Legend of the Ball
Larry Bird is one of the greatest to ever play the game.
SLAM: Your career is so linked to Magic’s. He once said that he needed you and you needed him. Do you agree with that?
BIRD: Yeah. I followed everything he did and I know he did the same with me. He was on the best team in the West and I was on the best team in the East, which brought a lot of tension to the game. It carried right over from college to the NBA. When we came to the NBA it wasn’t all that respected because it was not really a team game at that point. It was more about individuals. Then you have one 6-9 guy playing point guard and another playing small forward. Both of us passed and got everyone involved. We thrived on a team game.
SLAM: When you came to the League, Dr. J was the premier forward. Did you enjoy going against him?
BIRD: I always felt it was a great honor to play against his teams and obviously he was the focal point, so I knew I had to be ready and that probably whichever of us played the best was going to win. We always had to go through Philadelphia and we knew it was going to be a battle. Doc was long and athletic. He was a great open court player and a great scorer and he had a lot of talent around him, with guys like Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones and Maurice Cheeks, so if you overloaded to stop him you’d get burned.
SLAM: And then he got Moses Malone.
BIRD: Oh yeah. We played against Moses in Houston when he and Cal Murphy carried that whole team to the [’81] Finals and going to Philadelphia with what they already had there, you knew that it was going to be a very tough situation. He was such a relentless player. He’d throw it up and go get it, get your big men in foul trouble. For a team that good to be able to pick up another player that good was a little scary. They had one of the best teams ever in ’83.
SLAM: How important were Bill Walton’s contributions to the great ’86 team?
BIRD: Very important. He finished a lot of games for us. He and Robert split time and they were very good friends, so there was no animosity. Everyone wants to play but in situations like that everyone has to be an adult. KC [Jones, coach] stayed with him and kept that situation—and many others—under control and from ever becoming a problem.
SLAM: KC’s often been disrespected as a coach, accused of just rolling out the balls and winning because he had so much talent.
BIRD: You can say that about Phil Jackson, too—and people do—but I know better in both cases. We worked very hard in practice and KC kept the locker room at peace, played guys when they played well. I think he did an excellent job at Xs and Os too, but people overlook the importance of managing your team. Keeping guys who think they should be starting on board, keeping guys who start but feel they should be stars playing hard, keeping everyone on the same page and working together—all of that is hard work and KC was great at it.
SLAM: How big of a home court advantage was the Boston Garden for you guys?
BIRD: It was big, but I always thought that the great players could play at home or on the road. Anyone can play at home when you have the crowd patting you on the back. Everybody’s more relaxed and active. On the road it’s more difficult and it’s more important—good teams are going to win most of their home games. So I focused on doing whatever was needed on the road, and that usually meant more rebounding and more effort getting other guys involved. If a big shot came up and we needed it, I’d be looking for it but I always focused on other things than scoring first on the road.
SLAM: At the Garden it always seemed like the air conditioning would suddenly be broken when it was 95 degrees out and you guys would be ready with new uniforms at half and things like that. How much of an aid did Red Auerbach give you guys with these types of legendary ploys?
BIRD: We didn’t have real air conditioning in the Garden, so when it’s hot out, it’s gonna be hot in there. I don’t think it played a big factor. Growing up, I played on the asphalt when it was 95 degrees. To me, it was nothing and I wasn’t alone. It helps to be at home, but I think Red’s “tricks” have all been overplayed. They helped more because people talked about them more than anything real.
SLAM: How much has the League lost with the replacement of places like Boston Garden and Market Square Arena?
BIRD: A lot. It’s sort of sad. Chicago Stadium is another one. It’s a money thing. Market Square Arena didn’t have any suites and it’s impossible to survive in a place like that now. Things have changed. Boston Garden was a great place to play but it held 15,500 and didn’t have all the suites and amenities you need today. To keep up they had to have a new arena.
SLAM: It seems like every talented white player over 6-3 is compared to you. Do you tire of this?
BIRD: I don’t really pay attention to it. When I came into the League, I was getting compared to Rick Barry and I thought that we didn’t have that much in common and that I hadn’t accomplished anything yet while he had had a great career. It wasn’t really fair to either of us. I’d say the same thing about comparing a young player to me.