Legends profile: Larry Bird
Once every generation or so, a player comes along who can truly be called a superstar. Larry Bird was such a player.
For 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, from 1979-80 through 1991-92, Bird personified hustle, consistency and excellence in all areas of play — as a scorer, a passer, a rebounder, a defender, a team player, and, perhaps above all, as a clutch performer. Bird was so self-confident that he was known to waltz up to the opponents’ bench before tipoff and predict a 40-point performance for himself.
He was such a deadly shooter that he sometimes practiced 3-pointers with his eyes closed. Among Bird’s contemporaries, perhaps only Earvin “Magic” Johnson was considered a better passer and was a player who he would inextricably be linked with forever. Few played tougher than Bird, who would leap into crowds and over press tables for loose balls.
Bird was the embodiment of “Celtics Pride.” He was a classy, confident, hardworking player who thrived on pressure and inspired teammates to excel. Like Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Dave Cowens, the low-key Bird never forced the spotlight upon himself, but rather was a player who brought out the best in the players around him. But even those legendary players didn’t fill Boston Garden, wowing fans and dominating games as Bird did.
Bird helped rebuild a Celtics franchise that had been suffering from sub-standard play and poor attendance in the late 1970s. With Bird as the focal point of a well-rounded squad, the Celtics won three NBA titles and 10 Atlantic Division crowns. In addition to his three championship rings, Bird piled up an awesome collection of personal achievements. He became only the third player (and the first non-center) to win three consecutive NBA Most Valuable Player Awards. He was a 12-time All-Star, a two-time NBA Finals MVP and a nine-time member of the All-NBA First Team. He led the league in free-throw percentage four times.
An obsessive perfectionist, Bird was idolized by Celtic fans and basketball purists of all allegiances. His last-second heroics, ranging from seemingly impossible reverse layups to miraculous 35-foot bombs over multiple defenders, never ceased to amaze those who followed his career.
“Larry Bird has helped define the way a generation of basketball fans has come to view and appreciate the NBA,” said Commissioner David J. Stern when Bird retired due to a painful back condition in 1992, after capturing a gold medal with the original Dream Team at the Olympics in Barcelona.
Bird’s legend was born in the tiny town of French Lick, snuggled in Indiana’s corn country, where his family led a spartan life. French Lick had a population of 2,059, most of whom came out to watch Springs Valley High School’s home games in a state that takes its schoolboy basketball very seriously. Attendance often reached 1,600 — and they were all there to watch the blond-haired shooting whiz with a funny smile named Larry Joe Bird.
Following a sophomore season that was shortened by a broken ankle, Bird emerged as a star during his junior year. Springs Valley went 19-2 and young Larry became a local celebrity. Fans always seemed to be willing to give a ride to Bird’s parents, who couldn’t afford a car of their own. As a senior, Bird became the school’s all-time scoring champion and about 4,000 people attended his final home game.
Bird found the transition to college life difficult. He started out as an Indiana Hoosier but later left the school and team coached by the legendary Bobby Knight. Then he left the local junior college, Northwood Institute. Finally, Bird enrolled at Indiana State, which had posted 12-14 records in each of the two previous years and where the pressure was not quite the same as at Indiana — a perennial Big Ten power and national title contender.
Home-game attendance hovered around 3,100 when Bird arrived at Indiana State, but as he had done in Springs Valley, Bird single-handedly packed the house and elevated his team to respectability and more. He averaged better than 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Sycamores during his first campaign. Season-ticket sales tripled. TV stations showed film clips of Bird instead of commercials. Students skipped class to line up for tickets eight hours before tipoff.
“Larry Bird Ball” was the most popular sport in Terre Haute.
The Sycamores went undefeated and reached No. 1 in Bird’s senior year — that is, until a Michigan State team featuring a 6-foot-9 guard named Earvin “Magic” Johnson knocked them off in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game, one of the most widely watched showdowns in basketball history. Bird was named the 1978-79 College Player of the Year and left Indiana State as the fifth-highest scorer in NCAA history. The Sycamores went 81-13 during Bird’s three-year career.
