While it does not seem important to haggle over past Most Valuable Player awards won, when fans start arguing over who was the better player, such awards always play a key role in settling the debate.
How a player did in MVP voting - such as how often he finished second, third and so on, as well as first - is probably as important in determining a player's greatness over time. After all, only one person in a league of hundreds can win the MVP award, making the honor extremely elite.
It is important in terms of basketball history to get the MVP voting right for posterity and to simply be fair and correct before the sands of time, stereotyping, myopia and revisionist history obscure the truth - especially in the era before there was as much media coverage as there is today.
In my considered opinion, an MVP award won in the superstar-laden 1980s is also worth much more than those won in the expansion-diluted, athleticism over skill-oriented 1990s and 2000s.
To win a regular season MVP - let alone three - in a decade that featured all-time greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Earvin Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Kevin McHale and many more Hall of Famers was truly a monumental achievement.
When a player wins three regular season Most Valuable Player awards and two NBA Finals MVP trophies, as Bird did in the 1980s, most would rightly say that was incredible.
But I feel that for various reasons - mainly jealousy, lack of knowledge, political correctness and reverse racism - that Larry Bird should have won even more, and was unfairly denied at least two more season MVP awards and one Finals MVP.
In the 1980-81 regular season MVP voting, the uber-popular Julius Erving (the Michael Jordan of his time in terms of style and across-the-board fan love) nosed out second-year star Bird by a score of 454-423 points in one of the closest votes ever.
The veteran Dr. J received 28 first-place votes to 20 for Larry. Perhaps the voters also favored Erving because Bird was still a young player who had "yet to pay his dues" in the peculiar NBA pecking order that rewards veterans right down to the officiating.
Relative newcomer Bird received a big publicity build-up by the sagging NBA and had exceeded expectations as he revived the flagging Celtics. But in so doing, he probaby ruffled some feathers.
Erving was the league's ambassador at the time, a gracious, articulate and smooth player almost universally beloved. Bird was rough around the edges, a bit brash, not as polished. The classy Doctor J made the playground style of basketball he brought from New York and the ABA mainstream because he did it well with style, elegance and without trash talk and poor actions.
Larry did not jump, dunk or drive nearly as well, but he was a much superior shooter, passer and rebounder. He just got the job done in a less superficially flashy manner.
In addition the well-spoken good Doctor was a media darling, always atop the best interview lists and very accomodating with the media. On the other hand the wary, reticent Bird was not forthcoming with the major media and was a self-proclaimed hick who spoke in a southern Indiana drawl.
Each forward was first team all-league and led their fiercely competitive clubs to a 62-20 record. However, Bird and Boston won the tiebreaker after defeating Philly in a fierce regular season finale.
The victory gave the Celtics home court advantage for the playoffs, and they eventually captured the title after rallying from 1-3 down to beat the 76ers 4-3 in as good a playoff series as has ever been played in the 1981 conference finals.
Stat-wise, Bird averaged 21.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists and two steals per game in 1980-81. He shot 47.8 percent from the field, 86.3 percent from the foul line and 27 percent from three-point land.
Erving averaged 24.6 points, eight rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.1 steals per game. He shot 52.1 percent from the floor on much closer attempts, 78.7 percent from the foul line and 22.2 percent beyond the arc.
Laker center and six-time MVP winner Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a distant third-place finisher with eight firsts and 286 total points.
Although Bird's edge in stats over Erving is slim, his intangibles widen the gap. Larry was already a top clutch player, far more intense than Erving and a better defender.
Bird endured a lot of unfair criticism about his underrated one on one defense (especially pre-back injury) because haters wanted to nitpick his nearly flawless all-around game. The truth is he was such a great team defender that the league coaches voted him to the NBA all-defense second team three straight seasons from 1981-84.
Dr. J was a better shot-blocker, but he frequently gambled for steals and got burned or compromised his fellow defenders. He was often beaten on basic back cuts and on the offensive glass since he relied more on leaping ability than positioning and boxing out. His defensive fundamentals were horrible coming off five years in the wide-open ABA.
Erving was a rare case of a player who actually became a much better defender when he got older through smarts and hard work, but he never was a threat to make an NBA all-defense team.
No forward retreated on defense to guard against the transition game better or more often than Bird, whose keen court awareness at both ends was unsurpassed. Along with Jerry West, he was the best at breaking up three on two and two on one fast breaks due to his great anticipation, quick hands, knowledge of opposition tendencies and mental intimidation.
