By Professor Parquet
In the fall of 1988, the aging but proud Boston Celtics were still at the top of the NBA pecking order, however precariously, after nearly a decade of dominance.
Since Larry Bird entered the struggling league in 1979 and resuscitated a flagging franchise, Boston had posted the best composite record in the league and won three NBA titles, despite playing two-thirds of its games in the rugged Eastern Conference - and having key injuries cost them at least two more crowns, and probably more.
But just six contests into the 1988-89 NBA season, the fortunes of the franchise and in turn the league took a dramatic downturn.
Already the Celtics, seemingly on the verge of another run of championships after a transcendent 67-15 title season in 1985-86, had been shaken by the death of top draft pick Len Bias that summer, as well as the injury-forced retirements of top reserves Bill Walton and Scott Wedman.
Many basketball observers consider that the best team in league annals, and adding sure-fire star Bias to the roster would have allowed its stars more rest instead of playing too much and getting injuries which curtailed careers.
Without Bias and their top two reserves, an aging and battered Boston squad still had managed to soldier on, remaining title contenders, a feared team built on great skill and halfcourt execution, high basketball IQ, competitive grit and guile.
The signs were there that the third Celtic dynasty was starting to crumble, however. Kevin McHale had missed the first 21 games of the 1987-88 campaign due to foot surgery after the grueling and heroic run of the short-handed Celtics to the 1987 Finals.
Center Robert Parish was 34 and lead guard Dennis Johnson was an old 33. Hyper guard Danny Ainge was the young pup of the iron five at nearly 30.
And Bird, after earning first team all-league honors in each of his first nine seasons from 1979-88, was nearing 32. The year before he had posted his highest scoring average and the best in Celtic annals at 29.9, good for third in the NBA behind less well-rounded gunners Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins.
But the weight of carrying the team on his balky back had started to take a toll. A few months earlier the previous spring, he had answered any remaining critics and reinforced his greatness with a classic seventh game shootout win over Atlanta and Dominique Wilkins.
With many fans expecting Boston to wilt against the younger, high-flying Hawks, Larry Legend refused to give in to Father Time.
In a fourth quarter for the ages, Bird sank nine of 10 field goal attempts, including a three-point goal and a miraculous three-point falling-down, left-handed hook. The only shot he missed, a 20-footer over Kevin Willis, rimmed all the way down and came out, or he would have shot 10-10.
Boston needed every shot he made to pull out a 118-116 victory. But in the conference finals against Detroit, even Bird showed he was human.
A year before, his spectacular steal and assist to DJ with a second left in game five had lifted Boston to a seven-game epic win over the young, hungry and bruising Pistons.
But a year later in 1988, a more experienced and determined Detroit squad knocked off Boston 4-2 as the Pistons limited Bird to
It was the first time since 1983 that Boston had not advanced to the NBA Finals, a four-year East run that has yet to be surpassed since. The 2011-14 Miami Heat equaled the run, but did so in an East so weak by comparison that one has to call it a JV conference compared to the 1980s Eastern gauntlet of Boston, the 76ers, Pistons, Bucks and Hawks.
After torching the Hawks, Bird was swarmed by the brutal Bad Boy Piston defense and relegated to just 19.8 points per game on very un-Larry like 35 percent field goal shooting.
True to his all-around contributions, Bird did manage to pull down over 12 rebounds per contest and dish out 6.2 assists while making nearly three steals a game in the series while shooting 86 percent from the charity stripe.
But his bad shooting was a key to the loss that finally toppled Boston from its 1984-87 Eastern perch.
The hoped-for redemptive 1988-89 season opened early with Boston playing in the second McDonald's Open four-team tournament in Spain. Already worn down by making it to at least the East finals eight times in the previous nine years, the older Celtics were not happy about making the overseas trip.
But it was the first Mickey D's Open abroad, so the NBA and commissioner David Stern wanted to send their most storied franchise overseas to represent the league.
After a slow start, the Celtics cruised to a pair of wins over teams featuring several Yugoslavian future NBA standouts like Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc and mid-1990s Celtic Dino Radja.
But the pre-season trip took an extra toll on the brittle short-handed team, in its first season under new head coach Jimmy Rodgers. K.C. Jones, a player favorite, had been deposed after five seasons where he guided the Celtics to two NBA titles, four NBA Finals and five East Finals.