The Boston Celtics had selected him in the 1978 NBA Draft, hoping that Bird, who had become eligible for the NBA after his junior year, might forgo his senior season-but knowing he was worth the wait even if he didn’t. In 1977-78 the Celtics had compiled a 32-50 record, their worst since 1949-50. When Bird elected to return to Indiana State for one more year, the Celtics dipped to 29-53. But Bird finally came to Boston for the 1979-80 campaign and sparked one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in NBA history.
The 1979-80 Celtics improved by 32 games to 61-21 and returned to the top of their division. Playing in all 82 contests, Bird led the team in scoring (21.3 ppg), rebounding (10.4 rpg), steals (143), and minutes played (2,955) and was second in assists (4.5 apg) and 3-pointers (58). Although Johnson also turned in an impressive first season for the NBA-champion Los Angeles Lakers, Bird was named Rookie of the Year and made the first of his 12 trips to the All-Star Game.
An offseason trade with Golden State — which that many consider the most lopsided in NBA history — brought center Robert Parish and a future first-round pick (which became Kevin McHale) to Boston. They teamed with Bird and veteran Cedric Maxwell in a frontcourt that carried the Celtics to the championship in 1981.
Boston survived a memorable Eastern Conference finals against Philadelphia in which the Celtics bounced back from a 3-1 deficit and posted come-from-behind victories in each of the last three games, then took the title over Moses Malone and the Houston Rockets in a six-game NBA Finals. Bird once again led the team in points (21.2 ppg), rebounds (10.9 rpg), steals (161), and minutes (3,239).
Fans were filling not only Boston Garden, which sold out the final 541 games of Bird’s career, but arenas all over the country to witness Bird’s exploits. Along with Magic, Bird was revitalizing the NBA, helping the league live up to its new slogan, “NBA Action: It’s FAN-tastic.” After only two seasons, fans, coaches and players knew exactly what Bird was all about: big numbers and clutch performances. Bird’s concentration and composure were unmatched. He was unflappable and virtually unstoppable. The hours he had spent working on his shot as a youngster paid big dividends in the NBA. No other player in his era was as good or as consistent a shooter as Bird.
In 1981-82, Bird made the first of his three consecutive appearances on the NBA All-Defensive Second Team — even though he was relatively slow and not the greatest one-on-one defender, his anticipation and court sense made him peerless as a team defender. As many observed, he would see plays not as they were developing, but before they developed.
Bird finished runner-up to Moses Malone for the NBA Most Valuable Player Award, as he would the following year. Bird’s 19 points in the 1982 NBA All-Star Game, including 12 of the East’s last 15, earned him the game’s MVP trophy. It wasn’t until 1983-84, however, that the Celtics returned to the NBA Finals. By that time Bird’s scoring average had reached the mid-20s, and he was averaging upwards of seven assists. He also hit nearly 90 percent of his free-throw attempts.
A crafty defensive player, Bird’s most famous steal came in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit. With five seconds remaining and the Celtics trailing 107-106, Bird stole an Isiah Thomas inbounds pass and fed Dennis Johnson, whose layup gave Boston the win. The Celtics won the physical, bitter series in seven games and advanced to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive year, meeting the Lakers for the third time. But Los Angeles won the series in six games.
Bird, now 30 years old and with worsening back condition and foot problems as well, would not win a fourth championship ring. But there were plenty more heroics yet to come.
In 1987-88, Bird was the first Celtic ever to record a 40-20 game, with a 42-point, 20-rebound effort against Indiana. He averaged a career-high 29.9 points that year, falling just five points short of averaging 30 per contest. Bird also won his third consecutive 3-point shootout title, a feat later matched by Chicago Bulls’ Craig Hodges from 1990-92.
In Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals against Atlanta, Bird engaged in a memorable fourth-quarter shootout with the Hawks’ Dominique Wilkins. Bird poured in 20 points in the final period to outdo his counterpart and lead the Celtics to victory — even though he had bronchial pneumonia. The Celtics, however, fell to the Pistons in the conference finals.
Surgery to remove bone spurs from both heels limited Bird to only six games in 1988-89. The following year Bird posted the third-longest free-throw streak in NBA history, hitting 71 consecutive attempts. Bird missed 22 games in 1990-91 because of a compressed nerve root in his back, a condition that eventually forced his retirement. In a first-round series that year, Bird badly bruised his face in a second-quarter fall in Game 5 against Indiana. His back was also hurting, but Bird came back in the third period to help lift the Celtics to an emotional 124-121 victory. A disk was removed from his back after the season, but it didn’t help all that much.
