No player has left a mark on 1980s professional basketball comparable to that of Larry Bird (born 1956), the renowned forward for the Boston Celtics.
Bird took the NBA by storm as a rookie in 1979 and dominated the league almost without a break throughout his career as a professional basket ball player. He transformed the lackluster Celtics into a basketball superpower, leading the team to three national championships in five attempts. Every sort of honor and superlative has been lavished on the blond Indiana native. Sports Illustrated contributor Frank Deford has called him "the greatest basketball player in the history of humankind," and few observers would argue the point. "Each Bird game is a rich tapestry of fundamentals," writes Mike Lupica in the New York Daily News. "He keeps the ball alive, he is the middleman on the fast break, he boxes out, he posts his man every chance he gets. He moves to the right place on defense, he blocks shots, he picks, he rolls. He dives after loose balls and makes perfect outlet passes. And four or five times down the court, he makes one of those plays that take your breath away."
Although he gained a noticeable measure of poise during his years with the Celtics, Bird is a product of his rural upbringing in French Lick, Indiana. He is a modest man who avoids media exposure (to the extent that it is possible to do so), and his name has never been linked to scandal or sensation. Deford notes: "Among those who know Bird well, the same catalog of qualities is cited again and again—honest, loyal, steadfast, dependable—his existence shaped by the contradictory, almost mystical ability to be the [center of attention], yet always to contribute to those around him." New Yorker correspondent Herbert Warren Wind concludes that Bird is the kind of man who derives one pleasure from life: "pride in playing good, sound, imaginative basketball. He hates to see his team lose if it can possibly win. He has almost unlimited determination…. A man has to love a game deeply to work so hard to play it well day after day and night after night."
Larry Bird was born on Pearl Harbor Day in 1956, the fourth of six children of Joe and Georgia Bird. His birthplace, West Baden, Indiana, is a small village just outside the slightly larger town of French Lick. Once a famous resort community with highly-prized mineral springs, French Lick had fallen upon hard times by the years of Bird's youth. His father managed to find factory work in the town, but the Bird family always struggled to make ends meet. According to Deford, Larry "knew damn well that he was poor. No, it was not oppressive. But, yes, it was there. The Birds had enough coal to stay warm, but too many nights the old furnace would break down, and the house would fill with black smoke, and they would all have to stand outside, freezing, while Joe Bird tried to fix things." Bird and his brothers were all avid ball players, and as the next-to-youngest brother, he always competed valiantly to keep up with his older, bigger siblings. Wind writes: "Striving to be as good as Mark, who was three years older, made Larry a much better basketball player than he might otherwise have been, and a more competitive one, too."
Bird told the New Yorker: "Basketball wasn't really my only love. We played lots of baseball, softball, rubber ball— we played ball all the time. When we were growing up, before we got a real basketball hoop, we used a coffee can and tried to shoot one of those small sponge-rubber balls through it." In fact, Bird did not settle on basketball as his primary sport until he was well into high school, even though he played the sport on an organized level as young as ten. When it finally seemed apparent that he might excel in the sport, he began to practice—hard—day and night. "I played when I was cold and my body was aching and I was so tired," he told Sports Illustrated. "I don't know why, I just kept playing and playing…. I guess I always wanted to make the most out of it. I just never knew."
Bird honed his talents in one of the most rigorous basketball arenas, the celebrated Hoosier region where the sport reigns supreme. At Springs Valley High School in French Lick he played guard during his sophomore and junior years. He showed no spectacular ability at the time, and at six-foot-three he was not especially tall. Then fate— or rather, biology—intervened. By his senior year Bird had grown four inches. Almost overnight he had become an impressive physical specimen while retaining his agility and hustle. His senior year he averaged 30.6 points and 20 rebounds per game, and college scouts from all over the East flocked to see him play. He was actively pursued by a number of universities, but he decided to stay in state, entering Indiana University (of Bobby Knight fame) in the fall of 1974.
Bird lasted only twenty-four days at Indiana University. He was overwhelmed by the size and impersonality of the school, so he quickly returned to French Lick and entered junior college there. Within two months he had dropped out of that college as well and had entered into a brief and unhappy marriage. In order to support himself and his daughter, born after the marriage had dissolved, Bird took a job with the City Department of French Lick. He drove a garbage truck and helped to maintain parks and roads in the district. Such work may have seemed a low point to some people, but Bird told Sports Illustrated that he actually enjoyed it. "I loved that job," he said. "It was outdoors, you were around your friends. Picking up brush, cleaning it up. I felt like I was really accomplishing something. How many times are you riding around your town and you say to yourself, Why don't they fix that? Why don't they clean the streets up? And here I had the chance to do that. I had the chance to make my community look better."
Bird faced further tragedy during the same period when his father committed suicide. Shortly after that unfortunate event, Bird decided to return to college, this time at Indiana State. He had little confidence in his scholastic abilities, but felt that he could help the struggling Sycamores win some respect. By that time he had added two more inches in height and was weighing in at 220 pounds; to quote Wind, he was "an altogether different commodity—a comparatively big man who could challenge the seven-footers at rebounding and in other phases of the game, because he was well built, had exceptional coordination for a man his size, and knew how to utilize the advantages his height gave him." Bird had to sit out his first season at Indiana State, and without him the Sycamores went 13-12. In 1976-77, his first year on the team, the same Sycamores earned a 25-3 record—their best in almost thirty years. The following summer Bird played for the United States team that won the basketball gold medal at the World University Games in Sophia, Bulgaria.