Long-time assistant Rodgers assumed the reins partly to appease him and keep the curly-headed strategist from going to the rival Knicks, who had tried to hire Jimmy away as their head coach.
He agreed to stay in Boston on the promise he would take over once K.C. stepped down, but it was his bad luck to finally take over when the aging team was about to crumble when its superstar finally succumbed to injury.
The season opened well enough on November 4 at home against the Knicks. The Celtics rallied late before the typical sellout crowd at the Boston Garden to force overtime at 107-107.
In the extra session Boston pulled away from the frisky Knicks 15-8 to win going away, 122-115. Bird led all scorers with 29 points on 12 of 23 field goal shooting and perfect five for five free throw accuracy.
Larry Legend added four blocked shots (yes four), five assists, two steals but disturbingly, only five rebounds in 47 minutes. For a player who had averaged nearly 11 caroms a game in his career to that point, to grab just five boards (all on the defensive glass) in so many minutes was a telling sign that perhaps something was not quite right.
McHale fired in 25 points while Parish contributed 21 points and 22 rebounds as all five Celtic starters scored double figures. Patrick Ewing topped NY with 28 points, while reigning Rookie of the Year point guard Mark Jackson, who would play for Bird a decade later when he coached the Indiana Pacers to the Finals, tallied 16 with six assists.
The next night at another fierce Eastern rival in Philadelphia, the cracks showed clearly. The 76ers blew Boston away with a 41-24 third period en route to a 129-115 victory.
Bird sank 13 of his 22 fielders and scored 27 points with seven assists and five rebounds in just 31 minutes. Parish netted 19 and McHale 18.
But the Sixers overwhelmed the Celtics, shooting 57 percent from the field on 51 of 89 accuracy. Cliff Robinson led the victors with 25 points, while Charles Barkley netted 24 and Mike Gminski added 18.
Even former Celtic guard Gerald Henderson, traded in 1984 to Seattle for the draft pick that turned into the Len Bias choice, came off the Sixer bench to score 14 points, make three steals and dole out six assists in just 23 minutes.
The poor showing might be explained away by back-to-back tough games against heated rivals trying their best to beat Boston. But the brutal opening schedule would not let up for the Celts as the league's TV darlings returned home Nov. 9 to face the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan.
Boston bounced back from an early deficit to lead 79-78 heading to the final period. Normally at home, the Celtics would then put opponents away in the final quarter.
But the young and determined Bulls, who had been swept out of the playoffs by Boston in 1986 and 1987 and had lost 17 in a row at one point to the Celtics, did not seem intimidated anymore.
They outscored Boston 32-25 in the fourth stanza to pull out a 110-104 win. Jordan fired in 52 points on 18-33 field shooting, two treys and 14-16 at the foul line. He would go on to win his first season MVP (Bird was second) and lead the league in scoring at 35 ppg, while Larry finished third in ppg despite taking over 600 fewer combined field goal and foul shot attempts than MJ.
The rest of the Bull starting lineup attempted just a combined 31 shots, but with Bird struggling to make just seven of 19 from the floor, Chicago pulled off the upset. It was more evidence that the league may have been catching up to Boston, and also that the Celtics still were the team to beat since they got every other team's best shot each game.
McHale tallied 29 points but Parish scored just nine. Bird grabbed a season-best 10 boards in 34 minutes, all on the defensive glass. He also passed out six assists. Rookie guard Brian Shaw, starting in place of an injured Ainge, tallied 18.
Two nights later, Boston hosted the team that had dethroned them as Eastern champions the previous May, the Pistons. If ever there was an early-season time to make a statement at home by wresting the crown back from the upstarts, this was it.
Instead it was Detroit that reinforced its series win by breaking away from an 81-81 tie after three stanzas to win 116-107 and improve to 5-0.
Boston stumbled to 1-3 with the loss as Adrian Dantley led the Pistons with 31 points on the strength of 15-16 foul shooting. Joe Dumars scored 24 and Isiah Thomas added 23 markers with 10 assists as the NBA's best backcourt dominated.
In a continuation of a disturbing defensive trend, Detroit shot 55.4 percent from the floor (41-74). McHale, who was almost always unstoppable vs. Detroit (he had scored 56 against them in March of 1985), scored 30 points on efficient 11 of 14 shooting.
Bird contributed 24 points on eight of 14 field accuracy and 8-9 foul shooting. He also grabbed 10 rebounds, again all defensively, and passed out six assists in 35 minutes.
