“I’d go back to the playgrounds of Detroit and those guys would ask me, Is Larry Bird really that good? And I’d answer, ‘Larry was so good, it was frightening.’” [Magic Johnson]
Every NBA subplot this year – the Warriors 73 wins, Kobe’s retirement, the current playoffs – has proven there is one incontrovertible fact about professional basketball: people go bonkers if you put anything other than “Jordan” next to “Greatest”. I know, I know. My opinion is minority. I don’t care. I have watched the NBA like a hawk for over 30 years and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are 1A and 1B for greatest ever. For all sorts of reasons, like how both could control a game without taking a shot. I’d put Jordan 3rd and I’m sure that renders my opinion void to many, but that doesn’t bother me. That’s how I see it.
This isn’t an article about statistics. For the big three of points, rebounds and assists per game, Larry Bird was a career 25-10-6 player. He consistently shot 50% from the field, 40% from three and 90% from the line. He took a 29 win team and made them a 61 win team in his rookie year. This isn’t about putting his career accomplishments in the right context. All of his career stats are affected by the years at the end of his career when his back was done. By his own words, people told him he would cut his career short because he would not stop diving for loose balls. But Bird would not change the way he played. (Another reason why he’s the greatest). He could have easily twice as many championships if he gotten to play Shawn Kemp in the Finals instead of the Kareem/Magic/Worthy Lakers. Or if Len Bias hadn’t died. Or if he would have stopped diving for loose balls.
But Bird was much more than statistics and facts. He was stories. Stories that prove how rare a talent he was. Stories that prove he was, as Kenny Smith told TMZ one time, the best trash talker ever. Stories that prove he was a killer from Day One in the NBA and didn’t need six years of losing (because Bird was never on a mediocre or losing team) to develop that reputation. I could tell a thousand of these and I hate to leave any out. I could tell of the time he scored 20 on 9-10 shooting in the fourth quarter vs. Atlanta in Game 7 of the 87 Eastern Conference semis to out-duel Dominique Wilkins. Or the time he outscored Dr. J 42-6, which sparked a fight between the two. Or the time he got bored on a road trip in Portland and scored 27 points through three quarters shooting with his left hand1. Or the time he walked into the locker room of the first ever three-point shooting contest and said to his competitors, “Which one of you ladies is finishing second?” before he proceeded to win that year and the next two years2. But those stories can wait for another day. Magic used to say that on the basketball court, he feared no one. Except Larry Bird. These five stories capture that greatness to me like no others.
5. The Concussion Comeback
Towards the end of his career, Bird was a mess of injuries. He would wear a back brace at night when he slept, get up and go to practice or to the game, and then come home and put on the back brace again. In 1991, the Celtics were tied 2-2 in a five game first round series with the Indiana Pacers. The night before Game 5, Larry Bird spent the whole night in the hospital due to pain in his back. But Larry would have played in a wheel chair if he to, so he was in the line-up. Just before halftime, Bird made a bad pass that got stolen and in an attempt to save the ball he dived on the floor but slipped and slammed his head in the Garden parquet floor. He was diagnosed by the team trainer with a concussion and was told his night was over. With Bird out, Boston got down in the 3rd quarter to the Pacers. The players were dejected and the crowd was restless. But Bird defied orders and when the trainer turned his back, walked out of the training room and back onto the court. Like the Calvary. The crowd came alive. The mood in the building shifted. And with 32 points, Larry Bird led the comeback to win the series3.
4. Calling himself and his teammates ‘A Bunch of Sissies’
Bird didn’t enjoy the limelight and was a man of few words in the media. But when he did speak, what he said had potency. And after enduring an epic 33-point Finals massacre in Los Angeles in Game 3 of the Finals in 1984, Larry didn’t mince words. He said he and his teammates played like a bunch of women. And this is part of what made Bird such a great player and leader. Instead of being offended by this, his team responded to having their manhood challenged. McHale clotheslined Goggles Rambis. Cedric Maxwell taunted James Worthy with a choking symbol. Bird didn’t just talk it, he walked it by getting in Goggles Abdul-Jabbar’s face at one point and shoving Michael Cooper unnecessarily on an in-bounds play. These things changed the tone and the direction of the series completely, as Boston forced overtime just one game after being blown out. And for good measure, Bird nailed the clutch shot of the game, breaking a 123-123 tie in the final minute of OT, which proved to be the winning shot. The Celtics won the series for their second championship in four years.
