Fifty Six years ago on December 7, Larry Joe Bird was born in French Lick, Indiana. Few players in Celtics history have retained as much love and respect among Celtics fans as Larry Bird. In spite of the fact that Larry has been coach, GM and President of the Indiana Pacers since 1997, Celtics fans still see him as a forever Celtic.
Bird shouldn't have been that good. He wasn't fast. He wasn't athletic. He couldn't jump. But somehow, Larry Bird became one of the greatest basketball players ever. He compensated for his lack of speed and athleticism by having an incredible work ethic. In Magic Johnson's biography he makes fun of Bird's mediocre athletic talent, slow feet and minuscule vertical leap but he immediately adds that Bird was the only player he truly feared. As Magic Johnson said of Larry, "There will never, ever, ever be another Larry Bird." Tommy Heinsohn said of Bird, "Larry was playing chess when everyone else on the court was playing checkers."
Simply put, Larry was the greatest forward this league has ever seen and watching him was watching a master work his craft. He was simply amazing. Here's what long time Celtics beat writer, Bob Ryan had to say about him.
Larry Bird was the greatest forward ever to play basketball.
They argue centers. They argue guards. They argue sixth men. But when it comes to starting forwards on the all-time team, Bird's name is put down, and then the argument begins.
Was he the greatest Celtic? Well, Red Auerbach himself bit the bullet on that one at a dinner in Bird's honor in 1988. Red said yes. (Somehow you can't quite picture Red repeating that to Bill Russell.)
What Larry Bird was - and this is beyond dispute - was the greatest total Celtic of them all. Russell, Havlicek, Cousy, Heinsohn, and the rest of that bunch all won more NBA titles. Bird had to settle for three. But none of them combined unquestioned ability and obvious achievement with the personal charisma of Larry Bird, who comes in at No. 4 on the Globe's list of the top 100 New England sports figures of the century.
and there's this also
Did you know that Larry Bird was the first player since Elgin Baylor who made it a practice to throw the ball off the backboard in order to get it back so he could lay it in? After Bird had done so in a 1982 game against the Bullets (getting himself a 3-point play), one of his teammates was aghast. "You should have heard McHale," laughed Bird. "He said, 'Damn, Larry. It's a close game!' "
And, to the question "Did Larry Bird ever goaltend?" the answer is "Yup." On Feb. 9, 1988, he goaltended an Akeem Olajuwon shot in the course of a 44-point (17-for-27) effort against the Rockets. This is the same Olajuwon he beat in a jump ball in the first quarter of Game 6 during the 1986 Finals. It defied the laws of physics, but Bird did it.
When I contemplated writing a birthday tribute to Larry, I started thinking about all the wonderful memories I had of watching him play: all of the game winners and improbable shots he hit, all of the incredible passes that he made, winning the first three 3 point contests. I thought about his last 3 point contest where it came down to having to hit every shot on the last rack and he walked toward center court with his finger in the air before the money ball even hit the basket. Just so many times he did the improbable, or even the seemingly impossible. With Bird on the floor, Celtics basketball was always exciting.
It seemed that there was always some sort of Larry Bird highlight when he was playing. In typical Larry Bird fashion, just 9 days after Kevin McHale set a Celtics record by scoring 56 points, Larry took the record from him by scoring 60 against the Hawks. Afterwards, he said that he told Kevin he should go for 60. The duel with Dominique Wilkins was one of the most exciting games I've ever watched. One tough shot after another for the entire fourth quarter.
Just when you thought you saw it all, he did something else amazing. There was that game where Bird registered a triple double (30 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) in only three quarters of play against the Utah Jazz. Despite being only one steal away from a quadruple-double, Bird sat out the fourth quarter and when asked if he wanted to go back in to try to get one more steal to register the rare feat, he declined to do so. After the game, he said "I already did enough damage. Why go for it if we're up by 30?" And, that was Larry. He was all about winning and individual stats and awards didn't mean that much to him.
And then there was the playoff game against the Pacers where he dove after a loose ball and came crashing face-first onto the Boston Garden floor. He went to the locker room and was diagnosed with a concussion. But that couldn't keep Larry down. He came back in the 3rd quarter despite a concussion and a severe headache and scored 32 points on 12 for 19 shooting, leading Boston to victory for the game and the series. Again, in typical Larry Bird fashion, in a post game interview, he said that he was seeing 3 baskets and he just aimed for the middle one. So, in spite of all the wheelchair jokes, Pierce wasn't the first Celtic to go out with a serious injury only to come back and shoot the lights out.
And then, perhaps his most memorable play, and my personal favorite. In Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons, with five seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and Boston trailing the Pistons 107-106, Bird stole Isiah Thomas' inbound pass that was intended for Bill Laimbeer. With the clock ticking down and with his momentum carrying him out of bounds, Bird turned and fired the ball to a cutting Dennis Johnson, who converted a layup with 1 second left to win the game for Boston. That play saved the series for the Celtics, who, had they lost Game 5, would have had to win Game 6 in Detroit (where they were winless in the series) to force a decisive seventh game. Instead, after losing in Detroit, Boston won Game 7 and advanced to the Finals.
Bird was the embodiment of "Celtics Pride." He was a classy, confident, hardworking player who thrived on pressure and inspired teammates to excel. In addition to his three championship rings, Bird piled up a collection of personal achievements. He became only the third player (and the first non-center) to win three consecutive NBA Most Valuable Player Awards. He was a 12-time All-Star, a two-time NBA Finals MVP and a nine-time member of the All-NBA First Team. He led the league in free-throw percentage four times. He also won an Olympic gold medal as a member of the original Dream Team.
The year before Bird joined the Celtics, they were 29 and 53 and at the bottom of the league. When Bird joined the Celtics, his impact was immediate. With the addition of Bird, the team improved to 61–21 in the 1979–80 season, posting the league's best record, and the greatest turnaround in NBA history. He was one of the greatest ever and as Magic said, there will never, ever be another Larry Bird. He was truly an amazing player.
I would love to see Larry come back to the Celtics in some capacity. But, even if he doesn't, he has left us with enough memories of his exploits as a Celtic that he will always be one of the most beloved Celtics of all time.
Happy Birthday Larry with wishes for many more to come.
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