But no other Celtic scored as many as 11 points, and the other three Boston starters combined for just 25 points.
The bad start reached near panic proportions as the Celtics went to Milwaukee the next night and again lost a close game by being outscored in the fourth period, 108-100.
Boston dropped to 1-4, the worst start in the Bird era. Larry hit on just six of 19 shots, did not attempt a three or a foul shot and pulled down only six rebounds in 26 minutes. He also passed out just three assists.
The Chief led Boston with 23 points and 13 caroms, but Terry Cummings led all players with 27 points while versatile Buck Paul Pressey added 25.
Larry Krystkowiak, current coach at the University of Utah, netted 15 points while Jack Sikma added 14 markers and nine boards. Recently released ex-Celtic forward backup Fred Roberts added four points off the Buck bench.
Clearly something was wrong. True, Boston had played five high-quality opponents, yet had only won one game, and that came narrowly at home in overtime vs. the Knicks.
But three of the games had been at home, where they already had lost more games (two) than they did in the entire 1985-86 season (50-1). Furthermore, opponents had shot well over 50 percent from the field in three of the losses.
And the normally-hustling Bird had grabbed just one offensive rebound in five games.
Three nights later on November 15, 1998, the season came crashing down.
Boston was playing at new expansion team Miami for the first time ever. Coached by ex-Piston assistant Ron Rothstein, the scrappy Heat outscored Boston 18-16 in the opening period.
Miami's starting lineup as they sought the first win in franchise history was Rory Sparrow and Pearl Washington at guard, Pat Cummings and Sylvester Gray at forward, and rookie Rony Seikaly out of Syracuse at center.
In the second period, Bird took a pass on the fast break and made an ordinary-looking transition layup. But when he landed he seemed to come down awkwardly and had to come out of the game.
No one, probably not even the high pain threshold Bird, knew that he was done for the season. It was a basketball example of how, to paraphrase writer T.S. Eliot, the world ended not with a bang, but a whimper. Or maybe Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich.
It wasn't a Bad Boy tackle or Laker takdown that finally took Larry out, but the gradual deterioration of both Achilles from constant overuse and strain, and refusal togive in to pain and sit.
In 16 minutes, he had scored six points with two assists and one rebound. The layup would turn out to be his last shot of the season.
Boston led just 62-56 heading into the final period without their unquestioned leader. But the Celtics held the shooting-challenged Heat to just nine points in the fourht quarter and went on to post an ugly 84-65 victory, snapping their four-game losing skid while dropping the Heat to 0-5.
Washington made just four of 20 shots from the floor, but did pull down 11 rebounds and pass out seven assists in the defeat. Sparrow was the lone Miamian in double figures with a meager 10 points.
McHale topped all scorers with just 17 points while Parish snagged 16 boards in a final score that was a harbinger of 1990s NBA punchless offense, sluggo ball.
The talk after the game was about Bird's rare early exit from the game. In his first nine-plus seasons, he had missed just 27 regular season games out of a possible 744 contests.
The bad news shocked people after he went in for x-rays, demoralizing the team and a league that depended on Bird and the Celtics to be contenders to draw crowds and big ratings. Larry Legend was diagnosed with painful bone spurs to not just one, but both of his Achilles, and would require immediate surgery.
The years of playing deep into June with a bad back had caused him to alter his running style and eventually the pain radiated all the way down to his feet, sidelining him indefinitely for the first time in his pro career.
Bird underwent surgery to repair each Achilles, and the operation was termed a success. Talk was that the superhuman Bird might be able to return by late March. After all, he was Larry Legend, right?
But as the months rolled by with Bird glumly watching on from the bench with walking boots on each foot, it became more and more apparent that he was not going to be back anytime soon. During team timeouts he would stiffly get up and move around, or stay seated. Larry was human, after all.
Coming back from one Achilles injury was daunting enough. The injury had ended many a career, but both Achilles? As time went on, the whispers became louder that even the iron-willed Bird might not be able to come back. Panic rose in Beantown, at CBS and in the NBA offices.
For college football is better when Notre Dame is good and the NFL is more interesting when the Dallas Cowboys are relevant. Baseball is more popular when the Yankees are winning. And the same goes for the Celtics, especially in the Bird era. When the glamour teams people both love and hate are title contenders, it drives interest and TV ratings, and makes following sports more fun.