In addition, Bird and Boston also received the opposition's best shot each time out. Every team wanted a piece of the resurgent Celtics, the league's long-time bully who was back on top again after a brief decline, due mostly to the addition of Bird.
Right or wrong, the 1980's Celtics were largely perceived as a "white" team representing the so-called establishment due to their history and insistence on fundamental team basketball, right down to their black sneakers, all of which cut against the zeitgeist or grain as uncool. They were seen as a slowdown, low-post halfcourt club, even though the Celtics of 1979-83 were a running team. And the Boston teams of the previous decades always ran the break relentlessly.
The Bird-era Celtics, especially Larry, could be very creative and Danny Ainge was a great two-sport athlete. Moreover, they boasted several key black stars, namely Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell, Dennis Johnson and Nate Archibald - as well as two-time champion head coach in K.C. Jones.
After years of coming up short to Boston, the sympatheic 76ers and Lakers of the era represented anti-establishment cool, fast breaking dunks and flashy passing, embodied by Doctor J and Earvin Johnson. They were usually marketed as soulful jazz and improvisational more than structured, even though both clubs were more hard-hat and physical than perceived. These stereotypes helped the NBA sell the game to the public.
However, no one filled the lane better, ran faster and jumped higher than Sixer standout Bobby Jones, nicknamed "White Lightning." Doug Collins was incredibly quick and Maurice Cheeks was a classic pass-first playmaker and tough defender.
Jabbar was a very fundamentally-sound, un-flashy smart player as was fellow UCLA alum Jamaal Wilkes. Rugged defender/rebounders like Kurt Rambis allowed the less physical Lakers to concentrate on the French pastry part of the game, as Al McGuire called it.
Against this backdrop, almost every player who went up against the new Celtics led by young superstar Bird strove mightily to out-play him and Boston for various reasons. Among them were jealousy, the advance publicity he received, his team's highly successful history and quite frankly, because of the color of his skin. Playing Boston brought out the best in the opposition, lest you want to be embarrassed. They raised the level of competition like Duke does today.
Erving was the league's most popular player with the fans, media and significantly, with the other players. The admiration for the Doctor was so great that opponents did not play with the same consistent intensity vs. the gliding Erving and his 76ers as they did vs. Bird and Boston.
The fawning major media also showed its compassion/love for Erving, who had led Philly to the Finals in 1977 and 1980 only to lose in six games each time despite his spectacular effots, by voting him as the 1980-81 MVP to partly make up for his team coming up just short.
There was no such warm and fuzzy feeling toward the much younger and unapologetically hard-nosed Bird, who was not skilled or too concernd about dealing with the media either at that time.
But Bird showed who was the better all-around player by leading Boston to a 4-3 series win over Erving and the rival 76ers in a thrilling seven-game eastern finals. Bird outscored Dr. J 26.7 to 19.9 ppg in the series, led all players in rebounds and was second on Boston in assists.
Larry Legend also sank 42 of 47 foul shots in the pressure-packed series (89.4 percent) and hit the winning shot in the final minute of game seven to break an 89-89 tie that gave Boston an epic 91-90 win. He also came up with two big late steals and a clutch defensive rebound in a crowd off a Darryl Dawkins miss before dribbling upcourt and banking in the seres winner.
Meanwhile, the normally ice-cool Erving choked late and threw two passes right to Celtics down the stretch as the scrambling Boston defense held the Sixers without a basket over the final five-plus minutes. Behind Bird's incredible intensity, Boston rallied from an 89-82 deficit to cap a third straight comeback victory.
In addition, Bird's leaning 19-footer late in game six caromed off the rim, bounced high into the air off the glass and dropped softly into the hoop to key the 100-98 Celtic victory that tied the series, 3-3.
As Celtic center Robert Parish said, "We won that series because of Larry's leadership (and skills). He wouldn't let us lose."
In the anti-climactic 1981 Finals, a drained Bird averaged 15.3 points and team-high totals of 15.3 rebounds, seven assists and 2.3 steals per game. He also topped Boston in minutes per game (42.8) and was the main reason, by far, why the Celtics won the two most important contests of the bruising series: game one and the game six clincher.
Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell scored a team-high 17.8 ppg and grabbed 9.5 rebounds while adding 2.8 assists. The savvy, gangly 6-8 forward shot 56.8 percent from the field compared to 41.9 percent by Bird, but most of Larry's shots were from much further out and were contested against the tough defense of Rocket stopper Robert Reid.
