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The story of how rookie phenom Larry Bird led the NBA's greatest turnaround season

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Super-rookie Bird led Boston from 29 wins to 61 wins in 1979-80, reviving the Celtic dynasty - and a struggling league

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In 1978, the Boston Celtics drafted a little-known junior eligible player from Indiana State named Larry Bird with the sixth pick in the first round.


It wasn't a move that elicited a lot of attention at the time, although it would later prove to be the saving grace of a very troubled league and franchise.


Bird, who still had a fifth year of playing time left in college, was able to be selected under the rules of that time since his original class was graduating in 1978. Larry had attended Indiana University in the fall of 1974, but left before the season even started. He later went to small Northwood Institute in southern Indiana before he enrolled and starred at ISU.


Bird's home state Indiana Pacers owned the first pick in the 1978 draft, and were interested in selecting the local hero number one. Pacer coach/GM and former Indiana University standout Bob "Slick" Leonard met with Bird to gauge his interest in leaving school for the NBA.


Larry explained that his mother wanted him to be the first Bird to graduate from college, and the All-American forward told Slick (after a few Heineken beers) that he was going to stay in college for his senior season.
Leonard, whose team was strapped for cash anyway after paying a hefty NBA entry fee two years earlier during the ABA merger, didn't know if struggling Indiana, an ABA powerhouse now in rebuilding mode, could afford to pay the top overall pick.


So when Bird turned him down, he traded the first pick to Portland for the third overall choice and speedy young guard Johnny Davis, who had been a major contributor on the 1977 Blazer title team.


Leonard then selected center Rick Robey, who had led Kentucky to the 1978 NCAA title, with the third overall pick. Ironically, Robey and Bird would become teammates with the Celtics from 1979-83, as well as close friends and beer-drinking buddies.


Indiana's loss turned out to be Boston, and the NBA's, great gain. Kansas City picked North Carolina playmaker Phil Ford second overall, and the Knicks selected mercurial guard Micheal Ray Richardson of Montana fourth. Golden State took Purvis Short, a good shooter from Jackson State, fifth.


And Boston jumped on Bird sixth. But at the time, with no ESPN and virtually no national coverage for the Sycamores, who lost in the 1977 and 1978 NIT, Bird was basically unknown.


Philadelphia 76er great and head coach Billy Cunningham questioned Red Auerbach on the deferred draft choice. "Why would you draft this kid Bird, knowing he can't play until next season?" he asked.


"Do you know how short a time a year is?" replied the far-sighted Auerbach. But even though the patient pick panned out incredibly well, Red did not know how great Bird truly was, or would become.


"I knew he was a great shooter, but I didn't know how great," said Red later. "I knew he was a great passer and rebounder, but I didn't know how great. And I did not know he would play with injuries...Larry was the most self-motivated player I have ever seen."


Incredibly high praise coming from someone who won nine titles while coaching the likes of Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, and drafting the uber-intense Dave Cowens.


After Bird electrified the college basketball world as a senior, winning every individual honor and carrying ISU to the title game with a 33-0 record, Auerbach looked like a genius - again.


"Now we have Larry, and with one or two other small moves we are ready to contend," Auerbach said at the press conference after Bird finally signed after much haggling.


But Auerbach did not know how close Bird came to perhaps not even playing as a rookie. After his senior season ended, the Celtics wanted Bird to join the team for the last month of the dismal 1978-79 campaign, which saw Boston finish 29-53.


But Bird wanted to finish his degree, play baseball and complete his student-teaching requirements for his education degree. Besides, he was having fun in college.


That summer, he was playing outfield in a softball game. Diving in an attempt to catch a line drive, his right hand got turned over under his body on the dive. When he got up to throw the ball back in to the infield, the toss went wildly off to the side.


Bird looked down and to his horror, saw his right index finger sticking out to the side. For a right-handed shooter and passer extraordinaire, it was the worst finger to mangle.


Bird even went so far as to hide the injury from the Celtics for fear it might hurt his contract negotiating strength. A natural left-hander, he even contemplated playing left-handed if the finger could not be repaired.