As the leader of the league's bellwether franchise, Bird was integral to the NBA success, and a still largely white fan base could identify with Larry. Yet with the NBA realizing that Bird and Johnson would not be around forever as the decade waned, they started looking around at other big-market stars to build the league around, and latched onto Jordan and Chicago (and to a lesser extent later, Shaq, Kobe and the Lakers) to carry the league in the 1990s and beyond.
But 1988-89 marked the first time since his sophomore year in high school, when Bird was out with a broken foot, that he had to sit and watch for an extended period due to injury. Clearly, for a man who needed to compete and play basketball, it was killing him.
And it was killing the Celtics. A team that had averaged over 60 wins per season with Bird from 1980-88 slumped to a mediocre 42-40 without him.
At first the rumor was Larry would be back just before the playoffs. Then the talk was that come the post-season, Larry Legend would miraculously return and lead the Celtis to another deep playoff run.
When he was not on the floor for game one of the 1989 playoffs at powerful Detroit, the talk was that well, if Boston somehow beat the top-seeded Pistons, that Bird would be back for round two. People just could not believe that the playoffs would go on that spring without the great number 33 running up and down the parquet floor.
Alas, it was not to be, and the Celtics were never the same again. And of course, without Larry, Boston had no chance to beat the league's new superpower.
Boston had squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth and last seed in the East, and was unceremoniously swept by the Pistons, who would go on to also sweep the Lakers and win their first NBA title that June.
Detroit had finally taken the last step after learning how to win by going through the playoff wars against the Celtics (the Bulls would endure the same learning curve with the Pistons in the coming years).
After an arduous rehab, Bird's feet would not loosen up in the 1989-90 season training camp, and he was concerned he would never be able to play again or at anywhere near his prior level.
But then one day in pre-season his Achilles loosened up, started feeling better, and after some choppy waters he enjoyed a superb season. Rodgers had understandably, not knowing how effective an aging Bird would be, tried to institute a less Larry-dependent offense.
And Larry also endured some controversial early season criticism from a teammate identified by some as Jim Paxson, who said Bird was shooting too much and "tearing the team apart." Yet he emerged from all the challenges to earn Comeback Player of the Year honors easily.
In 1989-90, a determined Bird played in 75 of 82 games at 39.3 minutes a contest. He averaged 24.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists a game, shot a league-best 93 percent from the foul line and led Boston to a 52-30 record.
With a repaired but 34-year old Bird back at great but less than mid-1980s MVP form, Boston still had improved by 10 wins and narrowly missed winning the Atlantic Division for only the second time in his 10 full seasons.
However, for the first time in his career he was not named first team All-NBA despite putting up all-around numbers 99 percent of the players in the history of the league would have killed for in their prime, let alone during the injury-plagued back end of a career.
Already seen as over the hill by many, Bird was relegated to the second team all-league, behind bruising and flashier, younger forwards Barkley and Karl Malone. The trend toward flash over substance had already taken hold, and it only took one year of no Larry to accelerate the change.
Larry was never too concerned with appearance or bling, he was all about the game, as his once-skeptical but converted admirer teammate Cedric Maxwell said years later.
He accepted his NBA MVP trophies wearing bowling shirts and sat the awards on top of his refrigerator at his mom's home in southern Indiana. He drove a pickup truck, lived frugally, dove on the floor for loose balls and rebounds, set screens, and rarely complained or made excuses like so many stars today do that get most every call, travel and palm the ball incessantly and expect to get to the foul line even if they initiate contact.
When Larry Bird did complain about a whistle, as legendary official Earl Strom said, you listened and figured you had "kicked" or missed the call.
It seemed just as a new decade had dawned, the NBA had started to move on from the superficially unstylish-looking man who, more than anyone, had saved and catapulted the struggling NBA to new heights in the great, but now late '80s.
After taking a commanding 2-0 lead over the Knicks in their first round best of five series in 1990, the Celtics collapsed and lost three straight. Making matters worse, the game five loss was lowlighted by a missed reverse dunk by Bird late in the fourth period, and a desperation turnaround three-point heave by Ewing clinched the upset.
The devastating defeat, the first time a Bird team had failed to get past the first round, signaled the end of the Rodgers era after only two seasons.
Ex-Celtic guard and long-time assistant Chris Ford was tabbed to replace Rodgers, and he restored some order. Over the next two seasons, Boston was a darkhorse title contender, but Bird was in and out of the lineup due to injuries, missing 37 games in 1991-92.
