Even though his beginnings were quiet and humble, Larry Bird would go on to become one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. Larry Bird was born in West Baden Springs, Indiana, but famously grew up in the nearby small town of French Lick. He was drafted 6th overall in the 1978 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics. He didn’t sign with them right away, opting instead to finish out his college career at Indiana State. He would begin his professional career in the 1979-80 season and finish it in the 1991-92 season, giving him a 13 year career as a player. Over the course of his career he would become known as Larry Legend for a number of reasons. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to explain some of the biggest reasons, in my opinion, why Larry gained such a lofty reputation.
In his rookie season Bird averaged 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, shot 47.4% from the field, 40.6% from three-point range, and 83.6% from the free-throw line. These are impressive statistics for any player, but more so for a rookie. However, the most important stat from Bird’s rookie season is that the Celtics improved by 32 wins under his leadership, going from 29-53 to 61-21 and ending the season with the best record in the league. They would go all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals where they would lose to the Philadelphia 76ers.
In his sophomore season Bird would again post impressive individual stats and lead the Celtics all the way to the NBA Championship series, which they would go on to win against the Houston Rockets, four games to two. In just his first two seasons Larry Bird took the Celtics from the bottom of the NBA all the way to the top. Even Michael Jordan, who is widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all-time, didn’t get his team turned around that quickly. Bird would later lead the Celtics to two more league championship victories in the 1983-84 and 1985-86 seasons. Giving him a total of three NBA championship trophies for his career.
Larry Bird was listed as 6′ 9″ tall and 220 pounds. He was never the fastest or strongest player on the court and was in fact told he was too slow to be effective in the NBA. However, he was able to make up for these natural deficiencies by developing excellent footwork, convincing head fakes, and some of the best shot creativity the game has ever seen. It was not unusual to see Bird get the ball, perform a quick turn, flip his head up as if to shoot, and then pivot back the other way for a fadeaway jumper. Those are the kinds of moves that get a defender second guessing himself and either flat-footed or jumping in the air too early. The fadeaway jump shot then creates the necessary space to get the shot off cleanly, especially for someone with a quick shot release like he had. He was known as an intelligent playmaker, always looking for the open man and the best shot possible. James Worthy, a Hall of Fame player, once said that he would rather guard Michael Jordan than Larry Bird because when guarding Larry you are forced to try and play more intelligent defense. Where Bird lacked in athleticism, he made up for with cleverness and quick thinking, forcing defenders to try and predict what he was going to do.
When Larry Bird first came into the league, NBA legend Artis Gilmore told him that if he wanted to play a long time in the league then he needed to stop “mopping up the floor.” This is a reference to Bird’s willingness to chase down loose balls to the point of diving onto the hardwood floor or into the seats by the sidelines. During his entire career Bird would be known for his hustle and tendency to never give up on a play. When Artis Gilmore had given him that warning at the beginning of his career, Bird told him that hustle was basketball and he couldn’t play the game any other way. Even at the end of his career when he was suffering from extreme back pains he was still diving onto the court or running into the seats in an effort to get the basketball.
During his 13 year career Bird suffered through a host of injuries, and it is these injuries that cut his playing career as short as it was. “If you get paid to go to work, you gotta go to work,” is what Larry would later say when looking back at the injuries he sustained during his career. In 1985 he was shoveling gravel on his mother’s driveway in French Lick, Indiana. This was the first time he experienced the back pain that would ultimately end his career. According to Dan Dyrek, Bird’s Orthopedic Therapist, after the structural integrity of his spine deteriorated, his spine would try to lock itself into positions in an attempt to be stable again. However, it couldn’t stay locked in a position and consistently shifted around. They were able to use specific techniques to unlock his spine and realign it for a period of four to six hours. This allowed Bird to be adjusted before a game so that he would be able to stand up straight and play. Bird also began lying down on the sidelines when he wasn’t in the game and also lying down on the airplane as the team flew across the country to their games in an effort to rest his back as much as possible. The pain was so bad that he could even feel it go down his legs and into his feet. Bird would also have surgery on both of his achilles tendons in 1988, this would only go on to compound his back issues.