Ultimately, Bird had to practice extra hard on shooting and even changed his form due to the injury, which never totally healed (take a look at the gnarled fingers of his right hand sometime).


His college jump shot was released almost straight over his head. In the NBA, his shot started coming more off of his right ear, and moved further down toward his shoulder over the years due to other injuries and age.


The extra work he put in may have actually helped him in some ways. But some might argue he never was as good a pure shooter in the NBA as he was in college, where he averaged over 30 points and 13 rebounds per game in three seasons to become the fifth-leading scorer in Div. I history.


Had he played four seasons at anywhere near his career pace, Bird would have finished second in total points only to Pete Maravich, who was his teammate in Boston for the second half of his remarkable rookie season.


When Bird reported to camp as a rookie, he immediately had to deal with "great white hope" fallout issues from without and within, mainly teammates Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe. The two fading veteran yet established black forwards were skeptical of the pale, slender white forward's game.


Wicks and Rowe even made comments to the effect of "here comes the great white hope" the first day of practice when Bird came onto the court. The former UCLA bookend forwards were near the end of their careers and had become underachieving malcontents.


As Bird succinctly (tellingly) noted in the NBA TV documentary "Bird and Magic: A Courtship of Rivals", Wicks and Rowe did not make it past the first day of practice under ex-Marine drill sergeant coach Bill Fitch, who cut them after their antics.


Celtic forward Cedric Maxwell also admitted that at the time, a lot of black players were biased against caucasian players, openly skeptical that they could play well against top competition since there was a dearth of white stars in the league.


After all, almost every great white hope in recent years had underachieved or gotten hurt after a big publicity build-up. Would Bird, who at first glance was superficially not overly impressive physically, fall into the same mold?


"I saw Larry and it was like eh, he looks like just another white guy," Maxwell recalled. After Bird drained three consecutive long shots over the third-year forward, each from further out, Cornbread started to believe the hype."I was like damn, okay, this white boy can play."


The publicity for Bird's rookie season was massive for the time, putting a lot of pressure on Larry to not only succeed but revive the flagging Boston tradition. But even the most fervent Celtic fan probably could not have foreseen how much Larry and the team would exceed his great expectations.


As a young boy living in suburban Columbus, Ohio, I actually attended Bird's final rookie exhibition game. Boston was playing the ancient rival New York Knicks at St. John Arena, home of the Ohio State University teams.


A quick check of my ticket stub from that game (I keep it with the stub from game seven of the 1992 east playoff semifinals at Cleveland, Bird's last NBA game, which I also was fortunate enough to be at) shows that a mezzanine seat for the Sunday, October 7 night game cost just $6.50.


Bird was matched up with fellow Indiana native rookie forward Larry Demic, a surly 6-9 bruiser from Gary intent on showing up the ballyhooed Celtic savior. The University of Arizona product would last just three seasons in the league, averaging a mere 4.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.


Yet he played Bird physically, and was intent on making a splash at his expense. At one point, Larry was running full blast while filling the right lane of a Boston fast break. As he was about to receive a pass for a layup, Demic intentionally tripped and pushed Bird, who went flying out of bounds.


To make matters worse, the wooden floor at St. John Arena ended just a few feet behind the baseline. With no band or stands under the basket like there normally would have been, only several yards of dirty concrete floor awaited the sprawling Bird. Because he was running so hard and was tripped unexpectedly, he slid out of bounds for several yards and rolled over before finally coming to a stop on the grimy surface.


When Bird got up, his formerly white number 33 Celtic jersey was covered in black dirt. The crowd, immediately realizing the (literally) dirty play by Demic was on purpose, booed the Knick rookie lustily. Yet Larry did not cry, start a fight or ask for special favors. He just picked himself up, went out and competed hard, knowing that this was his unique burden to carry.


I don't remember much else from the game besides that incident. Sponsored in part by by Wendy's (founder Dave Thomas hailed from Columbus and started the hamburger chain there), I distinctly recall Red Auerbach being on hand to toss up a ceremonial tip-off with an orange ball shaped like a Wendy's hamburger! Talk about degrading for a legend of Red's stature, but that was how far the league had sunk in the late 1970's.


