Growing up, I didn’t really get a chance to see live NBA action. Living in Denmark will do that. So for the most part, I had to settle with reading. I was born in 1986, so when I started reading Slam Magazine or XXL Basketball, it was long after Larry Bird had wrapped up his career, which meant no one really spoke a lot about him. Sure, I’d occasionally see a write-up here and there, and NBA Entertainment had thankfully put out all kinds of VHS tapes that fit into European systems. But while I knew of Larry, I didn’t understand Larry, and there’s a major difference in the two.
In the late ’90s, it finally became possible for me to order and watch games. While I mostly ordered ones in which Michael Jordan dominated, I put aside money for games featuring other legends, because I was curious as to how they played. Magic and Bird became grouped together back then in my purchases, because Slam had a piece on how they connected during their careers. Knowing what I know now, it was arguably the best decision I ever made to lump those two together.
I still remember how skeptical the 15-year-old me was of Bird. This was some slow white dude who didn’t rock the rim or have his tongue out. Could white players even be stars? My uneducated self quickly changed tune when the first tape of Bird started playing. He was taller than what he appeared in those highlight videos. He could really handle that basketball. Oh my god, what kind of bullet pass was that?! And he could shoot threes? How did he just score over that much taller defender in the post? Did he just trick two defenders out of their shoes simultaneously?
Every ounce of skepticism was gone after the first full game of his. This guy was in full control of every aspect of the game, a master if you will, very much like my idol. So other players could do that too, huh?
As the calendars changed, so did my taste in basketball. Vince Carter’s furious dunks (while still entertaining) had taken a backseat to old tapes of step-backs and clever playmaking from the Hick. I got a bigger thrill out of seeing Bird fake a pass off the catch, get his defender off his feet, take one hard dribble as to begin a drive, and then shoot off a pass anyway to the open guy which the already-collapsed defense had ignored, than seeing alley-oops and dunk contests. That part of Bird’s game also made me appreciate Jordan’s play when reviewing the second three-peat, as well as observing Magic’s creative mind when his Showtime Lakers had to play half-court basketball.
Speaking of Magic, he described Bird as the only guy he ever feared. Initially that blew my youngster-mind, but I began understanding what Magic was really saying. He didn’t fear Bird for his quickness, which he didn’t really have, or his strength, which wasn’t all that special. Magic feared his mind, and the next move. For years, those two were locked into a wicked game of chess, calculating their every move, their every pass, their every decision. Screw athleticism, and to some extent basketball, this was about something deeper. This was about being the smartest, and whoever figured the other out first would win, and neither were backing down.
For Bird, spending his time deep in thought wasn’t unusual. His father, Joe, was an alcoholic who committed suicide at the age of 48, leaving Larry with a heavy heart, which he always kept away from others. Using basketball as a coping mechanism, it makes sense that his one outlet was one in which he refused to allow others to dictate, and as such, he willed himself to move beyond his physical limitations and break through on his own accord.
Bird’s story, which has been frequently told after his retirement via books and documentaries, is one that I always found intriguing. It seems like he had this overwhelming desire to figure things out by himself, even after life gave him some of the biggest blows a young man can take. It takes a certain level of confidence to truly believe you can overcome such a tragedy, and do so by yourself. Bird, who dropped out of Bobby Knight’s program at Indiana in 1974, took up sanitation duties for a year before he enrolled at Indiana State in 1975, the same year his father died, where he had to sit out games for a full year before being allowed to play.
Whenever I read Bird’s story, one thought comes to mind: How did he ever get through such a year? His father was gone, he wasn’t allowed to play, and to make matters worse, he rushed into a marriage that ended the very next year. That trifecta of emotional blows is extremely devastating, and to this day, I remain impressed at his ability to go from that, to where he ended up.
I never could get my hands on Bird’s college games, although YouTube at times allows for momentary history lessons if I’m quick enough. Therefore, I can only imagine the buzz surrounding him as he walked out on that court in 1976 and started averaging over 32 points and 13 rebounds a night, probably revitalizing himself in the process.
But I can also imagine the weirdness of being the center of attention when your nature is quiet and reserved, which Bird’s was. Growing into a man in front of a national audience isn’t something I can ever imagine being easy, even for today’s high school sophomores who are famous before their 16th birthday party. For Bird, it must have been excruciating and frightening, but I reckon he learned along the way that the noise only helped him prove a point: That he wasn’t anyone but him, even when the world knocked on his front door. Such a realization can go a long way, and for Bird, it obviously did.
