The image echoes through basketball's eternity -- confidence, accuracy and excellence all epitomized by a single finger aimed at the heavens. The multicolored ball hung in the middle of its arc, en route to its iron home, when Larry Bird looked away, still wearing his warm-up jacket, because not even that could slow down arguably the greatest shooter the game has ever known.
A heartbeat earlier, "Larry Legend" had hoisted his final shot in the 1988 3-point contest, an event he had won the previous two years, and he knew as soon as the ball departed from his fingertips that he had won it again. He raised his right index finger and walked toward midcourt, while the ball continued along its parabola before splashing through the net.
Before the event, Bird asked his competitors which one of them was finishing second. Then, without breaking a sweat, he collected a $12,500 check and his trophy. Bird led the NBA in made 3-pointers in 1985-86 and 1986-87, ranked in the top five in three other seasons and spent seven seasons ranked among the league's 10 best for 3-point field goal percentage. He led the NBA in free throw percentage four times. He scored 21,791 points (37th all time), was a 12-time All-Star, and won three NBA titles and three consecutive NBA MVPs. But that, of course, was then.
On Wednesday, the Boston Celtics icon and president of the Indiana Pacers turns 60. Bird spoke recently with ESPN about the nuances of his shooting technique, why he never tired in games, the relief he felt when he retired, the challenge of guiding a new generation of players and more.
Baxter Holmes: I heard a legend that you're still tough to beat in shooting contests, even as recently as this summer, and that even Paul George still couldn't beat you?
Larry Bird: Not anymore. God, it had to be five or six years ago. We were on the West Coast. Last time I can remember [shooting] was at the Clippers facility. They just handed me a ball and I started making them. ... That's about the only time. Maybe when [George] was a rookie, maybe. I haven't really shot any for about five years.
BH: Miss the game at all?
LB: It's funny. When I retired, I thought I'd really miss it. But I really feel like there was a weight lifted off my shoulders. I couldn't believe it. When I got done with that press conference, I walked out of there and I go, "Well, now I'm just a normal citizen. My career is over and it feels good." But when I was coaching, I played against the young guys a little bit -- three-on-three, four-on-four. And I practiced with the Celtics one year, the year after -- well, when I got done, the next year, I had a back fusion. It took me about a year to get over that. But the next year, I played a little bit with them guys at practice. But I never really had any desire to get out there and work out for an hour and shoot a basketball.
I don't know why. I think because I spent so much time doing it when I was playing and I worked out so hard in the summers that once it was over, you just move on. It's time to move on. I do get excited when we play in the playoffs in a big game.
LB: Yeah, I say, "Boy, I wish I could get out there."
BH: So you can still feel those juices flowing from time to time?
LB: I can remember one year, we were playing Miami in Game 7 and we weren't playing well and I went, "Man, I wish I could get out there and help Paul [George] and David [West] out a little bit."
BH: If you have given up shooting, it's funny that the legends still kind of linger about you being out there, outshooting much younger players. There was one a while back that you were out there shooting and the Pacers came in and saw you and just stopped and stared and watched you make shot after shot until you left the court?
LB: The problem was, I wasn't moving. I would walk back and forth a little bit. I wasn't standing there stationary, but I was sort of [going] from elbow to elbow. You're just talking 16-, 17-foot shots.
BH: Did you notice them watching you?
LB: No. I didn't notice until I quit and somebody said, "Why are you quitting?" I said, "Well, why shoot if you're making all of them?" [Laughs]
It's the way I worked out, too. I go out in the summers and I'd do everything I had to do before I shot last. If I got out there and I was making everything, I'd go, "Why am I doing this?" So I'd shoot 500 free throws. But the next day, if I come in and I could tell the ball was going a little bit left on me, I could be there for hours, trying to get it back. It's unbelievable. When I missed consistently, it was always to the right, inside the lip of the basket. That's because the ball would roll off my crooked [right index] finger out here -- [motions to the right] instead of there [motions straight ahead]. When it started doing that, my hand was sort of going like that [shows a follow-through that fades to the right] instead of down. It took you forever [to fix it]. It could take me an hour to get it back. So when I went through slumps, when I would miss a shot, it would hit on the inside right and spin out or hit straight back. It never was long. It was always the same miss.
BH: With what you know, do you still work with guys on their shooting?
LB: Yeah, I told Paul [George] -- his shot is really looking better now because when he first came in the league, his hand was sort of going across [motions a follow-through that veers toward the right] like that on his shot. You could see it. And now he's got that thing almost in a perfect position. We were talking and I said, "You finally got that ball where you needed to get it about three years ago." When he gets in shooting slumps, it's the same thing. It's like you're spinning the ball like that -- well, it's not quite like that. I'm exaggerating. But his hand will start going that way instead of up and through.
