Young (Larry Bird) and Old (Paul Silas) Are Put Through the Hoops in the Playoffs

updated 04/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

Six years ago Larry Bird didn't appear to have much of a future. He was a stringy 17-year-old college dropout working on a garbage truck in French Lick, Ind. "That job was one of the best I've had," Bird maintains, though he is now the highest-paid rookie in U.S. sports history, with a $3.25 million, five-year contract. As the National Basketball Association playoffs open this week, there's no dispute about Larry Bird being worth that heady price.

His team, the Boston Celtics, which won a paltry 29 games last season, has led its division—and indeed the league—in victories much of this season. Bird tops the club in scoring, rebounding, steals and minutes played. With his dazzling skills and deft behind-the-back passing—and possibly because he is the first white superstar to join the league since Bill Walton in 1974—Bird is one reason the NBA's network TV ratings have jumped 16 percent.

About the only category in which Bird fails to excel is image. He won't discuss anything but basketball with reporters and fans, and recently he socked a heckler in San Antonio with his duffel bag. Bird has reason to be guarded off-court. His father committed suicide when Larry was 17. Less than two years later his 10-month marriage to high school sweetheart Janet Condra broke up. (Condra has a paternity suit pending against Bird, claiming he fathered her daughter, born two years after their divorce.) After false starts at Indiana University and a local junior college, Bird got a basketball scholarship to Indiana State.

In Boston, he nests in a modest house in the suburb of Brookline and spends much of his time watching TV. He rarely ventures out because, he says, "People seem to act up when I'm around." His companion of three years, Dinah Mattingly, commutes from Indiana. "It helps to have her here when I get back from road trips," Bird explains. After the season he'll head home to French Lick. But for now there's the playoffs—and quite possibly a confrontation with Paul Silas (next page), who has been playing in the NBA since Larry Bird was 7.

At 36, he's Poppa Paul to the younger generation

Paul Silas can't run, jump, shoot, pass or dribble better than your average 5'6" used car salesman. But the Seattle Supersonics' 6'7" forward has lasted 16 pro seasons, competing on playoff teams 14 times. "Paul Silas," says his coach, Lennie Wilkens, "is a winner."

Silas, at 36, is also the oldest active pro player—Poppa Paul to some younger colleagues. When he joined the NBA in 1964, he made $9,000 a year, about $600,000 less as a rookie than Bird, whom Silas will guard if Boston and Seattle reach the finals. Part of that boost in pay scales is due to Silas.

President of the NBA Players Association for the past six years, he has been an articulate spokesman in negotiations with owners. However, he has only lately accepted the role of elder statesman. "It used to bother me to be singled out as the 'old man,' " he says, "because I wasn't the oldest guy in the league. Gail Goodrich was still playing. I felt perhaps there was a suggestion that a black man ages faster than a white man. It doesn't bother me now." (Goodrich retired at 36 in 1979.)

Silas was the youngest of three sons born to a laborer in Prescott, Ark. At 8 he was sent to Oakland, Calif. to live with his grandparents and at 14 made the varsity at McClymonds High School, Bill Russell's alma mater. Both Paul and his brother Bill accepted scholarships to Creighton University in Omaha. Bill suffered a nervous breakdown there and died undergoing shock treatment. "He had a very high IQ," says Paul, "but he just couldn't cope."

Two years after Silas was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks he met wife Carolyn, now 38. But on their first date, she scolds, "he completely ignored me." "I'd heard that she was pretty," Paul explains, "so I didn't want to go in all goo-goo-eyed." They married six months later.

Silas has timing, shrewdness and strength, translated into extraordinary rebounding ability. These qualities have compensated for his shortcomings on the court. He played with four teams before being traded to Seattle in 1977 and has appeared in more than 1,200 games. Next season he could break John Havlicek's record of 1,270 career games. However, Silas hasn't decided yet whether to play next year. Financially secure (at a reported salary of $360,000 a year), he has invested in real estate and thoroughbreds. If he retires as a player, he might try coaching in the pros. In any case, he won't be idle. "Our family motto is hard work," he notes. "If it's easy, it's not worth it."

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