Larry Bird Walks into a Bar

by

02/25/2023

Neighborhood: Staten Island

The Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood, missed a field goal on the last play of Super Bowl XXV, clinching the 20-19 victory for the NY Giants.

The door to Cherry Lane opens with the barely perceptible “beep-beep” of the unarmed alarm, which makes the bartender look up as a man in his sixties, hair cropped against his balding scalp, walks up to the bar. The man smiles and asks if Cece’s working. When the bartender tells him that she should be in around six, his smile fades. Not sure how to proceed, he checks his watch. After some consideration, he says, “Can I give you something?” The bartender, who’s seen the man before, served him on more than one occasion, knows exactly what he’s talking about. “I’ll make sure she gets it,” the bartender tells him. The man looks the bartender in the eye before handing over an envelope, which is sealed, with a name, “Larry Bird,” printed on front, along with a number, “33.” To reassure the man, the bartender turns to the register and, opening it with the key protruding from the lock, lifts the cash drawer and slips the envelope underneath. “Let me get a Heineken,” Larry Bird says, hoisting his stocky body onto a stool and laying down a twenty.

January’s a slow month for the bars in Staten Island. The Super Bowl, and its accompanying betting pools, helps revive business. The game is played on a 10 x 10 grid, and numbers are drawn with a select deck of cards, ace through ten, diagonally and horizontally, to fill in the boxes. If you’re regular at a bar, chances are you’re in their pool. It’s not unusual for someone to be in two or three pools, or even five. And it’s typical for bettors, whether out of superstition or tradition, or because they only managed to scrape the money together at the last minute, to make the rounds on the Friday and Saturday of Super Bowl weekend, hopping from bar to bar, handing in their envelopes.

There’s a lot of excitement in the air for, as any gambler will tell you, winning’s great, and losing has its own rush, but the real thrill is when you place that bet, with all its possibilities, and the clarity it provides. They all have stories, mostly of near misses— briefly possessing the winning numbers as the game plays out, or coming close to having their numbers materialize, only to see their dreams fade with a fumble, or pick-six, or field goal in the final minutes.

They tell other tales, too, the lore of Staten Island Super Bowl pools: the bar that lost its liquor license; the restaurateur who almost went to jail; the ex-wife who ratted out her ex-husband to the IRS; the guy who won the big one, and walked past a full bar on a Saturday night and collected without so much as buying a round, not even bothering to stay for dinner, and was thereafter ostracized by the community and banished to New Jersey — well, retired, anyway.

At Cherry Lane, the Super Bowl pool ante is four hundred bucks. With a hundred boxes, that’s a forty grand pot, the final score paying out twenty, minus the ten percent vig, so eighteen, which is enough for a guy like Larry Bird — the pseudonym that the man uses in order to remain anonymous to those he owes money, or might ask to borrow money, or his wife — to get out of debt, or buy a new car, or maybe that Rolex he’s always wanted. 

There are bars with a thousand dollar box. That’s a hundred grand at stake. Rules and the breakdown of payouts varies from pool to pool, first quarter, half, third quarter, final, final reverse, plus two and minus two, touching boxes, among the possibilities, but a fifty percent payout for the final score is fairly standard. So for a thousand bucks ante, we’re talking fifty thousand dollars, give or take, in your hand. Enough to make a difference.  At one time, infamously, there existed a pool whose ante had reached ten grand, an even million in total, though it ended with a police raid.

“Larry Bird,” box “33,” the real Basketball Hall of Famer Larry Bird’s number with the Boston Celtics, sips his Heineken, making the first of several stops on the eve of the Super Bowl. He has his fair share of stories. But one story has him shifting in his seat. Super Bowl XXV, Scott Norwood of the Buffalo Bills, with eight seconds left on the clock, attempts a game winning forty-seven yard field goal. If he makes it, the Bills win 22-20, 2-0 for the pool. His numbers. Norwood barely missed, “Wide right!” as Al Michaels famously called it, and the New York Giants hung on to win 19-20.

“How much would you have won?” the bartender asks.

“Forty grand,” Larry Bird says. He takes a long pull on his beer to drown his sorrows. “I’m a Giants fan, anyway.”

*The name of the bar and the person running the pool have been changed.

***

Tom Diriwachter is a New York playwright, and is currently writing a novel.

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§ One Response to “Larry Bird Walks into a Bar”

  • Russ Burd says:

    Once again, Tom Diriwachter proves his excellence at telling a story. He is a great writer.

§ Leave a Reply

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