Just five days later on Friday, October 12, a fan released a dove that flew across the top of the Boston Garden rafters just before Bird's much-anticipated regular season debut. "Talk about a sign; how ironic is that?" asked Celtic sixth man M.L. Carr.


Bird scored 14 points on six baskets and 2-2 foul shooting in his debut, but it was his superb passing and rebounding that wowed fans even more than his shooting prowess as he helped Boston defeat Houston, 114-106.


In a league that was drowning in low TV ratings, saddled with an image problem of violence amid the perception that the league was becoming too selfish and too black, Larry Bird was a godsend.


Portland, led by the great Bill Walton, was supposed to carry the torch of great team basketball passed on from the 1960's Celtics and Knicks of the early 1970's, teams that captured the public's imagination with their winning, unselfish brand of ball. Think 2014 Spurs, times two.


Alas, after just one title in 1977, the budding TrailBlazer dynasty came crashing down amid a slew of injuries late in the 1977-78 season after Portland had raced to a 50-10 start and an almost certain repeat crown.


With league MVP Walton re-injuring his foot badly in the second game of a playoff loss to Seattle, hopes for a Portland dynasty were dashed. The league's prior savior Walton, who got hurt worse again while recklessly playing uder the influence of painkillers, sued the team doctors and eventually left as a free agent amid an ugly lawsuit to play for his hometown San Diego Clippers, but he was never the same.


The 1978 and 1979 Finals featured Seattle and Washington, two good but star-less, uninteresting, grind it out halfcourt teams from small markets. The biggest established star on those teams, veteran Bullet big man Elvin Hayes, was an unpopular player seen as selfish by most and as a choker by many.


The NBA and CBS had hoped for a 76er/Blazer rematch of their entertaining 1977 Finals, but once Walton and company got hurt and the Sixers were upset by the Bullets, interest and viewership plummeted. Ratings for the consecutive Sonic/Bullet Finals were abysmal, and although hard-fought and close, both series were not very television-friendly.


By the start of Bird's rookie season, the league was perceived by many fans (rightly or wrongly) as a group of largely selfish players who did drugs, did not play much defense or care enough to expend a lot of effort. The running joke was one did not have to watch a game until the final two minutes, because that was the only time the players went all out.


The popular superstars of the previous golden era had all retired or were about to - Wlgin Baylor (1972), Wilt Chamberlain (1973), Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas (all 1974), John Havlicek (1978), Dave Cowens (1980), Rick Barry (1980) and Walt Frazier (1980).


The bellwether, big-market, tradition-rich franchises like Boston, the Lakers, the Knicks and Chicago all nose-dived in the late 1970's. In their place rose good but mostly small-market teams like Seattle, Washington, San Antonio, Phoenix and Portland, clubs that mostly lacked major star power.


The Knicks, a hoop purist's delight in the 1969-74 era, may have epitomized the league's 1970's demise best. Once a highly skilled and intelligent team of disparate personalities who nevertheless coalesced, they were predicated on hitting the open man, sharing the ball and playing great defense.


The Knicks were a club for the ages - colorful, stylish yet rugged, half white, half black and coached by a Jewish ex-player in the media capital of the world. They were the darlings of the NBA, and a big ratings draw.


But after retirements and trades, by the late 1970's the Knicks were mediocre, selfish and all black, engendering a not too difficult to imagine nickname some cynics used behind closed doors. The last vestige of their 1970 title team, the stylish Walt "Clyde" Frazier, was unceremoniusly traded to Cleveland, of all places, in October  of 1977.


The Celtics had also declined quickly after their 13th title in 1976. After a crazy near franchise trade with the then-Buffalo Braves (now the Clippers), the league's proudest franchise was in ruins, and Auerbach was set to leave for a chance to run the Knickerbocker operation.


In 1977, popular white All-Star forward Rudy Tomjanovich was brutally slugged by powerful Kermit Washington in the face as he ran in to stop a scuffle. Rudy T nearly died on the court from the blow, his face was completely mangled and his career nearly ruined. That one incident embodied what much of white America seemed to think was wrong with the brown ball league.


