Few players in Celtics history have retained as much love and respect as Larry Joe Bird. In spite of the fact that Larry has been coach, GM and President of the Indiana Pacers since 1997, Celtics fans still see him as a forever Celtic. I've been thinking a lot about Larry lately between Lex's articles from the 1980 season over on Lex Nihil Novi and re-watching several of the Celtics games from the 80's. Last week I watched the March 15, 1992 double OT game between the Celtics and the Blazers. In that game, Larry Bird finished with 49 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists and 4 steals. I just sat in amazement watching him. Sometimes we forget how truly great Larry Bird was.
Bird shouldn't have been that good. He wasn't fast. He wasn't athletic. He couldn't jump. But somehow, Larry Bird became one of the greatest basketball players ever. He compensated for his lack of speed and athleticism by having an incredible work ethic. In Magic Johnson's biography he makes fun of Bird's mediocre athletic talent, slow feet and minuscule vertical leap but he immediately adds that Bird was the only player he truly feared. As Magic Johnson said of Larry, "There will never, ever, ever be another Larry Bird." Tommy Heinsohn said of Bird, "Larry was playing chess when everyone else on the court was playing checkers."
I started thinking about all the wonderful memories I had of watching Bird play: all of the game winners and improbable shots he hit, all of the incredible passes that he made, winning the first three 3 point contests. I recall his last 3 point contest where it came down to having to hit every shot on the last rack and he walked toward center court with his finger in the air before the money ball even hit the basket. Just so many times he did the improbable, or even the seemingly impossible. With Bird on the floor, Celtics basketball was always exciting.
There was always some sort of Larry highlight back in those days. In typical Larry Bird fashion, just 9 days after Kevin McHale set a Celtics record by scoring 56 points, Larry took the record from him by scoring 60 against the Hawks. The duel with Dominique Wilkins was one of the most exciting games I've ever watched. Just when you thought you saw it all, he did something else amazing. There was that game where Bird registered a triple double (30 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) in only three quarters of play against the Utah Jazz. Despite being only one steal away from a quadruple-double, Bird sat out the fourth quarter. After the game, he said "I already did enough damage. Why go for it if we're up by 30?" And, that was Larry. He was all about winning and individual stats and awards didn't mean that much to him. And then there was the playoff game against the Pacers where he dove after a loose ball and came crashing face-first onto the Boston Garden floor. He went to the locker room and was diagnosed with a concussion. But that couldn't keep Larry down. He came back in the 3rd quarter despite a concussion and a severe headache and scored 32 points on 12 for 19 shooting, leading Boston to victory for the game and the series. Again, in typical Larry Bird fashion, in a post game interview, he said that he was seeing 3 baskets and he just aimed for the middle one.
And then, perhaps his most memorable play, in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons, with five seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and Boston trailing the Pistons 107-106, Bird stole Isiah Thomas' inbound pass that was intended for Bill Laimbeer. With the clock ticking down and with his momentum carrying him out of bounds, Bird turned and fired the ball to a cutting Dennis Johnson, who converted a layup with 1 second left to win the game for Boston. That play saved the series for the Celtics, who, had they lost Game 5, would have had to win Game 6 in Detroit (where they were winless in the series) to force a decisive seventh game. Instead, after losing in Detroit, Boston won Game 7 and advanced to the Finals.
Bird was the embodiment of "Celtics Pride." He was a classy, confident, hardworking player who thrived on pressure and inspired teammates to excel. In addition to his three championship rings, Bird piled up a 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. He also won an Olympic gold medal as a member of the original Dream Team.
The year before Bird joined the Celtics, they were 29 and 53 and at the bottom of the league. When Bird joined the Celtics, his impact was immediate. With the addition of Bird, the team improved to 61–21 in the 1979–80 season, posting the league's best record, and the greatest turnaround in NBA history. He was one of the greatest ever and as Magic said, there will never, ever be another Larry Bird. He was truly an amazing player.
He has said that he is leaving the Pacers and stepping back after last season. I would love to see Larry come back to the Celtics in some capacity. But, even if he doesn't, he has left us with enough memories of his exploits as a Celtic that he will always be one of the most beloved Celtics of all time.
Love the checkers/chess quote. I always resented the fact that the evil emperor (at least in my opinion) kept Larry Legend from entering the Celtics front office. he might have pulled Boston out of their second "dark years" period rather than Danny. Another thing about Larry, with most NBA stars you found yourself thinking "if only I was a foot taller, . . . I would still barely be able to reach the basket" but with Larry you could hope that your lack of athletic prowess might not hold you back. In your dreams . . . .