In both of his final seasons, the Celtics beat Indiana in the first round only to lose a tough eastern semifinal series. In 1991, Detroit eliminated the Celts in a game six overtime classic when an incorrect goaltend call on a McHale tip-in cost Boston a win in regulation.
In OT, a lucky bank triple as the shot clock expired by isiah Thomas buried Boston. In 1992, Boston again won over 50 games and faced a young, talented Cleveland team led by Mark Price and Brad Daugherty in the eastern semis.
The series went seven games, but the Cavaliers prevailed at home in the clincher to send Bird into retirement - after the upcoming 1992 Olympics. He scored a pedestrian 12 points in his final NBA contest, slowed by a very bad back that had forced him to miss the opening round series vs. the Pacers.
Years later, Bird allowed that he probably should have retired in 1989, but of course Bird was too competitive to go out that way at 32. After Larry Legend hung up the high tops for good in 1992, Boston never advanced past the first round again until 2002, and did not return to the Finals again until 2008, 20 years after his Achilles gave out.
The deaths of Bias and later Reggie Lewis in 1994 also devastated the fabled franchise. The foot injuries to Walton, Wedman, Bird and McHale heralded the beginning of the end of the third Celtic dynasty.
But not until the indomitable Bird finally was forced to the sideline in agonizing pain did the Celtic dynasty finally start to crumble. It took a crushing double injury to the game's greatest player, the man who dominated the NBA during a golden decade, to sideline the league's proudest player and franchise.
Yet it is a testament to Bird's true grit and greatness that despite advancing age, a bad back and two repaired Achilles, any one of which would have ended or seriously curtailed the career of most others, Larry came back to All-Star form and the Celtics became a dangerous team once more with number 33 on the floor.
On rare days, such as the decisive fifth game of the 1991 series vs. Indiana, when he ignored team doctors and returned to play with a bad back and fractured cheekbone a la Willis Reed to score 32 points and lead Boston past the Pacers 124-121, he was still capable of summoning up the old Legendary form.
His last great hurrah was the double-OT mid-March Sunday afternoon NBC 1992 epic 152-148 victory over eventual runner-up Portland. With Boston down three in the closing seconds of regulation, Bird hit a running, one-footed triple just before the buzzer to force OT. At age 35 Larry posted the highest-scoring (49 points) triple-double in NBA history.
On such days he could still rise to the occasion above all the injuries and bumps, turn back the clock and be the game's best all-around player. But the Portland double OT classic took a toll as he missed much of the rest of the season.
In both of those games he received numerous cheap shots to the back from the Pacers and Blazers, yet never uttered a complaint. He answered with his PLAY. He came back and beat younger, determined foes with his shooting touch, great passing, tough rebounding, leadership, guile and desire.
I would be surprised if LeBron James could accomplish anything near what Bird did in his mid 30s with a bad back. We have seen how much Kobe Bryant has fallen with injuries the past three years at a similar age, and he is more skilled as a scorer and shooter than LBJ. The fact remains, as great as James is, he lacks the toughness of Bird, as well as his shooting, passing and rebounding acumen.
Bird is arguably the most singularly great superstar the NBA has seen, at least since the mid 1970s. For no player since he left the stage has been able to play anything like him in an all-around sense.
Dirk Nowitzki has been comparable as a shooter and rebounder, (and in appearance as a blue-eyed blonde tall bomber) but lacks Larry's passing and team defensive skills, as well his competitive fire and bball IQ.
Few remember that Bird made three NBA all-defense second teams early in his career, when the league coaches voted for the honor. As good as Dirk is, he isn't as clutch either as Bird, and maybe only Jerry West and Jordan were.
Even the humble German, a first ballot Hall of Famer at the top of his game at the time, humbly admitted during his 2011 NBA Finals MVP run that he was "no Larry Bird" when a TV interviewer tried to compare him favorably with the Legend.
"Come on, Larry was making 20-foot runners LEFT-HANDED," said Dirk as he was leading Dallas to the title, coached by a former Bird teammate in Rick Carlisle. He acknowledged readily that Bird did many things he simply could not.
James approaches Bird as a passer and scorer, but certainly not as a shooter, clutch player or rebounder. And he lacks Bird's intangibles, especially toughness - plus he has dominated a much-watered down league and a vastly inferior Eastern Conference.
