Bird gets bronzed

Larry Bird voted 30th-best athlete of century

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

Larry Bird, known as "a hick from French Lick," is anything but. He proved it as an overachieving basketball player, and he's proving it still as a successful, unassuming NBA coach.

Bird 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
As a first-year head coach, Larry Bird found immediate success last season with the Indiana Pacers.
In college, Bird carried lightly regarded Indiana State to the NCAA final. In the pros, he turned a 29-53 Boston Celtics team to a 61-21club as a rookie. He took the Celtics to three championships in the 1980s, bringing fans back to Boston Garden in the process.

His duels with Magic Johnson were legendary. The two turned the NBA from a "minor" pro sport in 1980 into the big-time business it is today. The two combined to change 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 the league's MVP, the only forward to be so honored. He was Finals MVP twice. He was first-team all-league his first nine seasons. By being equally adept at driving to the hoop and shooting 3-pointers, he averaged 24.3 points in his career.

Bird was born Dec. 7, 1956, in West Baden, Ind., and raised in French Lick, Ind. He averaged 31 points, 21 rebounds and four assists as a senior for Springs Valley High School, earning a scholarship to Indiana University. 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 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, painting benches, striping streets and driving a garbage truck. He entered Indiana State in 1975, saying goodbye to the guys on the 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.' "

That year, Bird's father committed suicide with a shotgun.

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

Bird chose to remain at Indiana State and became the College 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 while Bird was held to 19 points while making only seven of 21 shots.

Bird, who finished college with averages of 30.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, took his game to Boston by signing a five-year, $3.25-million contract. Although it made him the highest paid rookie in the history of team sport at that time, he said, "No matter how good I am, I'm still just a hick from French Lick."

Some critics at that point thought he wasn't worth his paycheck, 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 a 32-game improvement from the previous season. He was named Rookie of the Year.

For an encore, in the next season, all Bird did was lead the Celtics to an amazing comeback in the 1981 East finals. Down three games to one, the Celtics overcame Philadelphia with three straight victories. The Finals were almost anticlimactic as the Celtics defeated Houston 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 season, Bird and Magic squared off again with a championship at stake. This time, though, Bird won as Boston defeated Magic's Los Angeles Lakers in seven games. Bird was named the Finals MVP after averaging 27.4 points and 14 rebounds. A street in French Lick was named in his honor.

A Bird-Magic Finals rematch was held the following season, and this time Magic won. After the Celtics won the first game by 34 points, the Lakers won four of the next five. During that regular season, Bird scored his career high, notching 60 points (37 in the second half) against Atlanta. Bird was second in the league in scoring (28.7) and 3-point shooting (42.7 percent) in retaining the league MVP award.

The Celtics went 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, 12 assists) in the game-six 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 East finals, Detroit held a one-point lead and was five seconds from taking a 3-2 series advantage. But Bird sneaked in to steal Isiah Thomas' inbound pass and then quickly passed to 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.

In the Finals, the Celtics lost to the Lakers in six games. That was the last hurrah for the Celtics, who, mostly because of the aging of Bird and his teammates, haven't reached the Finals since.

Bird averaged a career-high 29.9 points in 1987-88, becoming the first NBA player to shoot better than 50 percent from the field and 90 percent from the foul line for consecutive seasons. In the seventh game of the East semifinals, he and Dominique Wilkins engaged in a classic scoring duel. Though Wilkins outscored Bird 48-34, it was Bird who came out the winner. He scored 20 in the last quarter, hitting on nine of 10 shots, as the Celtics eliminated the Hawks, 118-116.

But things started going badly the next season. After only six games, Bird underwent surgery to remove bone spurs in the back of both heels in November 1988 and was sidelined for the rest of the season. He returned for 1989-90, averaging 24.3 points, and making 71 consecutive free throws. But then he began having back problems, with a swollen disc limiting him to 60 games. In June 1991 his back was operated on. But the pain remained, and he played in only 45 games in 1991-92. Before retiring, Bird, as co-captain of the original Olympic "Dream Team," helped the United States cruise to a gold medal in Barcelona in 1992.

A couple of weeks after the Olympics, Bird announced his retirement. He had scored 21,791 points, grabbed 8,974 rebounds (10.0 average) and passed for 5,695 assists (6.3 average).

After serving as a consultant to the Celtics, who didn't give him much responsibility, Bird proved you can go home again when he was named coach of the Indiana Pacers on May 8, 1997. Indiana, which hadn't even qualified for the playoffs the previous season, reached the Eastern Conference finals in 1998 and '99 before losing.

On June 29, 1998, Bird was voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.