to be - time waits for no one, especially aging basketball players coming off surgery on both feet.

Yes, he had nights when it was just like the old days. He also shot under 45 percent for much of the season.

He also took 336 more shots than anyone on the team during the regular season, though playing seven fewer games than Kevin McHale did. McHale, Robert Parish and Reggie Lewis all shot a higher percentage than Bird did.

But it's more than that.

The problem is that he was the focal point for the Celtic offense. Everything was geared to Bird. This was all fine and dandy back when Bird was arguably the best player in the game. It's not fine and dandy anymore. Not all the time.

It makes the Celtics' offense one-dimensional. It defines the way the Celtics play. Lewis, one of the best young offensive talents in the game, became almost an after-thought. Any thought the Celtics had about pushing the ball up the court got subordinated.

This is not to say Bird is finished as a basketball player. He's still an excellent defensive rebounder. An exceptional passer. When teams don't play him tough, he can still light anyone up. He still can have nights when he's one of the very best players in the game. He can still have some very productive years left.

It does mean, however, that it's time for both him and the Celtics to adjust. Gone should be the days when Bird takes the most shots just because he's Larry Bird. Gone should be the days when Bird always take the big shots just because he's always taken them. Gone should be the days when Bird is expected to carry this team night after night.

A few years ago Pat Riley convinced Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that the Lakers no longer were his team, that he no longer was going to take the big shot just because he always had done so. The result was back-to-back championships, plus an orderly transition into the future. Julius Erving's career certainly played a lesser role with the 76ers in the last couple of years.

They should be Bird's role models as he heads into the last years of his career, people who went out in style, not clinging to some deluded version of themselves, some basketball equivalent of Jim Rice refusing to believe the dance has ended even though there's no music anymore.

Chris Ford, the new coach, should tell Bird that the days of calling his own time outs are over. That the days of him dictating how much he's going to play are over. That it's time for both him and the Celtics to adjust.

Maybe this is next to impossible. Maybe Bird has been doing it his way for so long now he's become like the old dog who can't learn any new tricks. But I like to think Bird knows he made mistakes this past season. He returned this year trying to prove he was still the same player he always has been. So there were times he was stubborn, as if on some personal mission. There were times he played as if he refused to admit it's not 1987 anymore.

He's always been the consummate competitor. Now he's faced with another great challenge, the adjustment to his athletic mortality.