Reid's sole defensive assignment, on the orders of Houston head coach Del Harris, was to stick like glue to Bird and not worry about helping out at all. And for half of the series, he did a creditable job on Larry Legend.
Yet even when his shooting was off, Larry found other ways to help his team win, the sign of a true all-around player. Bird's superb passing set Max up for many easy shots inside, and the defensive attention he drew from the entire Rocket team, not just Reid, opened things up for all of his teammates. Bird shot 81.3 percent from the foul line compared to 75.9 by Cornbread.
Bird did suffer through a shooting slump in the series, but he broke out when it mattered most. At the end of game one, the Celtics were clinging to a 96-95 lead with under 30 seconds left.
The upset-minded 40-42 Rockets led much of the game against the drained Celtics, who had just won three straight barnburners over the rival 76ers by a combined total of five points, including the game seven thriller on Bird's 14-foot bank shot which touched off a wild on-court celebration after the victory.
Bird's defensive rebound and long outlet assist to a leaking out Maxwell for a breakaway dunk finally gave Boston the lead in the fourth period after trailing much of the game vs. the upstart Rockets. Yet scrappy Houston hung close, and trailed just 96-95 as the final minute arrived amid an uneasy, tense Garden, poised to pull off the unthinkable.
Just about every Celtic on the floor took a shot in a relentless possession except Bird, who was moving furiously without the ball in an attempt to get a shot, to no avail. Chris Ford made two exceptional saves to keep the ball alive, and Parish missed twice.
Finally Bird got his hands on the ball by grabbing a weakside offensive rebound, his 20th carom of the contest. He was clearly fouled from behind by Moses Malone as he missed the first putback try, but no whistle was blown in the wild melee under the hoop.
In a huge crowd of players, Larry showed exceptional toughness and persistence as he grabbed his own miss taking a page from Malone's book. He gave a head fake to freeze the defense, and then crossed under the basket along the baseline where he banked in a pretty left-handed reverse layup. His clutch finish gave Boston a hard-fought 98-95 lead with just 16 seconds left, and that is how the game ended.
Bird tallied 18 points, grabbed 21 rebounds and dished out nine assists in the win, just one helper away from a triple-double in his first Finals contest.
Cornbread tallied 10 points as Bird led six Celtics in double figures on nine made field goals. Amazingly in such a physical game, Bird did not attempt a single free throw, hinting at the lack of star calls given at that time compared to today.
In game two Bird again led Boston with 19 points while Max tallied just six. But the Celts lost a 92-90 grinder as Archibald missed a long jumper just before the buzzer.
The scene shifted to Houston for game three, where Boston blew out the Rockets, 94-71. Maxwell led six Celtics in double digits with 19 points, while Bird was held to eight.
Max paced Boston with 24 in game four, but Rocket guard Mike Dunleavy poured in a career-playoff high 28 points to lead Houston to a 91-86 upset that tied the series. Bird, struggling with fatigue and the swarming Rocket defense, was held to eight again.
Back in Boston for game five, the Celtics asserted themselves by racing to a 59-37 halftime edge en route to a 109-80 blowout. Cedric netted 28 points and the double-teamed Bird hit for a dozen while selflessly setting up teammates with his deft passing.
In game six, Larry broke out of his offensive slump in a big way to push the pesky Rockets on the brink. Boston built an 86-67 lead early in the fourth quarter and appeared headed for an easy clincher.
But with Bird resting, Houston rallied to score 16 unanswered points and creep within 86-83 late in the contest. With the packed Summit crowd rocking, Bird simply took over and quieted the hungry throng.
He quickly nailed a long jumper. Bird then made a sideline in-bounds pass, took the return feed and dribbled to the left baseline where he swished a difficult pull-up jumper over tough defense.
Larry then canned another shot from the top of the key before showing off his all-around brilliance. Bird drew a charging foul, later stole the ball and had another jumper from the circle nullified on a dubious palming call, something that would never be called today. His lob pass feed into Max resulted in another big basket on a layup.
Then Bird, already carving out his reputation as a clutch finisher in his second season, delivered the crushing blow that clinched the 13th Celtic championship by swishing a corner three-pointer.
The usually-poker faced Bird, who had never won a championship at any level, swung his fist in the air after canning the backbreaker. His nine-point barrage had buried the Rockets and paced a 16-8 closing spurt.