Bird’s lack of showmanship came from having a no-nonsense approach to the game, but that never meant he wouldn’t take advantage of his reputation, especially as he joined the NBA in 1979 after having his rights owned by Boston for a full season. Bird’s game instantly became a mental one. He routinely told defenders where he’d get the ball, and how he’d beat them, and then do exactly as he proclaimed, which further made his mindgames famous, or infamous depending on what side of the ball you were.
He combined that serious mindset with sublime confidence to throw opponents off, thus acquiring himself more cards to play in the future. His less than impressive physique initially had opponents underestimate him, and as his career unfolded, he made a living off his savvy and understanding of movement. His reaction time was truly elite, his feel for the ball likewise, and combined he became one of the most prominent passers and playmakers at a position in which this wasn’t standard no less.
At times, Bird played a type of pseudo-point guard, setting up post players, playing pick and rolls, and spacing the floor. Other times he played the traditional big man, posting up several times a game and being a menace on the boards. His ability to do both made him a matchup nightmare, very similar to that of Magic, who was a lower volume scorer, but a superior fast-break starter and a natural point guard, despite his 6’9 frame.
For years, Bird and his Celtics found themselves in playoff classics. He faced Magic’s Lakers, Isiah Thomas’s Pistons, Jordan’s Bulls, Dr. J’s Sixers and Dominique’s Hawks in epic showdowns that more often than not, excluding Magic’s Lakers, saw him walk away victorious. His 1986 Celtics won 67 games, went 40-1 at home over the regular season and threw their name into the category of best single-season team of all time.
Bird helped Boston recapture its glory from the golden days by taking home the 1981 championship after completing just his second NBA season. Three years later, Bird got his personal revenge on Magic from five years earlier, when Magic’s Michigan State put away Bird’s Indiana State in the title game. The Celtics took the series home after one of the most exciting seven-game series I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch, rewind and watch again. Bird never beat Magic in the Finals again, even if he did win a ring against a young Hakeem Olajuwon in 1986, but had it not been for an ailing back, things could’ve looked different.
While many in today’s game would argue that part of the definition of a no-nonsense approach to the game would include silence, Bird viewed his antagonistic actions or trash talk as investment for later. At no point was that more apparent than the time a young Michael Jordan, participating in the 1984 Olympics, played in an exhibition game against a pro team consisting, amongst others, of Bird.
During warmups, a ball from the college players’ side rolled down onto the pro players’ court, with Jordan chasing it. Bird picked it up and threw it back down the court fully realizing Jordan’s presence, sending him a message that he shouldn’t be messed with. Why? Because Bird knew who Jordan was, and what he was capable of, and he hoped to create a psychological dominance over the kid before he hit the league.
The two later joined each other on the Dream Team in 1992, along with Magic, but Bird by then was severely limited by a back problem that hurt so badly he received spinal fusion surgery in March 1993. Even with the bad back, Bird put up more-than-stellar numbers until he retired, averaging 21.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 7.1 assists over his final four seasons. He finished his career with three MVPs and three championships, and he was an inspiration for players not gifted with great athletic skills.
But more than that, Bird represented the foundation of which a new NBA was built. Along with Magic, Bird brought basketball back to live TV coverage and made the games marketable. His persona, and admittedly the color of his skin, was the perfect contrast to that of Magic’s, and they combined to lay the groundwork for a league in which new stars could come in and grow without being labeled as many were in the 1970s. The Hick himself never saw race or color, and his fondness for Magic later in their careers indirectly helped break down barriers to the likes of which the NBA had never seen before.
The man who once decided he was going to work in sanitation had become a symbol of excellence and one of the most polarizing basketball players of all-time, all while staying true to his Indiana roots and a mind that allowed him to remain himself while swimming the seas of luxury he never even wanted.
Now, celebrating his 59th birthday, Larry Bird is no less competitive than before. As president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers, he embodies professionalism and a demand for excellence for every man on his roster, both features that turned the Pacers into contenders in recent years, and which might turn them into one again in the near future. His mark on the game is so deep and influential that you can ask yourself with a straight face if the NBA would ever be where it is now if it hadn’t been for him. In the humble opinion of this Dane, Larry Bird is one of the most crucial elements for the league’s continuous growth, and one of the pillars for what basketball is today.
Happy Birthday, Hick.