In addition, many of a new crop of stars, mostly top caucasian players, all suffered debilitating foot or knee injuries that severely curtailed or ended their careers and hurt fan interest: Ernie DiGregorio (1975), Geoff Petrie (1976), Jerry Sloan (1976), Walton (1978), Pete Maravich (1978), Doug Collins (1979), Frazier (1979), Bobby Gross (1978), Paul Westphal (1980), Rudy T, Mitch Kupchak (1980) and Tom LaGarde (1979) were many established or budding stars cut down in or just before their prime.


Thus the NBA, which started out the decade touted by many as the "sport of the 1970's", barely limped into the 1980's, left in the dust by the more-telegenic NFL and major league baseball. Attendance was down, and most teams were operating deep in red ink. The league was desperately due some good luck, if only it could hold on until Bird, Johnson and later Jordan would show up to save the league.


Enter Larry Bird. A supremely talented basketball savant, the NBA played up his hard-working, cerebral image to attract blue collar white America, even though his physical gifts were very substantial, to say the least. His intense, versatile "throwback" style of play immediately sparked new interest, higher TV ratings and the Celtics as they ran out to a 4-0 start.


Who was this blonde, pale Norman Rockwellian figure who rocketed to superstardom from the hinterlands of southern Indiana to jump-start an ailing league and its flagship franchise?


CBS analyst and former Celtic star player/coach Tom Heinsohn offered the analogy during an All-Star Game that Bird "reminds me of somebody finding a block of ice in French Lick, Indiana, chipping away, and out pops a prehistoric basketball player whose got all the skills (of yesteryear)...he reminds me of Bobby Fischer, the chess player. Bird plays chess when everyone else is playing checkers; he's always three moves ahead."


A unique and perceptive analysis, but Heinsohn failed to note that the fundamental throwback superstar also possessed much 21st century futuristic flair and improvisational creativity in his multi-layered game as well.


Fans wanted to know all about the mysterious Bird, who seemed to emerge out of nowhere, and his tight-lipped, enigmatic persona only added to the intrigue.


But it would not have mattered nearly as much if he had not delivered individually and by leading Boston to the top. Here was, at last, the real deal, the great (white) hope who was even better than advertised.


Attendance and TV ratings around the league soared. Everywhere the Celtics went, they played to sell-out or near-capacity crowds. A nationally-followed franchise like the Yankees, Montreal Canadiens and Notre Dame football, their success and style of play restored prestige to the parquet tradition, and was woven into the success of the NBA as well.


After two losses to Indiana and San Antonio, the Celtics ran off six wins in a row by an average of 12 points per game to improve to 10-2. Rival Philadelphia ended that streak with a one-point win at the Spectrum, but resilient Boston bounced back to win eight of its next nine. To highlight the run, Bird fired in 30 against his home-state Pacers to lead Gang Green to a 15-point win.


A seven-game victory string lifted the Celtic record to 27-7 just before Christmas, when again the 76ers knocked them off at Philly to pull within two games in their fierce Atlantic Division race.


Bird's unselfish, smart and highly-skilled play rejuvenated veterans Dave Cowens and Nate Archibald. Two days after Christmas, Boston whipped San Diego in a match hoped to be a battle between Bird and his one-time high school idol Walton, but Big Bill was sidelined by injury all season.


Cowens fired in 27 points to pace Boston to a 118-97 blowout of the hapless Clips, the franchise Boston had almost disastrously been traded for just two years earlier. The Celtics then lost at the Lakers 123-105 the next night in the first pro matchup between Bird (16 points) and Johnson (23 points).


Boston rebounded to whip Golden State and future Celtic center Robert Parish the next night 104-88, despite 28 points from the Chief.


Three more wins in four games set up the Laker/Boston rematch on Sunday, January 13 in the Garden before a CBS national audience. But despite leading most of the game, the Celtics lost a 100-98 thriller when a last-second 22-footer by Cowens narrowly missed.


Bird made his first six shots but barely shot in the second half. Meanwhile, the Lakers reeled off an incredible 21-0 third period run to rally and win on two Norm Nixon free throws with three seconds left. Johnson, hampered by an injured groin, scored just one point.


