Larry Bird: 'Good to come back'

BOSTON -- More than 1,100 attendees flocked to TD Garden on Tuesday night for the Sports Museum's 10th annual The Tradition -- the institution's summer celebration that honors some of New England's greatest athletes.

Event officials said it was the largest turnout in event's history, perhaps thanks to the stellar cast of athletes who were honored, headlined by Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

The rest of the 2011 class included former New England Patriots cornerback Ty Law, former Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, former Bruins winger Willie O'Ree, Lowell boxing legend Micky Ward and Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon, who received the Special Achievement Award.

The event began with a gala reception, where the honored athletes interacted with the crowd, posing for pictures and signing autographs. Afterward, the scene shifted to the other side of the Garden floor, where the award ceremony was conducted.

Bird led the honorees in expressing their appreciation for both Boston and their respective awards.

"It's always good to come back," Bird said prior to the ceremony. "I don't get out here as often as I'd like, but it's always good to get back out here. A lot of memories here. I think (the award) just recognizes the fact that over the course of the years that I had some success and I'm grateful about it. Like I said, it's always good to get back to Boston and receiving an award is the icing on the cake."

O'Ree echoed Bird's sentiments.

"I was overwhelmed when the museum contacted me in San Diego," O'Ree said. "I just can't say how much I enjoy coming to Boston. I've been a Bruins fan since 1957 when they first invited me to their training camp in the old Boston Garden."

Hosted by WEEI personalities Glenn Ordway and Michael Holley, the ceremony allowed each honoree to be given their award by a chosen presenter before taking part in a free-flowing conversation with Ordway and Holley.

The conversations began on a serious note when Lowell discussed his battle with cancer and the impact his father had on him throughout his life. Lowell did lighten the mood by taking some playful shots at former teammate Manny Ramirez.

"I think if you can tap into the 12-year-old mind, you can get there," Lowell joked. "And then he's like an Aristotle."

The mood was kept light by Law. After discussing his 10-year tenure with New England, Law convinced his presenter, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, to dance onstage after being handed a framed photograph of him and Kraft dancing during the Patriots' championship celebration in 2001. Hesitant at first, Kraft eventually gave in, much to the delight of the crowd.

Lowell and Law discussed the honor prior to the ceremony.

"Very special," Lowell said. "I think any time you're honored with an award, people appreciate the way you went about your business, so I'm very honored, and I'm happy to be back for a few days."

Added Law: "It's a very humbling experience because I had no clue. When it happened, I was really shocked because there have been so many great players before me, during my time, and even the great players today. So for them to choose to honor me this year was definitely humbling, and I'm honored."

O'Ree, the first African-American man to play in the National Hockey League, touched on the racial tensions that existed when he played in the late 1950s and early '60s.

"When I came to Boston for the first time, I had a great reception," O'Ree said. "The Boston fans were great, my teammates were great. But when I started to play, there were the racial slurs that were directed at me, not only by players of the opposition, but by fans in the stands. But I learned one thing, that names will never hurt you unless you let them."

Bird, who's stay on stage was longer than that of the other honorees, reflected on his time in a Celtics uniform.

"I really feel bad because we just won three championships," Bird said. "We were better than that. (1987) was probably my proudest season because the guys were really banged up and we made it to the Finals and had a chance. Kevin (McHale) had a broken foot he was playing on, Robert (Parish) had bone spurs in both ankles, Danny (Ainge) had a hip injury or a back injury. I was the healthiest one. But that was a gutsy team."

When asked if he would have broken up the original Big Three of him, McHale and Parish sooner in an effort to rebuild, Bird shook his head.

"Absolutely not," Bird said. "That's what Boston stands for. Respect. If you give it all you've got, play as hard as you can, [the fans] will come out and support you. Not only for that game, for your whole career. I know, I lived it."

Greg Payne is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.