In 1982 Larry Bird was hit in the face during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks. When he was going up for a rebound Harvey Ketchings caught Bird with a nasty elbow to the side of his face. This caused a fractured zygomatic arch, or cheek bone, which was a dent that had to be drilled into and then a tool inserted to pull the cheek bone back out. Bird didn’t have the procedure done until after the game because when the injury occurred there was still a quarter left to be played. He finished out the game, scoring eight points in that final quarter and leading the Celtics to a victory.
In the first quarter of a 1988 game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Bird was injured as he made his way to the basket to score, Dell Curry (Stephen Curry’s father) came up to stop him and ended up elbowing him in the side of the head. This blow caused a fractured eye orbiter which means that Bird was seeing double for the next couple of weeks. This, however, did not keep him from finishing that game, scoring 31 points and leading the Celtics to a victory. He would later go on to keep playing games throughout the entirety of his double vision while maintaining his usual high standards of play.
During game five of a 1991 playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, Larry dove for a loose ball and wound up slamming his head on the court. He laid still for a few seconds before getting back up and pursuing the play. The reason he had laid still is because he was actually knocked unconscious for those few seconds. He would head to the locker room and be checked out by the team doctor. The doctor advised Bird to call it quits for the night, but Bird knew that the Celtics had lost their edge without him in the game so he opted to go back in. With Larry back on the floor the Celtics went on a 33 to 14 tear that ultimately got them the win and sent the Pacers home from the playoffs. Larry ended the game with 32 points.
There are other injuries that Bird faced during his playing time in the NBA but the ones I mentioned are perhaps the most famous ones. When asked about his mentality regarding playing through injuries, Bird tells a story about his dad. He remembers his dad coming home from work with an ankle swollen so badly that Bird had to help his dad get his boot back on. The injury never kept his dad from working though, as he would be gone all week working construction and then come home and rest his ankle on the weekends before heading back out to do it all over again. Larry doesn’t know if his dad’s ankle was broken, but it looked like it was to him as it was swollen and black in color.
Aside from his toughness, Bird is probably best known for his trash talking. Michael Cooper, who played for the Los Angeles Lakers remembers that during an All-Star Weekend and just before a three-point contest, Bird walked into the locker room and said, “I hope all of you guys in here are thinking about second place, because I’m winning this.” He would go on to do exactly that. Clyde Drexler, an NBA Hall of Fame inductee, recounts his rookie season in 1983 when Larry Bird told him, “you can’t guard me rookie” and then went on to score 10 straight points. When Drexler’s coach took him out of the game, Larry walked by and laughed at him.
When George McCloud was a rookie playing for the Indiana Pacers during the 1989-90 season, he was told to guard Larry during one of their games against the Celtics. When Larry saw that McCloud was the one assigned to guard him he turned to the Pacers’ bench and said, “Hey I know you guys are desperate, but can’t you find someone who at least has a prayer?”
In a game against the Detroit Pistons Larry was being guarded by Dennis Rodman, who had not yet found his stride as the excellent defender he would later become. After Bird scored four consecutive baskets he turned to Piston’s coach Chuck Daly and said, “Who’s guarding me, Chuck? Is anyone guarding me? You better get someone on me or I’m gonna go for 60.” Rodman did his best to stay close to Bird throughout the game and tried to deny him the ball, but Bird would constantly call for his teammates to pass him the ball “before they notice nobody is guarding me.”
Chuck “Rifleman” Person once said he was “going bird hunting” when his Indiana Pacers were about to face Bird and the Celtics in a Christmas Day game. Before the game Larry said he had a present for Person. Then during the game, when Person was sitting on the Pacers’ bench, Bird came down the court and shot a three-pointer right in front of him. He turned and said to Person, “merry Christmas”, then the shot dropped through the net.
In the last few seconds in a close game against the Seattle Supersonics Bird told the player guarding him, Xavier Daniel, that he was going to get the ball and exactly where he was going to shoot it from. On the next play Bird got the ball and went to the spot he indicated to Daniel and took the shot. It went in and Bird said, “I didn’t mean to leave two seconds on the clock.”
Once, a player named Mark Aguirre hit a three-point shot while Bird was guarding him and proceeded to say to Bird, “Take a look at that.” In response, Bird hit three consecutive three-point shots and told Aguirre, “You’re out of your league.”
Bird enjoyed toying with the feelings and thoughts of the opposing team. He loved to get into their heads and mess up their rhythm. There are many more stories about Bird’s trash talking, some are exaggerated and some aren’t. No matter which they are, they are all certainly entertaining.