Chris Mullin is similar to Bird as a shooter/passer, and in basketball IQ, quick hands and the ability to play the passing lanes. But Mully isn't in the same universe as a rebounder and lacked Bird's mean streak and size. None of the aforementioned elevate their teammates as much as Bird did, with James coming closest.
Other superstars from the Bird era have had their games closely imitated or even perhaps equalled or surpassed, showing them to be more trailblazers than singular greats. Dr. J was one-upped by Jordan, who has very nearly been matched by Kobe. Most of the best Jordan moves have been done by the likes of Vince Carter and others since his Airness retired in 2002.
Jabbar's status has been approached in rings and numbers by the similarly languid, impassive and fundamentally-sound Tim Duncan. Earvin Johnson's floor game has been successfully imitated or bettered by the likes of James and the smaller John Stockton and Jason Kidd. Isiah Thomas has spawned many excellent imitators like Chris Paul and Steve Nash, who are much better shooters than Zeke was.
Perhaps only Jerry West and John Havlicek, and maybe Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor, presaged Bird as transcendent all-around players. Only West and Hondo were also similarly lethal in the clutch and were as capable of beating you on offense and defense at the end of a tight game.
But no one has matched Bird's depth and breadth of skills and intangibles since he retired 23 long years ago. The fact that in his 10th season he averaged just under 30 points a game suggests rather obviously that in his prime had he wanted to, Larry could have scored 35 ppg if he had not been so unselfish.
Bird's arch-nemesis Earvin Johnson may have put it best at Larry's retirement ceremony in 1993 at the old Garden, where he opined that "there will never, ever, ever be another Larry Bird." So far, he has been right.
Bird was a true original, combining the best of the past with the future. He was a hard-nosed fundamental throwback a la Havlicek who was also a basketball savant, possessing a 21st century flair for improvisation and the dramatic.
Desperately poor and obsessing about basketball growing up amid a large family in hoops-mad Indiana, Larry developed a preternatural knack for shotmaking and a superscout's ability to immediately figure out an opponent's strengths and weaknesses. A guard in high school, he sprouted six inches one summer to 6-7 and went from a potential small college prospect to a potential star.
But he was still largely unknown and much-doubted coming out of small consolidated Springs Valley High, despite averaging 31 points and 21 rebounds a game as a senior. Indiana coach Bob Knight, who recruited Bird, later said Larry had "the best hands, maybe, of anyone who ever played the game...he had a mind like a camera."
Former Celtic coach Bill Fitch echoed Knight on Bird's court vision by nicknaming his prize rookie "Kodak" due to his uncanny ability to know where all 10 players were on the court at any given time, and take advantage of it.
Driven to convince his many doubters at each successive level who claimed he was too slow or played against lesser competition, Bird kept improving through constant practice and considerable talent.
Larry hated to lose and lived to sink buzzer-beaters and backbreaker. He willed and skilled himself to become a great individual player who was also an incredibly unselfish teammate with unparalleled vison and passing touch, combining the competitive fire and smarts of a West in a 6-9 body.
On the court he was a combination of toughness, supreme skill and an unsurpassed basketball IQ. His innate humility and drive were fueled by wanting to prove his detractors wrong, extreme poverty, shyness and unusual looks. He was a more disciplined, bigger, grittier Pete Maravich; a bigger, more creative and better Dave DeBusschere.
His influential first NBA coach, the tough former drill sergeant Fitch, even compared his rookie superstar to DeBusschere, who had retired six years earlier. But Larry was a better passer than Dave, a more consistent shooter and shotmaker, and was more spectacular than the 6-6 ex-Knick/Piston Hall of Famer, who was so heady he had been named player-coach of Detroit at age 24.
In 1979-80 Bird became the first rookie in years to earn first team all-league honors, was a landslide Rookie of the Year winner, and led Boston from 29-53 to a league-best 61-21, the greatest turnaround in league annals to that time.
And Bird did all this with a mangled index finger on his shooting hand which was badly injured before his rookie campaign trying to make a diving catch in a softball game. He actually had to adjust his shot, which led to him practicing even more, after the mishap that almost derailed his NBA career before it even started.
On top of all else, he became the most ambidextrous scorer and passer in NBA history, occasionally scoring as many as 20 points in a game left-handed, and often tossing accurate, long southpaw outlet feeds to streaking teammates.