During his Indiana State years, Bird became "the most publicized college player in the country," to quote Wind. Even then Bird showed his penchant for team play and for sharing the glory both on and off the field. Still, he averaged thirty points per game through his junior year and led the Sycamores to the quarterfinals in the 1978 National Invitational Tournament. He was drafted by the Celtics in 1978. At that point he had the option of playing professional ball right away, but instead he chose to stay in school, finish his degree, and be a Sycamore one more season. In his senior year the Sycamores won thirty-three straight games—a collegiate record for a single season—and advanced to the NCAA championships against a formidable Michigan State team led by Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Michigan State won the game which marked the first of many encounters between Bird and Johnson, but Bird walked away with player of the year trophies from the Associated Press, United Press International, and the National Association of Coaches.
Negotiations began with the Celtics for Bird's professional services. Already known for his unwillingness to cooperate with the press, Bird offered no comment as his agent demanded a record salary. The contract signed on June 8, 1979 gave Bird $650,000 per year for five years, a total of $3,250,000. This sum was unheard of for an untested rookie in any sport, and the Boston fans made no secrets of their expectations for their new headliner. Bird did not disappoint. He made the NBA All-Star team his first year, played in every regular season Celtics game, and led the team to a first place finish in its league. Even though the Celtics lost the Eastern Conference finals to the Philadelphia 76ers, Bird was named Rookie of the Year and finished third in the Most Valuable Player balloting.
Bird Soars with Celtics
Those who had predicted that Bird could never turn the dismal Boston franchise around had to eat their words. After Bird's debut, the team became a regular championship contender with wins in 1981, 1984, and 1986. "There hasn't been a Celtics game at the Boston Garden in years that hasn't been sold out," writes Wind. "Most observers attribute this long run of sold-out games to Bird's astonishing virtuosity and the leading role he has played in making the Celtics once again a spirited, exciting team, which has been in contention for the championship just about every year." The excitement of Bird's play has only been enhanced by his long-standing rivalry with Magic Johnson, the mainstay of the Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, Johnson's Lakers are the only team that have bumped the Celtics from the championship, beating them in 1985 and 1987. Time magazine contributor Tom Callahan concludes that even when the Celtics were bested by the Lakers, "somehow they [were] able to retrieve their preeminence in the next instant."
Few would list Larry Bird among the flashiest or most spectacular individual players in the NBA. He is not particularly fast on the court, nor is he a remarkable jumper. Bird has achieved greatness the old-fashioned way: by being consistent, by contributing not as a grand-standing superstar but as a team player, and by attacking every game with every ounce of effort. "The hours that Bird devotes to his job are astonishing," Deford notes. "From himself on the court he seeks only consistency and considers that the true mark of excellence." Years and years of practice and play have made Bird an expert on the shifting patterns of the game and even on the behavior of the ball when it hits the backboard. As Wind puts it, "he just knows where he should go, he beats other players to that spot, and his timing in going up for the ball is exceptional." Indeed, when "spectacular" is used to describe Bird's play, it is often in reference to passing and to diving for out-of-bounds balls. Wind concludes that Bird has showed "how imaginative and enthralling a well-played basketball game can be."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Bird has been dogged over the years by suggestions that he has been singled out for praise more because he is white than because he is good—that his superstardom is predicated on the general scarcity of great white players in the NBA. Deford is one of many who has sought to dispel this myth. "Larry Bird is not a Great White Hope," Deford claims. "Anybody who thinks that misses the point of Larry Bird. Little white boys today would much prefer to grow up to be Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins, for however clever and hardworking, they're also truly spectacular players. They can fly. But when kids imitate Larry Bird, mostly what they do, so humdrum, is reach down and rub their hands on the bottom of their sneakers…. He seems merely the sum of little bits—a bit more clever than you and me, a bit more dedicated, a bit better on his shooting touch…. In Bird's case, he probably has worked as hard as anyone in the ever has in sport, and he does possess an incredible sixth sense, but that has no more to do with his race than it does with his Social Security number." Wind too suggests that Bird's race has little to do with his stardom. "I do not believe that it is the underlying reason Bird and the Celtics have set attendance records at home and on the road," the critic writes. "As I see it, the explanation is that Bird's arresting over-all concept of basketball and his sturdy execution of it have made the Celtics game tremendously exciting to watch."
Always somewhat injury-prone, Bird missed much of the 1988-89 season after major surgery on both heels. He continued to battle back problems and other injuries throughout the next few seasons, but retired from the Celtics after an illustrious 13-year career. He played his last game of basketball as a member of the U.S. Olympic Dream Team at the 1992 games in Barcelona.
After retiring as a player, Bird worked for the Celtics Front Office as a Special Assistant. Many thought he would replace M.L. Carr as coach, but the position was awarded to Rick Pitino. As a result, Bird returned to his home state to succeed Larry Brown as coach of the Indiana Pacers for the 1997-1998 season.
Further Reading on Larry Bird
Heinsohn, Tommy, Give 'em the Hook, Prentice Hall, 1989.
Levine, Lee Daniel, Bird: The Making of an American Sports Legend, McGraw-Hill, 1989.
Daily News, March 17, 1979; January 30, 1981.
Newsweek, February 26, 1979.
New Yorker, March 24, 1986.
New York Times, February 3, 1979.
Sports Illustrated, January 23, 1978; February 5, 1979; April 2, 1979; October 15, 1979; November 9, 1981; March 21, 1988; December 11, 1989.
Time, February 26, 1979; June 9, 1986.
Washington Post, February 9, 1979.