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Bird knows the feeling

On March 17, 1998, Indiana Pacers coach Larry Bird was in the midst of barking instructions to his players during a tight game against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls when he suddenly felt his heart ``kick out."

``It was all out of rhythm," Bird recalled. ``My heart was jumping all over the place, and I was having trouble breathing."

He knew what was coming next. He began to sweat profusely as his heart rate elevated. As play continued, he began to feel dizzy and lightheaded, and he nearly collapsed in front of the Pacers' bench.

``I kept hoping for a television timeout, because if I didn't get one, I was going to pass out," Bird said.

When the referees finally whistled the scheduled TV break, Bird sank into his chair on the sideline, narrowly avoiding fainting in front of a nationally televised audience. After taking a moment to regain his composure, Bird coached the rest of game without incident. Neither his players nor assistant coaches noticed he was in distress and he didn't tell anyone except the team trainer, David Craig, and that was well after the game.

The condition that caused Bird such distress? Atrial fibrillation, which may be what is ailing another Boston superstar, David Ortiz.

Red Sox Nation has been flooded with bad news in the past couple of weeks, and the last thing anyone wants to hear is that Big Papi has a heart condition. But Bird said there's every reason to believe Ortiz can continue to function at a very high level with the proper care.

Bird said his episode during that Bulls game happened because his doctors had not yet pinpointed the proper amount of medication he should have been taking.

``I had already been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation by that time," he said, ``but it took me a while to find the right dose. Someone like you might take a 3-milligram pill, but for me it might require 5 milligrams because of my body size. Once we figured out how much I needed to keep my heart in rhythm, I was fine.

``I haven't had an episode in 2 1/2 years. Obviously, I'm not playing anymore, but I guarantee if I was still young and still in my prime, I'd be just fine."

While he was playing for the Celtics, Bird said, he experienced a few incidents as a result of his condition. He was unaware at the time it was atrial fibrillation, but, he said, after long runs during the offseason, he often would feel dizzy and lightheaded, and he would lie down and sleep for hours before he'd feel better.

Bird said he is required to take medication for the rest of his life.

``I take a few things, I don't even know their names," he said. ``One, obviously, Coumadin, a blood thinner, because when your heart doesn't pump efficiently, you can develop blood clots, which can lead to a stroke."

He said his doctors have encouraged him to avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol, but he cautioned that no two cases of atrial fibrillation are the same, and what Ortiz experienced could be ``completely different symptoms than what I had."

``My buddy has it, too, but it's different for him," said Bird. ``He doesn't get dizzy like I do. When I had an episode, my heart rate would double, up to 102 beats a minute. His never gets that high. He doesn't have the lightheadedness after he climbs a flight of stairs, like I did. There's just a lot of variations to it."

Bird said he has followed Ortiz's heroics and is aware they have sparked debates among Boston fans as to who was a more impressive clutch performer: Bird or Ortiz.

``People bring that up to me all the time," he said. ``I don't know why. Ortiz is just a baby. I'm an old man."

While Bird said he appreciates the exploits of Big Papi, the free-swinging designated hitter is not the object of his affection when he tunes into Red Sox games.

``I like David Ortiz a lot, but he's behind Manny Ramírez in my eyes," Bird declared. ``I love Manny. I love to watch him bat. If the game is on ESPN and he's up, I'm glued to the television. I'm stopping whatever I'm doing and I'm watching him hit the baseball. I've been doing that ever since he came to the Red Sox years ago."

Bird cemented his reputation as a Hall of Famer by supplementing his athletic talents with an indefatigable work ethic. No superstar hustled more than Bird on the hardwood. So how is it that Ramírez, who can be indifferent about running out ground balls, ended up as his favorite player?

``I understand he doesn't run out balls," Bird replied. ``I know he shouldn't do that. But at least he's getting the ball in play. Can't I just enjoy watching the guy hit without thinking about all the rest of that stuff?"

Sounds like a lot of Sox fans. Ramírez is one of the greatest hitters of all time, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and many fans would rather concentrate on that than pick apart the total package, which includes his occasional, regrettable lapses.

Bird will follow Manny and the Sox to the bitter end, and he hopes Ortiz hits 60 home runs. He also hopes Big Papi will not be slowed by his heart condition.

``Please tell him I wish him a lot of luck," Bird said. ``He doesn't need to talk to me about it. He's got the best doctors in the world up there looking after him."

He also suggested that people stop trying to play the game of who is more clutch, Larry Legend or Big Papi.

``Forget about me, will you?" Bird said. ``I haven't hit a game-winner in 13 years."

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is

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