"Larry was a player who could do anything and everything in the game of basketball, but he just wanted to win and make his teammates better," said Walton, a truly iconic player in his own right. "Quickness is anticipation, and Bird played the mental game better than anyone...he was just a phenomenal teammate."
One of my favorite Bird passes came in a Sunday CBS telecast when Larry was a rookie enjoying a 36-point game during a blowout of the Walton-less Clippers (the redhead was injured). Bird had an easy breakaway dunk late in the contest, yet he passed the ball off to third string center Eric Fernsten filling the right lane for a stuff that was probably the highlight of the seldom-used big man's season.
"That is the type of unselfish play that gives me goosebumps," said CBS analyst Keith Erickson, who was a star on John Wooden's first NCAA titles teams at UCLA and was a recently-retired veteran NBA swingman.
I cannot imagine Jordan doing that for Will Perdue, or Kobe Bryant passing up an easy dunk to give the ball to Stanislav Medvedenko, for example. LeBron James might, but because he likes to dunk so much, I doubt it. But Bird, being a superior teammate, did. Those are the things that truly unselfish superstar leaders do to create team unity and togetherness.
Wooden, Walton's legendary college head coach at UCLA, was another Hoosier native hoop superstar who marveled about Bird's all-around game. Ironically, Wooden coached Indiana State for two seaons before heading to build an unmatched dynasty at UCLA.
The conservative former high school English teacher, not known for easily throwing around high praise about individuals, gushed that he "had always thought Oscar Robertson was the greatest all-around player ever, until this fellow Bird came along."
Renowned basketball coach and executive Dave Gavitt, then the Celtic president, eloquently offered this insightful and beautiful observation at Bird's predictably no-frills 1992 retirement press conference: "From the top of his head down to the tips of his fingers, no one ever played this game as well as Larry Bird. And he did it with a heart five times bigger than anyone I ever saw."
That Larry eschewed a self-indulgent farewell tour a la Jabbar and Dr. J also offers a glimpse into his character. Bird informed Gavitt he was going to retire upon returning from the Olympics where he had capped his career with a gold medal in September of 1992. But Gavitt, knowing Bird's contract would kick in to guarantee him millions of dollars if he only waited a few weeks to announce his retirement, advised Larry to "think about it."
Gavitt, the creative hoop mind who was the architect of the Big East Conference after taking Providence to the 1973 Final Four, also pitched the clever idea of using Bird as a sixth man who would play only in home games and at away sites close enough to drive to, in order to save the torture that flying caused his back.
But Bird, having endured significant back pain since 1985 and knowing full well the details of his contract, told Gavitt he had made up his mind and wasn't going to take money he didn't earn. Much easier to say, some might rightly point out, when you already have plenty of money, but how many athletes would have done what Bird did?
He also did not want to become the latest great Celtic sixth man, a role he had played briefly in 1982 after returning from a fractured cheekbone early in a Celtic 18-game win streak. Over the last few injury-plagued years of his career, Bird famously laid stomach down on the sidelines when he subbed out of games to help his burdensome back, and underwent constant treatment just to be able to play.
After he retired, Bird went home and shot to pieces the full-body Lecter-like brace he had to wear off the court for hours a day in order just to play his final season. Few if any would have endured such pain and humbling inconvenience at age 35 to keep going, but he loved competing, loved the game and was still capable of great things.
Had singing duo Simon and Garfunkel been born a generation or so later perhaps Larry's genuine throwback persona (and not Joe DiMaggio's false one) would have been the one immortalized and longed-for in their famously lamentatious lyric, "where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you?"
For even Joe D. was shown later to have massive feet of clay as a mean-spirited, self statue-polishing, starlet-chasing miser of epic proportions.
Bird's simple self-reliant personality and tight-lipped reticence should be better appreciated now in an age of (non) reality TV and ubiquitous media and social media where too many people feel their every thought, reaction and complaint needs to be broadcast and acknowledged.
In time, his legacy should continue to increase because in part, he was so unique. It seems those of rivals Johnson, Jordan and others have receded a bit as time has worn off some of the flash/hype, and reveraled more character flaws and foibles.
Unfortunately by the 1990s, after all the injuries and miles his body had absorbed by never backing down from constant challengers, Larry just was not able to dominate regularly like he had in the early and mid 1980s. And neither the NBA, nor the Celtics, have ever been as good since then.
After a 15-year franchise dry spell coinciding with his retirement and marked by mostly awful non-playoff teams, Boaton finally returned to the mountain top in 2008.