Boston would win 11 of its next 13, highlighted by a Sunday CBS tour-de-force performance by Bird. He scored 36 points in a blowout of the Clippers, and embarrassed Joe Bryant (Kobe's dad) with a fake pass behind "Jellybean" that made him look away before Larry pulled the ball back and nailed a baseline jumper in his embarrassed, angered face.


Yet perhaps his best play of the game was to eschew an uncontested breakaway dunk and instead pass off to seldom-used third string center Eric Fernsten, who stuffed in arguably the most memorable of his mere 175 points that season.


Can you imagine Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant making such a thoughtful, team-unity building assist to a third-string big man, especially as a rookie?


"That sort of (unselfish) play just gives you goosebumps," said former UCLA and Laker standout Keith Erickson from his CBS analyst perch courtside.


Interestingly, despite he and Boston's great success and a largely white fan base, Bird was NOT voted into the All-Star Game as a starter. Julius Erving and John Drew (are you kidding me?) were picked in front of him at forward for the East. The snub showed that America was still somewhat skeptical that this rookie Bird really was as good as he seemed.


Meanwhile the smiling, media-savvy Johnson was voted as a starter, even though several established star guards out West were more deserving, particularly Westphal and Dennis Johnson.


Yet when Bird did get in the game, he stole the show. A cold Larry entered a tied game late and missed a 20-footer at the buzzer in regulation that would have won the game for the East.


Johnson even clapped tauntingly near Bird's face and walked right in front of him toward the West bench after the miss. Bad idea, and a great motivator for Larry.


In overtime, Bird took over and began to carve his reputation as a great clutch player on a national TV stage, important in a time when few games were televised. Bird drained a 22-foot left corner shot, then swished a triple from almost the same spot on the next possession to put the East on top.


Then he pulled off the play of the game full of flashy acrobatics.


Leading a fast break after grabbing a defensive rebound, he passed far ahead to Moses Malone, who missed inside. Larry hustled downcourt to trail the play, and as a result came up with one of his greatest passes in a career filled with unreal feeds.


As the rebound ricocheted back towards him off West center Jack Sikma and Malone, a leaping Larry showed great reflexes, court vision and creativity. In midair, he twisted his body and reached back to slap a lookaway, left-handed pass about 10 feet over Sikma and past Earvin Johnson right to teammate George Gervin under the basket for a reverse layup that clinched the win.


The incredible pass and genius bit of improvisation brought the crowd to its feet, wowing the CBS announcers at courtside, as well as a stunned national TV audience.


"I don't believe he saw Gervin!" exclaimed an amazed Musburger. "That was phenomenal, that pass he made on the flip," added analyst Hot Rod Hundley.


His great all-around OT play lifted the East to a 144-138 win, but Gervin got the MVP award.


A few days later, Larry poured in 32 points in a blowout over the 76ers. On February 13 in a one-point loss at Phoenix, he fired in a season-high 45 points on 19 baskets, including three three-pointers.


Bird averaged 27.2 ppg in a nine-game win streak, highlighted by 41 vs. Detroit and 27 in a 19-point bombing of Philly. That 111-92 win over the 76ers gave Boston a three-game lead at 53-15 over their rivals with 14 games left to play.


Larry netted 33 in a loss to the Bullets and 28 more in another puzzling defeat to mediocre Indiana as they fell to 53-17, making it a close race again.


However, the Celts would bounce back to win five of six with the aid of mid-season free agent signee Pete Maravich. Pistol Pete tossed in 31 points to help beat Indiana as Bird struggled to score 14 in a win that lifted Boston to 57-18.


Maravich then fired in 17 fourth period points on March 25 at Washington, including the winning fadeaway triple in the closing seconds, to lift Boston to a crucial 96-95 win. The victory all but clinched the division title and league's best record at 59-20.


A 33-point outburst from Bird led Boston to its 61st win and officially the league's best record with one game left, 130-122 over Cleveland. Robey contributed 25 points, his second-highest total of the campaign.