For good measure, he grabbed the final defensive rebound amid a crowd with great hands off an airball Dunleavy triple try to secure the title. Bird tallied a game-high 27 points and snared 13 rebounds in the clincher.
The bruising Malone, who rarely shot outside eight feet, made only 40 percent of his shots in the brutal, slow-paced series as Houston ground the game to a crawl in an attempt to control tempo and slow down the Celtics.
Despite always planting himself near the basket, Moses grabbed only six more rebounds (98-92) in the rugged series than Bird, and frankly about half of the 46 offensive caroms Moses corraled were off his own missed bunnies.
Yet Malone, who took 119 shots in the series, 26 more than Bird, was not criticized for his very poor shooting from close range, while Larry was put down by the major media for not shooting at his normal pace or scoring as much. All this despite the facts Houston's halfcourt defense was geared to contain Bird and that Larry took much more difficult, longer shots.
Even crusty Boston coach Bill Fitch, rarely if ever satisfied and notably stingy with compliments, complained disgustedly that Bird "deserved both MVP awards" after Erving and Maxwell were given the season and Finals honors over Bird.
Max scored 19 in the finale, but the man he guarded much of the series, Reid, tallied 27. Bird guarded Reid some too but covered 6-11 veteran Billy Paultz much of the series as the Rockets deployed an earlier version of the Twin Towers before Olajuwon and Sampson updated it five years later - yet that duo was also conquered by the Celtics in six games in the 1986 Finals.
Certainly Max played well, was a fine inside scorer, unsung defender and a clutch player in the 1981 and 1984 title runs. But he rarely shot outside eight feet, whereas Bird's mere presence and marksmanship stretched the defense and opened up the interior for Cedric, who benefited from Larry's superb post feeds.
Undoubtedly, Bird was more valuable and instrumental in the Celtic triumph due to his superior all-around skills, presence and intangibles.
Thirty four of Max's 57 rebounds in the series came on the offensive glass, where he scored many easy baskets as Houston focused on Bird. Cornbread definitely had a nose for the offensive boards, but he also liked to leak out on the break and not do the dirty work on the defensive glass.
By contrast, Bird snared a whopping 76 defensive rebounds (12.7 per game in the series) while Max pulled down just 23 (3.8 per game). Larry's 76 defensive boards were an impressive 24 more, four more per game, than the next closest total of 52 in the series amassed by the 6-11 Malone.
Bird's superb passing was underlined by his series-best 42 assists, made all the more impressive since he was a forward with fewer touches playing in a slowdown series where the average score was 96.5-87.6 due to the Houston slowdown tactics.
Celtic point guard Archibald, who had the ball much more than Larry, passed out 33 assists in the six-game series while no Rocket amassed more than 25.
Obviously, it is much easier to run up high assist numbers playing in a fast-breaking system and Finals like Earvin Johnson did for the Lakers in 1980 and 1982 - plus the Forum statisticians were also notorious for padding assist totals to begin with.
A year before, Earvin Johnson was having a pretty good but not great series through five games. But then his game six monster effort with Jabbar injured clinched LA's second title and gave the rookie a dubious Finals MVP (1980 league MVP Jabbar had averaged a whopping 33.4 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.6 blocks a game in dominating the first five contests of the 1980 Finals).
Even though Jabbar missed game six with a severely sprained ankle, he still compiled far more points (167-129), more rebounds (68-67) and blocks (23-2) than Johnson did in SIX games. In addition, Jabbar had valiantly come back from a severely sprained ankle late in game five to deliver the game-winning three-point play that gave Los Angeles a 3-2 series lead.
In fact, the writers had voted Jabbar the MVP originally as the series closed. But with the unpopular Kareem resting his ankle back in LA, the NBA PR machine persuaded a re-vote, and this time the popular Johnson, on the strength of a massive 42-15-7 effort in the sixth game upset at Philadelphia against the over-confident 76ers, was given the MVP.
Plenty of mythology has arien around that game as well, mainly in regards to Johnson supposedly playing center, WHICH IS TOTALLY FALSE, as 76er center Darryl Dawkins wrote in his autobiography. Johnson was in the center circle for the opening tip, but did not even jump.
He guarded Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks, 7-1 non-scoring forward Caldwell Jones and Erving at times, but not Dawkins, the 6-11 low post Philly behemoth. It was underrated Jim Chones, a 6-11 center for years with Cleveland converted to power forward with the Lakers, who played center and was backed up by burly backup power forward Mark Landsberger, a tremendous rebounder.