But even the 2008-10 championship-caliber Celtics were a short-term mini-dynasty rigged together by Ainge's acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to go with incumbent star Paul Pierce, where they formed a new "big three."
But that trio pales in comparison to the Bird-McHale-Parish threesome. The new big three-led team was a plodding, inelegant offensive club predicated on tough defense which won big in an expansion-diluted league that is not nearly as good as the NBA of the 1980s, especially the horrid East of this century.
By comparison, the sizable Bird "Big Three" relied on incredibly precise offensive artistry and skill, accurate shooting, great rebounding, tough defense, guile, guts and shot blocking in a wicked East and better, pre-expansion 23-team league.
Larry's legend may not be readily apparent to those too young to have seen Bird fly at his peak, or unable to understand and appreciate his non-attenton grabbing, sometimes subtle style of greatness.
Any casual fan or non-fan can appreciate the spectacular athleticism of a Jordan. It takes a true aficionado to completely appreciate a more skilled, intangible and cerebral artist like Bird.
If one wants to get a quick glimpse into his greatness, Youtube "Bird's greatest passes or buzzer beaters" to get an idea or a reminder. Although it is just a short short story version of his many highlight plays, they can't nearly reveal the full epic novel of his tragic and transcendent career.
Interestingly, when comparing greats from different eras, the typically brought-up question of whether a player from "back then" could dominate today falsely assumes today's game is better because now players are a little faster, stronger and jump higher.
But basketball isn't track and field; it still is, when the rules are uniformly enforced, at best a team game of skill, smarts, conditioning, teamwork and athleticism. And the skill and teamwork facets of the game have largely been in decline over the past 20-25 years.
Tellingly, the reverse question is rarely if ever asked - could the biggest stars today have dominated "back then" when the league had fewer teams and was less watered-down, and there were far less star calls. Skill, running the court, unselfishness and crisp ball/player movement were emphasized and most big names were only allowed maybe one extra step (with notable exceptions for Dr. J and Jordan) instead of two, three or even four today.
Those extra steps permitted now on drives allow a player to author much more athletic finishes, creating an illusion of greatly evolved athleticism. But it is like comparing a one-step long jump to a running long jump. Of course one is going to leap farther with a run-up.
Unfortunately, most people tend only to remember Bird in the later stages of his career when a bad back and the Achilles injuries robbed him of his underrated athleticism. From 1979-83 under Fitch, with speedy playmaker Nate Archibald running the break, the Celtics were actually very much a fast break team.
At 6-9 Bird ran the floor well, had a reasonable 28-inch vertical leap and could dunk from beyond the dotted line early in his career.
McHale then emerged as an unstoppable low-post superstar in tandem down low with All-Star Parish, and Bird's injuries plus age slowed the Celts to mostly a precise halfcourt passing and shooting squad that almost all fans now associate them with - especailly in comparison to the Showtime, fast-breaking Lakers.
Of course, if Bird could gain an advantage by fooling people into thinking or going along with the stereotype that he could not run or jump well to get an advantage, Larry would do it because he cared primarily about winning, not how he looked.
The Celtics wore black sneakers for just that reason, since they make a player look slower. Seeing Bird play his final games in the 1992 Olympics on NBA TV replays a few years ago, it took me a moment to realize what was different about Larry than just the Team USA uniform he wore instead of Celtic green.
Then it hit me that the difference was the white shoes he wwas wearing (and wrist bands) he had not donned since his days at Indiana State.
Larry was not protoypically handsome, had zero bling and was not interested in being featured in GQ magazine, unlike so many hoop stars. On the court he was all about fundamentals, smarts, skills, competitive toughness and positioning.
Laker great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his autobiography that he knew something was wrong with Bird when he saw him play shortly before the Achilles injuries sidelined him, because he noticed Larry "was out of position at times, which he NEVER was."
Yet Bird also possessed plenty of flair, underrated body control and was exceptionally creative as a passer and shotmaker.
But Larry only made the flashy play when it was necessary, unlike today when too many want to artificially create the highlight play when the routine one is better and more efficient.
Bird's retirement, due to his singular greatness as a player and extremely rare characteristics, has left a gaping hole the NBA has tried unsuccessfully to fill for nearly a quarter of a century.
For Larry and the Celtics, November 15, 1988 marked when the end, sadly, began to come into view.
To contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at email@example.com.