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Bird had eye for victory

Plain and simple, Bird one of the best
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"If you put all of us in a room -- Magic, Jordan, myself and Bird -- Bird would probably be the guy who walks out of the room at the end of the day," says Isiah Thomas on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Larry Bird, who called himself "a hick from French Lick," is anything but. He was one of those rare athletes who made everybody around him better. His uncanny passing, deadly shooting and anticipation defensively transformed losers into winners. The 6-foot-9 forward overcame a severe case of what is referred to in the NBA as white man's disease, an inability to jump high, to leap into the echelon of basketball greats.

Larry Bird
Classic Big Ticket: Magic vs. Bird airs on March 24 at 9 p.m. on ESPN Classic.

In college, he carried lightly regarded Indiana State to the NCAA final. In the pros, he turned a 29-53 Boston team into a 61-21 club as a rookie. He took the Celtics to three championships in the eighties and brought the fans back to Boston Garden.

His duels with Magic Johnson were legendary. The two turned the NBA from a "minor" pro sport in 1980 into the big-time. They changed a scoring game into a team game. "We weren't about stats," Magic said. "We were about winning."

For three consecutive seasons, Bird was voted MVP, the only forward to win the award that many times. He was Finals MVP twice and first-team all-league his first nine seasons. By being able to drive for the layup and stick the three-pointer, he averaged 24.3.

Bird was born on Dec. 7, 1956, in West Baden, Ind., and raised in nearby French Lick. The town was among the poorest in the state and the Birds were among its poorest families.

By averaging 31 points, 21 rebounds and four assists as a senior for Springs Valley High School, he earned a scholarship to Indiana. But the 17-year-old found the adjustment from a town of 2,059 to a campus of 33,000 confusing. After less than a month, before basketball practice even started, Bird left a refrigerator he and his roommate had bought and unobtrusively returned home.

"People naturally think it was trouble between [Bobby] Knight and me, but it wasn't," Bird said. "The school was just too big. I was a homesick kid who was lost and broke."

He enrolled at a small local junior college, but soon dropped out. He took a job with the municipality cutting grass, coating benches, striping streets and driving a garbage truck. He entered Indiana State in 1975, saying goodbye to the guys on the famed garbage truck. "I told them, 'I'll be going up there to get a little education. Then I'll be back and be boss of you guys.' "

Earlier that year, on February 3, Bird's father, who drank too much, had delivered on his threat of killing himself. Joe Bird, who had been divorced from his wife Georgia since 1972, was 48 when he committed suicide with a shotgun. Larry, 18, didn't cry.

After sitting out a season as a transfer student at Indiana State, he averaged more than 30 points his first two years and was named All-American as a junior. Though he had another year of eligibility left, Celtics general manager Red Auerbach shrewdly selected him with the sixth pick of the 1978 draft.

Bird remained at Indiana State and became the Player of the Year, leading the unheralded Sycamores to the No. 1 ranking in the final regular-season polls. But the undefeated season ended in the NCAA final when Magic Johnson (24 points, seven rebounds and five assists) led Michigan State to a 75-64 victory. Bird was held to 19 points, making only 7-of-21 shots.

Then Bird, who averaged 30.3 points and 12.3 rebounds at Indiana State, took his game to Boston. His $3.25-million, five-year contract made him the highest paid rookie in the history of team sports. "No matter how good I am," he said, "I'm still just a hick from French Lick."

Some critics thought he wasn't that good at all, that he was too slow for the faster pro game. Wrong. Bird averaged 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists in leading the Celtics to the best record in the league and their 32-game improvement in 1979-80. He was named the Rookie of the Year.

For an encore, Bird led the Celtics to a comeback from 3-1 down to the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1981 Eastern Conference finals. The Finals were almost anticlimactic as Boston defeated the Houston Rockets in six games. Bird scored possibly his most dazzling basket when he made a sensational left-handed flying follow-up of a missed outside shot.

Bird was MVP runner-up for three straight years (1981-83) before winning the trophy the next three seasons. In his first MVP campaign, Bird and Magic met again with a championship at stake. This time, though, it was Bird winning as Boston triumphed in seven games over the Los Angeles Lakers in 1984. Averaging 27.4 points and 14 rebounds, Bird was named the Finals MVP. A street in French Lick was named in his honor.

A Bird-Magic rematch was held the following season, and this time Magic triumphed. After the Celtics won the first game by 34 points, the Lakers took four of the next five. Bird was second in the league in scoring (28.7) and three-point shooting (42.7 percent).

Larry Bird
Larry Bird won three consecutive NBA MVP awards, 1984-86.
The Celtics went a record 40-1 at home in 1985-86. They were committed and Bird even swore off beer during the playoffs. In the Finals, they defeated the Rockets. Bird notched a triple double (29 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists) in the Game 6 clincher on his way to his second Finals MVP.

In 1987, Bird made the most significant defensive play of his career. In the fifth game of the Eastern Conference finals, the Detroit Pistons held a one-point and were five seconds from taking a 3-2 lead. But Bird came out of nowhere to steal Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass (Bird stole the ball! Bird stole the ball!) and then unhesitatingly fed a cutting Dennis Johnson for the winning basket.

"If Bird was black, he'd be just another good guy," said Thomas after Boston won the seven-game series. He didn't get much support from other players.

In the Finals, Boston lost in six games to the Lakers. That was the last hurrah for the Celtics -- who haven't reached the Finals since -- but not for Bird.

Averaging a career-high 29.9 in 1987-88, he became the only player to shoot better than 50 percent from the field and 90 percent from the foul line for two consecutive seasons.

In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he and Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins engaged in a classic duel. Though Wilkins outscored Bird 47-34, it was Bird who came out the winner. With Larry Legend scoring 20 in the last quarter -- he hit 9-of-10 shots -- the Celtics won, 118-116.

Boston's bid to get back to the NBA Finals was thwarted when it lost to Detroit in six games in the East finals.

After playing only six games the next season, Bird underwent surgery to remove bone spurs in the back of both heels in November 1988 and was sidelined for the rest of the campaign. He returned in 1989-90 and averaged 24.3 points. But then he began having back problems, with a swollen disc limiting him to 60 games.

Though he underwent back surgery in June 1991, the pain persisted and he played in only 45 games in 1991-92. Before retiring, Bird had one more series of Games to play. Co-captain of the Dream Team, he helped the U.S. coast to a gold medal in Barcelona in 1992.

Several weeks later, Bird announced his retirement. He had scored 21,791 points, grabbed 8,974 rebounds (10.0 average) and had 5,695 assists (6.3 average). He was voted into the Hall of Fame on June 29, 1998.

After serving as a consultant to the Celtics, who didn't give him much responsibility, he showed you could go home again when he was named coach of Indiana on May 8, 1997. He guided the Pacers, who hadn't made the 1997 playoffs, to the Eastern Conference finals in 1998 and 1999.

After losing those two series, they finally won the East in 2000. But in the NBA Finals, they lost to the Lakers in six games. Then Bird, who had a 147-67 record on the bench, stepped down as coach and moved with his second wife, Dinah, and their two adopted children back to Naples, Fla. But three years later, after receiving treatment for an irregular heartbeat, Bird felt fit again and returned to the Pacers, this time as president of basketball operations.

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