The win rendered the season finale at Philly meaningless, a 116-110 loss to the 76ers where both teams rested many key players. Sixer reserve forward Steve Mix led the victors with 22 points, while Carr topped Boston with 25. Erving did not even play and Bird scored 10 as the Celtics edged out the 76ers for the division title by two wins, 61-59.


Bird played all 82 games and as a reward for his incredible season, was a landslide winner in Rookie of the Year balloting (63-3 over Johnson). He also was voted first team all-league, a tremendous honor for a rookie, especially in a league filled with fine forwards.


His extremely impressive 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.7 assists, 84 percent foul shooting and 41 percent three-point field goal accuracy hardly told the story.


He only took 17.8 shots per game and stimulated ball/player movement for the league's most unselfish team with wondrous passing that hearkened back to the old Celtic and Knick dynasties of the past, bringing disenchanted fans back to the game, as well as creating new ones.


As much as his great and well-rounded stats, Larry's basketball smarts, hustle and immeasurable intangibles augmented his awesome tangibles and lifted Boston from a mere 29 wins to a league-best 61 in just one season.


Almost single-handedly, he had reversed the fortunes of the fabled franchise, restoring Celtic pride and tradition. A team that returned four of five starters from an underwhelming 1978-79 Celtic squad that won just 29 games added Bird in 1979-80 - and voila, they won a league-best 61 games.


That whopping 32-game improvement served as the league record until the 1989-90 Spurs broke the mark by three games. Yet San Antonio had a much worse record to improve upon in a West far weaker than the rugged East of 1979-80. That made it easier for SA to improve by 35 wins (21-61 to 56-26) in the rookie campaign of 7-1 center David Robinson exactly a decade after Boston's resurgence.


The Bird-led improvement was clearly a more impressive achievement, even if it was by three wins less, since by 1989 the league had also been much diluted by the addition of four new expansion teams in 1988 (Charlotte and Miami) and 1989 (Orlando and Minnesota). The NBA of the early 1980's was thus much more balanced and tough than it was 10 years later.


Not only did Bird resuscitate the Celtics, he revived the NBA. He rejuvenated and re-ignited popular, old rivalries with the 76ers, Knicks and Lakers, three tradition-laden franchises.


In 1980 and 1981, the NBA Finals were shown on tape delay at 11:30 p.m. EST during weeknight games to avoid low ratings for CBS during the all-important "sweeps" month of May, when advertising rates were gleaned from. 
But by 1984, the epic Celtic/Laker Finals were must-see TV on prime time, and game seven was the most-watched NBA contest in history.


Even though his superb rookie season did not end up with the hoped-for Finals matchup with the Lakers and Johnson, nor an NBA title (that would come in his second campaign), his first season still managed to exceed even the enormous expectations and burdens placed on Bird.


Unlike many other hyped rookies, especially caucasian ones, Larry thrived on pressure to become even better, and loved to prove doubters wrong. At every step of his career he had been questioned and belittled, yet he had proved all of the dubious doubters totally wrong, in very convincing fashion to boot.


He finished fourth in the 1980 MVP voting, one of the best rookie showings ever, while arch-rival Johnson did not get a single vote - nor a spot on either the NBA all-league first or second team.


Johnson's Lakers won the title, but league MVP Jabbar was the main reason why LA took the crown. Johnson joined an already good team with Kareem and other All-Stars in their prime like Jamaal Wilkes and Nixon, and merely helped them improve from 47 to 60 wins.


Yet his defense was weak, his outside shooting bad (Johnson never did even shoot a real jump shot), and his flashy, attention-grabbing style was frowned upon by some, especially backcourt mate Nixon.


Because Bird was such a great all-around player, the most clutch and smartest competitor of a star-studded era, he raised the level of play in the entire league throughout the decade. He maximized his teammates with unselfish passing, inspirational hustle and leadership by example.


Furthermore, in order to keep up with Bird and compete with the vastly-improved Celtics, the rest of the NBA was forced to improve and come to play every night, or be left in the dust.


And even then, despite getting every team's best shot each night out, they still were usually outclassed, if not embarrassed. Mostly because of Larry Legend.

If you wish to contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at cdrada2433@yahoo.com.