Not to mention that Johnson was a below average defender whose deficiencies were hidden in college at Michigan State by the Spartans almost exclusively playing a tough 1-3-1 matchup zone. He never even came close to making an all-defense team.
After Pat Riley took over LA, the Lakers deployed a halfcourt zone trap and a thinly-veiled zone defense to make up for Johnson's lack of lateral movement in guarding much quicker, smaller guards.
Johnson also got away with constantly palming the ball and traveling. He also received the most star treatment of the decade, regularly jumping into defenders to initiate contact which he embellished with screams and flailing limbs.
But he got away with because he was "Magic." The real magic was he how fooled the public despite so many holes in his game and personal off-court behavior, and still does.
The fable of Johnson playing center was created by the center circle opening tip-off, the major media, CBS play-by-play hypemeister Brent Musburger and an NBA PR machine desperately seeking marketable new stars.
The league seized on the smiling Johnson as a new superstar face of the league when the new decade dawned over the sullen, older and unfriendly 7-2 Jabbar, who had dominated the league's disappointing second half of the 1970s (the NBA was called the sport of the decade as the 1970s started, but interest waned when the media darling/big-market Knicks, Lakers and Celtics declined and a streetball style took over the NBA after the ABA merger).
The enigmatic and occasionally surly Jabbar was disliked for his detached demeanor, for changing his name and religion to Islam, as well as for his languid play and for being too big and too unstoppable with his hook shot. His beard and goggles provided the perfect metaphor for his largely self-imposed estrangement from the fans.
Before his great sixth game in 1980, Johnson was averaging 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists per game, good but not great numbers. Ironically, it was a wide margin in the Rookie of the Year voting announced earlier on that game six day that helped spur Johnson to such heights.
Earvin expected to lose out in the voting to Bird, who clearly authored the better season and led Boston to an NBA record 32-game win-loss improvement with a league-best 61-21 record.
Johnson helped LA improved from 47 wins to 60, but the Lakers already boasted All-Stars Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon all in their primes. Johnson merely helped make a good team great. Bird took a bad team with the same cast, including three over-30 starters in Archibald, Ford and Dave Cowens, and made the Celtics great.
When Johnson found out Bird had won the rookie award by a 63-3 landslide vote, he was angered and supremely motivated to play his best that night in the Jabbar-less upset over the 76ers, who clearly let down and did not know how to play the faster, smaller Lakers without Kareem.
In fact, suspicious 76er head coach Billy Cunningham said later that he was still expecting Jabbar to take the court, a la the injured Willis Reed 10 years earlier in game 7 of the 1970 Finals, for game six until shortly before tip-off.
In 1982, Johnson was again given a suspect Finals MVP award despite averaging 16.2 points per game in an anticlimactic six-game win over the 76ers. Somehow his 0.9 ppg more than Bird was seen as laudable, while Bird received much criticism and an MVP snub for his "mere" 15.3 ppg in the 1981 Finals - even though he led Boston in rebounds, assists and steals.
In 1982 Johnson's Finals points per game average ranked fifth on the balanced Lakers, and many observers, including Basketball Digest, felt Norm Nixon (17.7 ppg, 10 apg) or Bob McAdoo (16.3 ppg off bench and a few key blocks vs. Dr. J in game six) deserved series MVP honors.
But the ever-smiling, interview-seeking Johnson got the award again from his adoring media, whom he always went out of his way to accomodate and schmooze, unlike the uber-serious, sullen and unpopular Jabbar.
Johnson did average 10.8 rebounds and eight assists a game, but the 6-8.5 Laker was being guarded most of the series by 6-1 Philly guard Maurice Cheeks and the 6-3 Lionel Hollins! And LA had no other real good full-time rebounder to share the glass with. Jabbar was next at 7.7 boards per game while Kurt Rambis grabbed 6.5 caroms a game in just 20 minutes per outing, and played 130 less total minutes in the series than Johnson.
The huge size and weight advantage Johnson enjoyed would be like 6-3 Houston guards Dunleavy and Tom Henderson guarding the 6-9 Bird in the 1981 Finals, not long-armed 6-8 defensive ace Reid. With such a mismatch, Bird would have easily averaged over 25 points and 15 rebounds a game, and probably more.