The following year was Bird’s last. He missed 37 games because of the continuing back problems. In a nationally televised game against Portland in March, Bird pulled off one final miracle performance — he scored 16 points in the fourth quarter, including the Celtics’ last nine points and a game-tying 3-pointer with two seconds left. Boston won, 152-148, in double overtime. Bird finished with 49 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists and four steals.
“Anytime you have Bird on the floor, anything can happen,” Portland’s Clyde Drexler told the Boston Herald after the game.
In one of the only noteworthy gaffes of his career, Bird missed a routine layup in overtime that would have tied Game 4 of a playoff series with Cleveland that spring. The Cavaliers won in seven games; Boston lost three of the four games couldn’t play because of his back.
The end of Bird’s career was at hand, but not before one last achievement: a gold medal with the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team, which dominated the competition at Barcelona and won millions of fans for the sport with its brilliance.
As the 1992-93 NBA season approached, Bird decided he could not continue. On Aug. 18, 1992 he announced his retirement as a player. After 897 games Bird retired with 21,791 points (24.3 ppg), 8,974 rebounds (10.0 rpg) and 5,695 assists (6.3 apg). During his career he shot .496 from the floor and .886 from the free-throw line, retiring as the fifth all-time free-throw shooter behind Mark Price, Rick Barry, Calvin Murphy and Scott Skiles.
Bird was named a special assistant in the Celtics’ front office, with limited duties that included some scouting and player evaluation. In reality, he spent most of the next five years in Florida, playing golf and taking it easy. He did some commercials and appeared in a few films, including Michael Jordan’s Space Jam.
But mostly he was bored. He missed the competition, and with each passing year the urge grew to get back into the NBA in a more active capacity. Finally, with the Celtics in a decline that hit bottom in 1996-97, Bird decided to take the plunge. When the Celtics named Rick Pitino as the franchise’s new president and coach, Bird knew any role for him in Boston would be a limited one. So he cut the ties and went home.
On May 12, 1997, Bird was named head coach of the Indiana Pacers. Even though he had never coached a game in his life, the Pacers had no qualms about turning over the reins to Bird.
“This guy is the epitome of everything I’ve tried to do here,” then-Pacers president Donnie Walsh said of Bird. “When I started here, I wanted to see the high school, college and professional basketball worlds come together, and Bird symbolizes that. I also really believe he can be a heck of a coach.
“He pulls people together. When he talks, you come into his world. That’s what a coach has to do.”
Despite joking that he hoped he could get the Xs and Os right in the huddle, and that he didn’t draw up any plays with himself in them, Bird approached his new role with typical aww-shucks aplomb.
“I’m new at this (coaching) game but I feel I can get the job done,” he said. “I have all the confidence in the world that I’ll be able to handle these guys and do the things that are necessary to win games.”
Bird did a fine job in his three seasons on the bench. In his first season, the Pacers — with Reggie Miller as their main weapon — were defeated by the defending-champion Chicago Bulls and Jordan in a tough seven-game conference finals series.
And in the 2000 NBA Finals, the Pacers succumbed in a six-game series to the Lakers, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, for the Lakers’ first of three consecutive titles.
Bird, the Coach of the Year in 1997-98, resigned as Pacers’ coach after Indiana’s Finals appearance. An avid outdoorsman who also has a passion for country music, auto racing, golf and the St. Louis Cardinals has many interests. He also owns “Larry Bird’s Boston Connection,” a hotel/restaurant in Terre Haute that also serves as a museum for many of his trophies and awards.
In 2003, he joined the Pacers’ front office as the team’s president of basketball operations and worked side-by-side with Walsh to rebuild Indiana into a contender. When Walsh moved on to a similar role with the Knicks before the 2008-09 season, Bird gained complete control of the team’s basketball operations and helped the Pacers end a four-year playoff drought in 2010-11.
After the 2011-12 season, Bird stepped down as the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, citing health issues. He said he was prepared to leave the team after the 2010-11 season with the Pacers headed in the right direction. He and owner Herb Simon had discussed his eventual departure for a few years.
Bird plans to take time off and get healthy before evalutating his situation. He didn’t rule out a return to basketball, but said owning a team is no longer a goal of his.