BH: I'm assuming when you give them guidance, you'll just talk to them versus going out on the court and working with them?
LB: Right. I said [to Paul George], "I see that you finally got the ball in the right space." He said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Well, you're starting to knock down shots because your hand's in the right position when you're following through. It's not shooting off to the right." But I tell these guys -- I don't have all the answers, but I do have a lot of experience. I've been around for 36 years in this league. That's what happens when you get older. You watch all these practices and these games and you figure these guys out. But that's all I got, is that experience. I always tell them, I don't know if I'm right. Through my experiences, this is how it happened.
BH: I read that Kevin Durant did some exercise to strengthen his wrist and it was somehow tied back to you?
LB: It's interesting. When I was in the sixth grade, we had to go in before school and shoot free throws and lift a little bit. Not like they do. But they had a roller -- a wrist thing.
BH: Did it have a piece of string with a weight attached to it, and you'd roll it up?
LB: [Nods yes.] So my coach said, "You're going to get your wrist stronger." He was the varsity coach. So I did that all the time. And I still think today that's one of the reasons I was able to shoot the way I shot. That, to me, changed everything. I was in the sixth grade -- what, 10, 12 years old.
BH: And your shot was based heavily on the wrists?
LB: It was a slingshot ... but, more than anything, I [worked] on my wrists. I don't know why. He was telling me, "Your wrists have got to get stronger." And I would tell kids, when they start, 8, 9, 10 years old, I would do wrist exercises because they could get the ball instead of down here [around the chest], they could get it up here [above the shoulders]. It's interesting hearing that [Durant] did that, because to me, I always thought that was the key for me when I was young.
BH: He said it made his wrists strong as hell, I believe.
LB: I guarantee you, I did it, and that made a big difference in my game. It was that and my left hand. I was always told you have to be able to dribble with both hands and use both hands normal.
BH: Did you do anything in particular to train your left hand?
LB: Just pound, pound, pound [the ball with my left hand]. That's all I did. Plus the wrist exercises. I did the wrist exercises more than I lifted weights. I was sort of like Kevin. To hell with the weights. I thought basketball would make me strong enough. But the wrist exercises were the key to everything I did.
BH: With as far as science and medicine has come, players today should be in the best shape ever. But some of the methods from the old days were by far better.
LB: The one thing I would've liked to have had was core strength. I remember [Robert] Parrish never touched the ball in the summer, but he did yoga. That's a major part of it -- stretching and breathing. But me, I had to run my 3 miles to warm up. I had to ride my bike 12½ miles. I had to sprint. I always felt that I had to do more, more, more. That's why I broke down. That core strength, I think, would've taken care of most of that, other than the conditioning.
BH: You ran a long distance before every game?
LB: Not every game. It just depended. If we were on the road and it was nice out, I would run 2-3 miles just to get going, you know?
BH: I heard there were times in the afternoon when opposing teams would come into the arena for a walk-through and they'd hear footsteps on the concourse and it would be you, running.
LB: Yeah, I would run.
BH: I heard it put fear in them.
LB: [Laughs] I don't know about that. I did do a lot of running. See, I'd never get tired during the game. I just never got tired.
BH: Do you feel like if you hadn't done all that running that you would've played longer?
LB: I had to do it.
BH: But do you think you would've lasted longer if you hadn't?
LB: Probably. But I couldn't [not do all that running]. I had that thing in my body that told me to get up and go -- that clock. When it's time to run, you go run. That's just the way I was. I remember my second year in the league, we were in the All-Star Game in New Jersey, and Artis Gilmore told me, "Man, you're really a good player, Larry. You're going to be great. But if you keep playing the way you're playing, you're not going to last long." I said, "I can't play any other way. That's the way I play."
BH: Did he mean how far you ran, or how hard you played?
LB: I think it was how hard I was playing. He never worked out. But I knew it. I knew I wasn't going to last long. I knew I was breaking down. It was just the way it is. I had this desire to win every game and the only way I felt, in my mind, that I could do that was to be in the best condition.
BH: I talked to Pop [Gregg Popovich] about the art of trying to extend guys' careers and he told me one of the toughest things was making sure the player is on the same page and is looking at the big picture and not just that night's game.
LB: One game. My thoughts were always that that night was the most important game in the world. Everybody in the world was watching that one game. And I had to be the best player on the court and win that game that night. That was my mentality, and it stuck with me all the way through my career. But knowing that, I knew that I was going to pay for it in a hard way. That's probably why, when I retired, after the press conference, I probably felt relief.