Competition is None
On Larry Bird’s birthday, a look back at a classic feature.
If anybody doubts Red Auerbach’s brilliance, consider his acquisition of Bird. At a time when some people were wondering whether the pasty forward could play in the NBA, Auerbach was plotting to steal Bird a year early. Back in the late ’70s, a team could draft a player after he had spent four years at college—even if he had a year of eligibility remaining—and hold onto his rights for a year. That’s exactly what Auerbach did. It had to remind him of his days back with the old Washington Capitols, when he was signing players in bus station bathrooms under the noses of his competition.
Here were the Celtics, fresh off a miserable 32-50 season, and they weren’t even drafting a player who could help them the next season. But Auerbach was smart. He knew the ’78 draft stunk. So why not take a future Hall of Famer and let him develop another year? Pure genius.
Bird delivered immediately after donning the Celtic green. He was the ’80 Rookie of the Year and a first-team all-League selection. I could fill the next 10 pages with his numbers and his accomplishments. His memorabilia and trophy collection are so substantial he was able to start a hotel/restaurant in Terre Haute—“Larry Bird’s Boston Connection.” He won three straight MVP awards. He led Boston to three championships. He played in 10 All-Star games and was selected for two more. Blah, blah, blah.
Bird’s legacy is more than just numbers. He forged a link to the Celtic teams of the past. What Russell, Cousy, Havlicek, Cowens and their teammates were to winning, so, too, was Bird. It consumed him. The numbers were great. The highlight reels were fun. The wins were the thing. Boston played in five NBA Finals series during his career, winning three. Three other times, the Celts were subdued in the Eastern Conference finals.
Yes, Bird was surrounded by some pretty amazing talent, most notably frontcourt partners Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Bill Walton, Cedric Maxwell and Nate Archibald also orbited Planet Bird. But the big blonde was the leader. He was the consummate winner, the one who would do seemingly anything to win. Including talk. And talk. It wasn’t uncommon for a red-hot Bird to face the opposing bench and plead for someone who could guard him. He was renowned for describing to opponents, in detail, what he was going to do next—and then doing it. And, on those rare occasions when someone would match him point-for-point, highlight-for-highlight, Bird became transcendent. Perhaps the greatest example of that came in Game Seven of the ’88 Eastern semis, when, despite a case of bronchial pneumonia, Bird poured in 20 fourth-quarter points to out-duel Dominique Wilkins and give the Celtics a victory.
Bird was slow, that much everybody knew. But you don’t need blazing speed when you know what’s coming next. Bird had basketball ESP. That’s how he made those passes to the perfect spots. Or how he stole the ball from people before they even had the rock. Remember in ’87? The Pistons had the fifth game of the Eastern Finals locked up. Leading 107-106, with five seconds left, all Isiah Thomas had to do was inbound the ball, and the Bad Boys would be heading back to Crime Town with a 3-2 lead. I can still hear crusty old Boston broadcaster Johnny Most’s call: “Now there’s a steal by Bird, underneath to DJ, who lays it up and in!” Bird swiped Thomas’ pass, fed Dennis Johnson, and the Celtics had the win and a 3-2 lead. They won the decisive seventh game and made it back to the Finals. Bird wasn’t faster than anybody else on the court that night. But he knew what Thomas was going to do.
So go ahead, praise Bird’s instincts, but the man put in some hard work, too. All the great ones do. The things they do look so easy, so effortless. Then, you come to the arena two hours early and find them shooting, alone. Or see them running laps around the loge, like Bird used to do at rickety Boston Garden. No one had a greater will to succeed. Magic and MJ were the same way. If someone asked what they did for a living, the answer wasn’t just that they were basketball players. They were winners.
Bird proved that one more time when he took over as coach of the Pacers. Magic couldn’t handle a coaching gig, because he grew weary of the younger players and their approach to the game. It wasn’t everything for them. For some reason, that didn’t bother Bird—too much. Maybe it’s because the Pacers were a little older, more mature, and guys like Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Sam Perkins, Rik Smits, Derrick McKey and the Davises understood how to play and how to prepare. But Bird’s ability to help Jalen Rose blossom shows that he was more than just a caretaker. OK, so Rose’s significant talents made it pretty easy to put him on the court, but remember—Larry Brown couldn’t find a spot for him. Bird did. He knew Rose was a player, not a point guard or a small forward. He put him on the floor and created opportunities for Rose to succeed. He led Indiana to the NBA Finals, something that nobody had done before.
And then he left. Left for the quiet of his Florida home. He might be back, as a GM or president or part-owner. For now, he is silent. So, we listen to his legacy, which tells us that we never know where the next great one will bloom. It could be right where we expect, or in the craziest, most unlikely place of all. Like French Lick. One day, some hayseed is going to walk into the locker room and ask who’s gonna finish second.
And Larry Bird is going to smile.