Jimmy Rodgers waited eight years to become head coach of the Boston Celtics but now must face the next two to three months without team leader and perennial All-Star forward Larry Bird.
After hobbling through the first two weeks of the season, Bird chose Thursday to undergo surgery to remove bone spurs from both heels.Bird left the team before practice began Thursday and did not talk to the media. But his Celtics teammates, who face the 1-4 Washington Bullets Friday night in Boston and Saturday night in Landover, Md., had all but accepted the inevitability of life without the man who led them to three National Basketball Association titles in the 1980s and an average of 61 victories the last eight years.
"We're good enough to make the playoffs without Larry, and I think we're still a good team without him," said guard Danny Ainge, who is playing after missing four games with a sore knee. "Obviously, we're not as good as we are with him. But the possibility of surgery and opportunity of getting him back before the end of the season will be beneficial to everybody."
Rodgers is expected to platoon Reggie Lewis, Jim Paxson and Brad Lohaus at small forward during Bird's absence. Rodgers said his decision about who to play on a given night "will depend on the strengths and weaknesses of opposing front lines."
Paxson, who has played almost exclusively at guard in nine seasons, started at small forward against Golden State's Chris Mullin Wednesday night and scored 20. Bird sat out the game but led the cheering when Dennis Johnson won the game with a last-second, three-point shot.
Thursday, Rodgers seemed to lean toward starting Lewis against the Bullets' Bernard King.
"It's a good chance for me," said Lewis, a second-year player who is averaging 9.4 points. "I just have to make the best of it. I don't want to force shots, and I'll try to play solid defense."
Lewis, rookie guard Brian Shaw and Paxson have seen considerably more playing time this season. Former coach K.C. Jones was criticized widely last year for wearing down his starting five of Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Johnson and Ainge.
Bird, in particular, seemed to suffer physically in the rough-and-tumble Eastern finals against Detroit. He shot only 37 percent from the field and averaged a subpar 19.8 points, as the talented Pistons won the series in six. As soon as he was made aware of his promotion, Rodgers began planning ways to make better use of the Celtics' long-neglected bench.