3. The Xavier McDaniel Game-Winner
Xavier McDaniel tells this story with a sense of awe, which is what makes it so good. Bird was notorious for telling guys he was going to shoot it in their face and then doing it, but no one has a version quite like this one.
Boston was tied on the road at Seattle late in the game and Boston called TO. Celtics coach K.C. Jones called a play for Dennis Johnson but Bird nixed it in the huddle4. He determined he would get the ball. When they broke the huddle, he walked up to McDaniel, who was guarding him and said, “I’m getting the ball. And I’m going to shoot it right here in your face and win this game.” And then the play happened, Bird got the ball and shot it in the same exact spot he told McDaniel he would and made it, exactly as he told McDaniel he would. And won the game. And McDaniel says Bird looked at him as if to say, “I didn’t mean to leave 2 seconds on the clock.”
2. “The Steal.”
Isaiah Thomas is one of the greatest point guards in NBA history and was good at making decisions and coming through in the clutch. But in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals vs. Boston, he had a chance to seal the game with a simple inbounds pass after Bird had lost the ball out of bounds with five seconds left. And Thomas did inbound the ball, making a simple pass to a wide open Bill Laimbeer just a few feet away from the Boston basket. But out of nowhere, like a superhero, Bird flew in and stole the pass and assisted to Dennis Johnson for the winning bucket. I’ve watched this play a million times and you can clearly see Bird break on the pass before Thomas threw it. That was Larry Bird in a nutshell. He was the Mentalist on the hardwood, two or three moves ahead of everyone else5. Teammate Danny Ainge would say years after the game, “They forgot about Larry Bird.”
1. Setting the Garden record with 60 points.
Kevin McHale scored 56 points to break the Boston Garden record in 1986. Larry Bird immediately predicted the record would fall6. And less than two weeks later, Bird went out and scored 60 vs. the Atlanta Hawks on an array of shots that has to be seen to be appreciated. The story from that night is that Larry was so hot, he was calling his shots every time down the floor, taunting the helpless Hawk players trying to guard him (“glass,” “from the wing,” “Where do you want this one?” etc.) and near the end of the game called “from the trainer’s lap.” And he came down and got fouled about 27 feet from the basket, threw the ball up, the shot went in and he fell in the trainer’s lap–on purpose–on the sidelines7. Cameras caught two Atlanta players, Cliff Levingston and Eddie Johnson, going nuts in amazement on the bench after that play, standing up, high-fiving, laughing, because they could not believe what they had just seen8. To quote Quinn Buckner, Bird’s teammate in Boston at the time: “Larry was so good that night, the Hawks were giving each other five.”
So if you give me one pick to start a basketball team of any era, I will go with Bird. Not even a question. Because not only would have the greatest player ever, I’d have the greatest stories to tell.
- For good measure, he went back to his right hand in the fourth and finished with 41 points and a triple double. ↩
- The following year fellow participant Dale Ellis said Bird was quiet before the competition. Bird’s response: “There was no need to talk. We all knew who was going to win.” ↩
- I have all the respect in the world for Michael Jordan. But this is why the Flu Game (which was more accurately ‘flu like’ symptoms) doesn’t impress me that much. Bird never did things like fall into the arms of a teammate dramatically to show the world his pain. Bird just played without all the hysterics. ↩
- As it’s told by Jones, he told them the play was for DJ and Bird said, “No. Give it to me and tell everyone to get out of the way.” Jones said, “Larry, you play. I’ll coach.” And then said, “Okay, we’re giving it to Larry and everybody get out of his way.” ↩
- James Worthy once stated that he’d rather guard Michael Jordan than Bird for this reason. ↩
- This is how I know Bird could have averaged 35 PPG for a season or 30 for his career. He was too unselfish. Except this one time. ↩
- The shot didn’t count, but it was real and it was spectacular. ↩
- Hawk players say that Atlanta coach Mike Fratello called a team meeting after the game to show the video of the two guys celebrating over and over and then to reprimand them for cheering for the other team. He fined them both $500. ↩