Coaching Larry Legend
Larry Bird spent all 13 of his seasons in the NBA with the Boston Celtics. In that time, he played for four coaches -- Bill Fitch, K.C. Jones, Jimmy Rodgers and Chris Ford -- and won championships with Fitch and Jones. Bird also broke ("There's a steal by Bird ...) and warmed (The Dream Team) Chuck Daly's heart.
NBA.com's John Hareas caught up with all five coaches and asked them their thoughts on Larry and his turning 50.
Bird arrives in Boston
Fitch coached Bird for four seasons, won 242 games and an NBA title in 1981.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images/NBAE
: When he first came to Boston, people would come out to watch this kid that was so highly touted practice and he was just milk toast, vanilla, nothing fancy because he was learning his assignments, learning where he should be in certain defensive situations and what his role was offensively.
After about two weeks, all of a sudden here comes this kid throwing it behind his back, making blind passes, hitting teammates in spots and really bringing it out. Up until then it had been the old Peggy Lee story – Is that all there is? And then all of a sudden he comes with the real ticket.
I remember Cedric Maxwell figured that this kid had been signed to beat him out. I always felt that Cedric could spend a little bit more time on his defense, and I give Bird all the credit in the world for Maxwell becoming a very good defensive forward because every practice Maxwell was guarding Bird and he was bound and determined that this kid was going to beat him out for the position.
Through his whole career, he was a player who made all the players around him better, and he had some All-Star players playing with him that were good without him, but he made them even better. I always said he was a leader among leaders.
A moment from Bird’s rookie season
Fitch: He made some great plays and the one I’ll always remember, we were playing Phoenix at Phoenix. We’re down about five points with less than a minute to go. His rookie year was the first year we could have the three point play. Bird pops in a three pointer. Now we’re down two and we get an out of bounds in front of the Phoenix bench and we’re going in that direction and we have a timeout with two seconds left on the clock.
We run a sideline out of bounds play which you’re not going to get a great shot in that situation, but you’re going to get a shot and everybody is going to be riding Bird pretty hard. Max took the ball out of bounds and makes a great sideline pass just down so Larry could grab it with one foot in and go. He was right in front of the Phoenix bench when he popped it. The ball goes in. We win the ballgame by one and the whole Phoenix bench, the guys at the end of the bench, jumped up and were patting Larry on the back because it was such a great shot. I have never seen anything like that in all the years I coached. That’s the way his career started and he manufactured more greatness going along.
Bird’s trash-talking reputation
Fitch: You know, they go back and say Bird was a trash talker. I never thought it was trash talking. He was whispering needles. We were playing at Worchester. I don’t even know who was guarding him. Larry supposedly poked him before they started and said, “Hey, what’s the scoring record in this building?” The guy asks why. And he says, “Well you’re guarding me aren’t you?”
Robert Reid and the Rockets challenge Bird in ‘81
Fitch: Robert Reid, who I later coached and was a good defender, made the statement that he was going to stop Bird and Moses said that he and four guys from his hometown could beat Bird and the Celtics. That kind of spurred him on and Larry used that for jokes and so forth and for the whispering needles during the course of the game.
I remember Game 6, May 14, 1981, we were sitting on a game that could go either way and it was a clincher for us if we could win it and Larry went on a one man rampage in the last three minutes of the ballgame. And I remember the one shot, he made a three pointer out of the left corner right in front of the Houston bench, and that was the ticket to the championship.
Bird and Xavier McDaniel share a moment
Jones coached Bird for fives seasons, won 308 games and two titles, 1984 and 1986.
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images/NBAE
: We are playing in Seattle. Five seconds left on the clock and the score is tied and it is our timeout. In the huddle, I am thinking Xavier McDaniel is guarding Larry.
So I said, “Now Kevin, you take the ball out and get it to Dennis and Dennis you can finish that.”
Larry said, “Why don’t you just give me the ball and tell everybody else to get the hell out of the way?”
So I said, “Larry you play, and I’ll coach.”
And he said, “All right.”
So I said, “Dennis, you take it out and you get it to Kevin. Kevin you get it to Larry and everybody else get the hell out of the way.”
That is communication. Before the timeout was over, he leaves the huddle, and I said to myself, where is he going.
And Xavier was right there and Bird said, “Xavier, I’m getting the ball. I’m going to take two dribbles to the left. I’m going to step back behind the three point line and stick it.”
And that is what he did. So when he stepped back behind the line and released the ball, as soon as he released it, his arm was still in the air going to the dressing room. Game over.
Bird seizes the moment and saves the day
Rodgers coached Bird for two seasons and won 94 games.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
: Unfortunately during the couple of years that I was head coach, the first year, Larry came up with a problem, it was an Achilles tendon problem. So most of my first year as head coach, he didn’t play much if at all. He played a little bit during the course of that season. The next year of course, he worked to come back and I think that was impressive to me because he was probably at that time over 30 years old. He worked to come back and helped us the next year to win over 50 games and wasn’t really a totally healthy Larry Bird.
I think that in itself is something that was very impressive because he was able to comeback from some serious injury and still perform at a very high level, maybe not at the level he previously performed at, but he performed at a very high level during that period of time.