In a game against the Washington Bullets, Larry Bird hit what would have been a game winning three-point shot, but his coach had called a timeout just before Bird shot the ball. During the timeout Bird told his coach, K.C. Jones, that he wanted the ball back in the exact same spot he had just shot from. He got the ball back in the same spot and made the same shot again, winning the game for the Celtics.
The shot he hit against the Seattle Supersonics when he told Xavier Daniel where he was going to shoot from is definitely worth mentioning again here as it was a game winner. Besides that fact, most players that are about to attempt a game winning shot don’t tell the opposing team where they are going to shoot from.
In a 1992 regular season game the Celtics were down 115-120 against the Portland Trail Blazers. Bird would make a layup with 20 seconds left to cut the Portland lead down to three. He followed that with another layup with nine seconds left to cut the deficit down to one. he then hit a three-point shot with two seconds left to tie the game and send it into overtime.
In the 1988 All-Star Weekend three-point competition Larry Bird would sink his very last shot (a money ball worth two points) to beat Dale Ellis, 17 to 15. This gave Larry Bird an NBA record three consecutive three-point competition wins.
During his career Larry Bird would hit game winning shots over great players like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, and Julius Erving. It can be difficult to find details regarding his game winning shots due to so much footage of the games not being available, so no one is quite sure how many he has made. It is well know, however, that whenever the game was on the line Larry Bird wanted the ball in his hands, and his teammates wanted him to have it too. Legendary coach Pat Riley once said, “If I had to choose a player to take a shot to save a game I’d choose Michael Jordan; If I had to choose a player to take a shot to save my life…I’d take Larry Bird.”
Rivalry with Magic:
Rivalries can make the NBA a more interesting league to watch as fans become more invested in the games. This is certainly true for the rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Their rivalry started in college when Magic’s Michigan State University team beat Larry’s Indiana State team in the 1979 NCAA Championship game. In the 1979-80 NBA season Larry Bird would win the Rookie of the Year Award while Magic Johnson and his L.A. Lakers would win the NBA Championship and Magic won the Finals MVP Award. Then in 1981, Bird and the Celtics would win the Championship, but Magic and the Lakers would win it again in 1982. The Celtics would win it again in 1984, but the Lakers would win it back in 1985 and 1987. Another aspect of their rivalry was the color of their skin. Larry Bird had been dubbed “The Great White Hope”, a role he made it clear he never wanted to play. He was seen by some to be the savior of the game for white people because the NBA had become so heavily dominated by black players. Magic Johnson once said that, “A lot of black guys always ask me, ‘Did Larry Bird really play that good?’ I said, ‘Larry Bird is so good it’s frightening.'” Larry and Magic have been friends for many years at this point, never really letting their rivalry keep them from showing each other respect and admiration.
The NBA had been experiencing a bit of a slump during the 1970’s, but the rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson played a big role in leading the league into a new age of popularity and prosperity.
Success as a Coach and Front Office Management:
After spending five years as a front-office special assistant for the Boston Celtics, he accepted the head coaching job for the Indiana Pacers. In the 1997-98 season, his first as head coach, Larry coached the Pacers to a franchise best season at 58-24 and was named Coach of the Year. Later, in the 1999-00 season, he coached the Pacers all the way to the NBA Finals, but they would go on to lose. He then stepped down as head coach only to return to the organization in 2003 as the President of Basketball Operations. He would go on to be named the 2011-12 Executive of the Year, making him the only person to ever be named League MVP, Coach of theYear, and Executive of the Year. He would again step down from his position only to return in the same capacity in the summer of 2013.
During his career he won three NBA Championships, two Finals MVP awards, three league MVP awards, became a member of the 50/40/90 club (shot 50% from the field, 40% from three-point range, and 90% from the free throw line in a single season), a Rookie of the Year Award, a Coach of the Year Award, and an Executive of the Year Award. He was also named to 12 NBA All-Star Teams, was a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team”, won three three-point competitions, and lead his team to 50 or more wins in 12 of his 13 seasons. These are all very impressive accomplishments for any player, but when the fact his career was just 13 seasons long and that he was battling a deteriorating back for most of those seasons, his accomplishments are even more impressive. On top of that is added his renowned trash talking ability, historic toughness, rivalry with Magic Johnson, and intelligence as a basketball player and it is easy to see why he is known as “Larry Legend.”