His main rival, Magic Johnson, was flashier both on and off the court. His chief successor, Michael Jordan, was arguably the greatest player of all time. And yet, Larry Bird carved out a definitive niche as one of the greatest players of all time, as much a part of the fabric among blue-collar fans in New England as Magic was in star-awash Los Angeles. And much like Magic, his skills were taken away from us far too soon, but he was able to make the absolute most of his time in the league.
Bird was a three-time MVP, a 12-time All-Star, an NBA champion and an Olympic Gold Medalist. He fit in perfectly with the Celtics’ proud tradition, right next to Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Bob Cousy, helping to elevate his teammates, his franchise and quite frankly, his entire sport.
There were no gimmicks with Bird. Known primarily for his shooting, he was able to take over a game with intelligence, court sense, hyper-competitiveness and sheer talent. He was excellent in every phase of the game, from defense to passing to creativity around the basket. And the seeds were planted from a young age as a schoolboy legend in the tiny Indiana town of French Lick, where Bird honed his legendary jumper shooting at a hoop mounted on a beat-up garage.
After a decorated high school career at Springs Valley High School — in which he drew thousands of people from the surrounding towns to watch him play — Bird lasted a month at Indiana University before deciding it wasn’t for him. He returned home to French Lick and went to community college, before finding a home at previously unheralded Indiana State.
Bird was a revelation, averaging over 30 points and 13 rebounds in his three seasons for the Sycamores. He won the Naismith Award in 1979, but Magic and Michigan State busted Bird’s undefeated season and won the National Title, starting a wondrous rivalry that would encompass the next decade.
Bird had been drafted by the Celtics the previous year, in 1978, but he’d opted to play another season at Indiana State before signing. (The subsequent legislation against drafting players before they’re ready to sign is named the Bird Collegiate Rule.)
He and Magic immediately resumed their rivalry on the next level, this time on a larger scale — the entire NBA revolved around the two megastars, and their careers were constantly measured against each other. Bird won the Rookie of the Year Award while powering the Celtics to an astounding 32-game turnaround, but Magic and the Lakers won the NBA Title. All told, in the first 11 years of each of their careers, Magic and Los Angeles would make nine NBA Finals, winning five; Bird’s Celtics would appear in five Finals, winning three. Both of them would play on the famous Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The two also shared a close friendship that fully blossomed when they filmed their iconic commercial for the Converse Weapons. (The dichotomy between the two was evident and outstanding: Bird shooting baskets alone in Indiana, Magic pulling up in full uniform in a limosine.
Bird, of course, also crossed paths with Jordan frequently down the stretch of his career, combining on an iconic McDonald’s commercial and a less-than-iconic video game. Jordan held Bird in extremely high esteem, once citing him as the one player he’d want to take a game-winning shot, besides himself. He also frequently picked him for his pickup games — most likely the best pickup games of all time — leading up to the 1992 Olympics.
No situation was too large for Bird, who specialized in late-game heroics from the start — just witness Game 7 of the 1981 East Finals for evidence.
But no play encapsulated Bird more than Game 5 of the 1986 East Finals vs. the Pistons, when he came out of nowhere to steal the inbounds pass from fellow Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas with five seconds left and the Celtics down 1, and then had the wherewithal to whip it to Dennis Johnson for the layup. Johnny Most’s iconic call — shades of “Havlicek stole the ball,” also Most — added to the gravitas, as Bird’s play is regarded as one of the finest in playoffs history.
It wasn’t just that Bird was amazing, but he did it with such panache — for example, he ranked among the best trash talkers in the NBA. He once tormented Julius Erving so much both on-court — outscoring him 42-6 — and verbally, that the two came to blows. Also witness his performance in the locker room before the 1987 three-point competition.
“Bird walks in, and he goes, ‘I hope all you guys are thinking about second place, because I’m winning this,’” Michael Cooper recalls. “Excuse me?
“And he started shooting, and he just didn’t miss.”
Bird did indeed win in 1987, the second of his three consecutive wins in the three-point competition. The most memorable was in ’88, when Bird beat Dale Ellis in the finals and had his finger raised in victory before the final ball even went down.
A bad back would bring his career to a close after the 1992 season at the relatively young age of 35, though he still was able to make an impact for Team USA in Barcelona. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998, and went on to coach the Pacers to the NBA Finals. Since then, Bird has served as team president, presiding over winning teams and ostensibly running pro basketball in Indiana.
The way it should be.