During that period of time, I remember one practice, I don’t know if I was head coaching or not, but we had a pretty tough period of our schedule. We had a lot of games, the team was a little bit tired. We had practice planned out at a little seminary out there in Boston where we used to play and practice and we decided let’s give these guys an opportunity. These guys look a little tired, we said. If anyone can make a half court shot, practice is off for the day, you guys can all go home.
So Larry said, “Give me the ball.”
So he steps up to half court, throws one and it’s immediately nothing but net. Everybody is hollering and hooting and that was the end of the day. He could do stuff like that. The thing you say, oh that’s impossible, no one is going to do that, he said give me the ball. Probably in his heart and soul he knew this team needed a rest, I’ll take it on myself. Like I said, whatever was needed, he would step forward and do whatever it took to get the job done.
Bird’s work ethic
Rodgers: I had an opportunity to go out and spend a little time with him in Indiana one year.
He said, “Why don’t you come out, we’ll do some fishing.”
He loved to fish. He had some great spots out there around the French Lick area. This was during the middle of the summer, and I know because I was staying in another room, and he would be up before the sun rose. He would be out either running, getting on his bicycle. He did all of his work. He was very methodical, a planner. He would do all of his physical work, all his conditioning before the sun was up very high in the sky. He’d get all that done and then went on with his day, whether it was fishing or whatever he had to do. I saw that and that kind of registered in my mind. Well this was what this guy does. This was why he comes back every year and is a little better player, because he’s doing something. He’s not sitting there knowing that he is a great player. He’s trying to become a greater player and that to me was very impressive.
Shot that sent Boston coaching staff to 1985 All-Star Game
Thanks to Larry, Chris Ford (right) got to coach in the 1985 All-Star Game.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
: We were in the Garden playing Portland and it was the deciding night. The team that had the best record in the East, the coach and the staff would be the coaching team for the All-Star game. We were trailing Portland. Larry came down and hit a shot from the deep left corner, from on the baseline behind the backboard almost, and just beat them. I was very happy and thrilled because that sent us to the All-Star game. My wife was very happy because she got to spend a little more money.
Game 7, 1988 Eastern Conference Finals - Dominique vs. Bird showdown
Ford: As it was unfolding I was thinking, somebody play defense. Somebody stop him. It was an amazing event to watch. I still watch it on Classic Sports. The degree of difficulty of their shots, it wasn’t just one wide open shot after another, they were highly contested shots. Larry throwing up running left-handed shots. Dominique double pumping and going sky high over Robert and Kevin for putbacks.
It was a special moment in sports where you see these two guys making one more difficult shot after the other, keeping their teams in the game and trying to pull out the win and we were fortunate that Larry came out on top and we came out on top. Dominique and Larry, they just found different ways to create shots for themselves and I think it was a challenge. When Dominique scored at one end, Larry wanted the ball and wanted to score at the other end. Dominique would get back on offense after Larry had busted somebody for a great shot and he wanted to do the same. It is still a great battle for fans to watch.
Larry’s competitive nature
Ford: Our oldest son Chris, who was probably nine or ten at the time, would go out and shoot before games and be an honorary ball boy at the Garden. Larry would get in a little shooting contest with him and never lose to anyone. He would do his best, but Larry would beat him. Chris was competitive, but Larry wasn’t going to lose.
The classic Three-Point Contest in 1988
Ford Talk about trash talking. That was when he was at his best. That was when he was defending Three-Point champion, when he went in the locker room and asked, “Which one of you is going to come in second?”
Matter of fact, my oldest son Christopher was at that All-Star game as well. When Larry took that last shot, I just remember his finger going straight up, like I got it, it’s mine again. I mean, he could put on a show. When the pressure’s on and when there was money on the line, Larry hated to lose. He made that contest, the three-point shooting contest at the All Star Game, the thing. It even overshadowed the slam dunk contest at that point.
Chuck Daly saw both sides of Bird.
Andy Hayt/NBAE/Getty Images
: We had worked so hard to get into position, and to win that game with seconds to go. In defense of Isiah, if he had utilized what he called a tricky play where he would grab the ball very quickly and throw it in, we would have won. Larry had a tendency to hover in the backcourt and pick up steals in situations like that. Isiah let it go to Laimbeer who we wanted to get it to because he was such a great foul shooter.
The interesting thing in that particular year, I think in that situation, it was the only time we ever took the ball out in the backcourt. But it happened due not only to Larry Bird’s ability to make the steal, but the quick pass to Dennis Johnson making the cut to beat the clock by just tenths of a second. That will always stick in the minds of basketball people. They run it millions of times, so consequently everyone has gotten a chance to see it over and over and over, and it was a significant play, no question about it. I didn’t sleep for two nights.
Daly: We practiced prior to going to get a spot in the medals in Portland, and then we went overseas and went to Monaco before we went to Barcelona to train. He actually wanted more work even though he was suffering, I thought, with the back. Nevertheless, any time that they threw up a zone, I moved him and Mullin into the game on the wing. Basically that was the end of the zone. But he worked just as hard in a short period there. Actually we didn’t practice because we played every other night at 10:30 and he still wanted to work out, even at that stage.