On this date 56 years ago, a basketball legend was born. Indeed, if you were to craft the perfect all-around basketball player, you would probably start with Mr. Larry Joe Bird.
In 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, Bird blessed fans with his passion, wit and pure skill. The numbers (26 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 6.3 APG) and accolades (three NBA championships, three NBA MVP awards, 1979 Rookie of the Year, two NBA Finals MVPs, nine All-Star appearances, Hall of Famer) obviously bear this out now, but Bird’s game was perhaps best appreciated by watching him in the moment. Every game he did something magical – be it a no-look touch pass, an impossible shot, a fight or a buzzer-beater (some of these highlights can be found on the next page) – and what’s more, he had an uncanny ability to do so when it mattered most.
Consider the most famous play of Bird’s career: “The Steal” in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. Down by one to the Detroit Pistons, the Celtics, as they so often did, gave the ball to Bird for the final possession. However, his drive was blocked and trickled out of bounds off Celtics’ guard Jerry Sichting. The look on Bill Walton’s face on the Boston bench said it all.
“When we lost the last opportunity to score by throwing the ball away,” Walton later said, “I was sure it was over.”
Of course, it wasn’t. Bird wouldn’t let it be. As Isiah Thomas released the sideline inbound pass to Bill Laimbeer, Larry lunged into the passing lane, and batted the ball down. He quickly whirled, and flipped a pass to Dennis Johnson, who layed it in with one second remaining for a 108-107 win.
“”When Larry stole it, I was just like ‘Are you kidding me?’” recalled Bird’s teammate and now Celtics executive, Danny Ainge. “Not only was it unbelievable anticipation, but people who don’t think Larry is athletic, that sort of tells it all right there, who he is. Not only his hands, his vision, but his unbelievable anticipation and his mental toughness. … Nobody else makes that play.”
Unfortunately, for those of us under the age 25, tales such as this exist only as legends.
By the time I was able to watch and fully comprehend basketball in the early ‘90s, Bird had entered the twilight of his career, betrayed so wickedly by his back. Most of his minutes by then were spent on the sideline, either stretched out in pain or seated at the end of the bench in plain clothes, watching as Michael Jordan snatched the crown both he and long-time rival Magic Johnson had defended so dutifully, and at times viciously, for the previous decade. Bird then retired in 1992.
But that doesn’t mean that Bird still didn’t percolate my interest in basketball. As I grew older and more involved with the sport, I watched broadcasts and DVDs that looped The Legend’s highlights. Let’s take a look back at Larry Bird, they’d say. Instructors cited the fundamentals of his game. Study how Bird read this situation. And coaches preached his mental fortitude, work ethic and toughness. Play as hard as Bird did.
I’ll never forget a trip my club team took to Bloomington, Indiana for a tournament at Indiana University. This was a big deal for a Canadian kid like myself. On the way, one of my teammates stopped at a local restaurant and for whatever reason decided to pick up a Larry Bird Indiana State Sycamores bobblehead and bring it to our first game. (As an aside, is there a better example of the hero worship for Bird in his home state than a random restaurant selling Bird collectibles?) We called it the “Larry Bird Award” (named also after our coach, who semi-resembles the Legend), and it was passed out after every win to the player who best exemplified Bird’s competitive spirit on the court. This was especially important for a team that, like Bird, lacked some of the strength and athleticism of our competition. The rule was: you didn’t have to score the most points, but you did have to work the hardest. Receiving the award was a true honor for us.
Even though Bird turned 56 years old today, and claims to be out of the game for good (he resigned from his post as Indiana Pacers GM this summer), it doesn’t mean he can’t have the same influence on younger generations as he did for me. Players can still glean lessons from his career. For example, Kevin Durant, arguably the most talented offensive player in the NBA today, studies Bird tapes.
“Larry Bird is a guy I like watching,” Durant told USA Today. “I watch film on him all the time. I like his approach to the game when he was playing. When I first started playing the game, my Godfather Taras Brown – who taught me how to play – he always was a Larry Bird guy, always used to look up his stats.”
As he should. Because, with due respect to Jordan, Johnson and James, there’s no better model than the Legend.
Happy birthday, Larry Bird!