Eye for victory
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
"When I played, Larry Bird was the only one I feared. A lot of black guys always ask me, 'Did Larry Bird really play that good?' I said Larry Bird is so good it's frightening."
-- Magic Johnson about Larry Bird on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, June 25, 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. ET).
Bird, the only non-center to win three consecutive MVP awards in the NBA, was voted No. 30 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.
May 26, 1987 -- Normally, Bird beat a team with his dead-eye shooting. But tonight, he whipped Detroit with his anticipation of a pass, and then his ability to make the right split-second decision.
Leading by a point, the Pistons were poised to take a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference finals after Bird's shot was blocked by rookie Dennis Rodman and the ball went out of bounds off Boston's Jerry Sichting. Pistons guard Isiah Thomas took the ball out from the side in Boston Garden. There were only five seconds left.
|Larry Bird was considered by some as the ultimate team player.|
In those five seconds, Bird's mind worked overtime. "I was guarding Joe Dumars and I saw that the ball was going to (Bill) Laimbeer. I started to move toward him. I thought that if I fouled him right away, there'd be only four seconds left, and even if he made the shots, we'd still have a chance to tie the game.
"But the pass Isiah threw, he just tossed it. It seemed to hang up there forever. I kept going and I got my left hand on the ball. I was thinking about shooting, but the ball was going the other way. It kept getting away from me. I probably would've hit the side of the backboard.
"I knew there were five seconds left when I got the ball, so I started counting down in my head. Then I turned and saw D.J. coming down the lane."
And he passed to the cutting Dennis Johnson, whose twisting layup enabled Bird and the Celtics to steal an improbable 108-107 victory.
Bird, the ultimate team player, finished with 36 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists and, yes, one steal.
Odds and ends
French Lick, where Bird was raised, was among the poorest towns in one of the poorest counties (Orange County) in Indiana. His mother Georgia, a waitress, worked two jobs to support Larry and his four brothers and one sister.
His parents were divorced when he was in high school.
Larry was 18 when his father Joe, who drank too much, delivered on his threat of killing himself. Joe Bird was 48 when he committed suicide on Feb. 3, 1975.
Later that year, while a freshman at Indiana State, Larry married his childhood sweetheart, Janet Condra. Their marriage lasted less than a year. In a later attempt at reconciliation (it didn't work), they had a daughter, Corrie, whom Bird has had little contact with.
In his three seasons at Indiana State, Bird led the Sycamores to an 81-13 record, including 33-1 as a senior. They were 50-1 at home. "The hardest thing was not to convince Larry to play at Indiana State, but to convince him to come back to college at all," said Bob King, Bird's first head coach at ISU.
The 1979 Indiana State-Michigan State NCAA final (Bird vs. Magic) drew a 24.1 rating on NBC, still the best ever for a college basketball game.
In head-to-head confrontations in the pros between Bird and Magic, the Lakers won 22 games and Celtics 15 -- an 11-7 edge in the regular season and 11-8 in three Finals. "People who saw our games against each other saw some of the best basketball ever played," Magic said.
At a taping for a Converse commercial in 1984, Johnson and Bird began turning from adversaries into friendly rivals.
Bill Fitch, Bird's first coach with Boston, called Larry "Kodak." "Because his mind is constantly taking pictures of the whole court," Fitch said.
On the way to winning the 1981 title, the Celtics rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat Philadelphia in the East finals. In the late stages of the 91-90 Game 7 victory, Bird made two key steals, two free throws, a rebound, blocked a shot, then sank the winning basket on a 12-foot bank shot. "I wanted the ball in my hands for that last shot," Bird said. "Not in anybody else's hands in the world."
After the Celtics lost Game 3 of the 1984 Finals to the Lakers by 33 points, Bird said, "We played like sissies." Asked what was needed to change things, he said, "Twelve heart transplants." Chastised, the Celtics won in seven.
Bird and Philadelphia's Julius Erving took their rivalry to an unexpected low on Nov. 9, 1984 when they exchanged words, shoves and punches, precipitating a bench-clearing brawl. Both players were fined $7,500.
Bird's career high was 60 points in a 126-115 Celtics' victory over the Atlanta Hawks on March 12, 1985 in New Orleans.
Bird was named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 1986.
He won the first three (1986-88) three-point shooting contests during All-Star Weekend. Before that first competition, Bird walked into the locker room and told all his competitors they were playing for second place.
Against Washington in 1987, Bird had a triple-double before halftime.
After losing the 1987 East finals to Boston, Detroit's Thomas said, "If Bird was black, he'd be just another good guy." He called Bird, telling him that he had been quoted badly, that his inflection and expression had meant to convey facetious humor. Bird wouldn't even listen to Thomas because to do so would suggest that he took the remarks seriously.
A career 88.6 percent foul shooter, Bird's best streak was 71 straight during the 1989-90 season.
In 134 playoff games, Bird averaged 23.8 points and 10.3 rebounds.
In 10 All-Star Games, nine as a starter, Bird averaged 13.4 points and 7.9 rebounds in 28.7 minutes. He was MVP of the 1982 game (19 points, 12 rebounds and five assists).
Bird married long-time girlfriend Dinah Mattingly in 1989 in Terre Haute, Ind. Both wore stonewashed jeans in the five-minute ceremony. They have two adopted children, Connor and Mariah.
-- Larry Schwartz