In 1981-82, Bird again finished second in another close season MVP voting, this time to Malone (507-456). This despite the fact Larry was much better all-around than Moses, and led Boston to the league's best record for the third season in a row at 63-19 - 17 wins better than the 46-36 Rockets, who also played in the weaker West.
Bird scored 22.9 ppg in a much more balanced offense than the one-dimensional Malone. Larry grabbed 10.9 rebounds a night, dished out 5.8 assists and added 1.9 steals and 0.9 blocks a game. He shot over 50 percent from the field and 87 percent from the charity stripe.
Moses scored 31.1 ppg as the total focal point of the Rocket offense and led the NBA in rebounding (14.7), but actually grabbed less defensive boards a contest than Bird (8.6 to 7.8). Malone yanked down 6.9 offensive caroms a game, which is a bit misleading and bloated since roughly half of those came off of his own very frequent close-range misses.
The bruising Moses, who was pretty much a black hole, tallied just 1.8 assists a game. Malone took a quarter of his team's shots, while the unselfish Bird took 4.5 fewer official attempts per game. The center shot 52 percent from the floor and 76 percent at the line, and tried a whopping 10.3 foul shots per game. Meanwhile, Bird attempted just 4.9 free throws a game.
Certainly Bird was far better all-around and an infinitely more skilled player than Malone, whose rugged game was restricted basically to the paint, offensive rebounding, drawing fouls and getting in the first (and often second) blow on his aggressive inside moves.
"One time, just one time get him with the first foul!" Fitch screamed at the refs, to no avail, during game 2 of the 1981 Finals.
But in trying to show they were not racist, many of the almost totally white major media did not vote Bird for 1982 MVP. As I mentioned before, Larry did not help himself by being frequently unfriendly with the print media, as well as not very telegenic.
There was also a sense that Boston had won too much by then as well (what I like to call "Green-is envy"), and rivals like the flashier, fan-friendly Erving and Johnson were more popular than Larry. Plus, Bird had enjoyed a big publicity build-up that he managed to surpass, and there was a backlash for all the publicity.
There also was still a ridiculous undercurrent which questioned if Bird really was that great. In truth, he was that rarest of superstars, one who was even better than advertised. But because he looked different than the stereotype basketball great, wasn't handsome, overly fast or a great leaper, his immense skills and subtler intangibles were under-appreciated by a fan base increasingly enamored with unnecessarily flashy play.
This is shown by the All-Star fan voting, where Johnson was voted a starter as a rookie while Bird, who was the far superior player early in their careers, was not even voted as an All-Star starter his first two seasons despite being first team all-league each of his first nine seasons (Johnson was not first team all-league until his fourth season in 1983). Erving also received considerably more All-Star more votes than Bird.
Atlanta Hawk forwards John Drew - JOHN DREW! - and Dan Roundfield were voted as starters ahead of Bird alongside Dr. J in the 1980 and 1981 All-Star Games. But fan favorite Johnson was voted in right away as a starter in 1980 as a rookie, ahead of more deserving, established all-league veteran guards Dennis Johnson and Paul Westphal.
In 1982-83, Malone again beat out second-place Bird for the season MVP, although Moses deserved it this time after leading the 76ers to a 65-17 record, nine games ahead of Boston, and won the league crown.
Still, after finishing second three years in a row after a third-place showing as a rookie, Larry and his fans had to wonder what he had to do to win an MVP.
It was not until 1983-84 that Bird finally broke through to capture the official season MVP award he could have won in any of his first four seasons. Larry again led Boston to the league's best record (62-20) for the fourth time in five seasons, and ultimately guided the Celtics to their 14th crown.
Yet in a player's vote the league, which was approximately 70 percent black, voted one-dimensional New York scorer Bernard King as MVP over Bird. This despite the fact Boston finished well ahead of the Knicks, and Larry whipped King in every statistical category except ppg, which was close at 26.1-24.2 in favor of King. Not to mention his edge in intangibles.
Bird out-rebounded Bernard 10.1-5.1, doled out more assists (6.6-2.1), made more steals (1.8-1.0) and even blocks (0.9-0.2). King did have a better field goal percentage, but that was because he rarely shot outside 12 feet, while Bird often shot from 17-25 feet.
Larry shot 88.8 percent from the line to 77.9 by King, who did not make a three-pointer all season, showing his lack of range. Bernard's main scoring move came from a lightning-quick release on a 10 to 14 foot baseline turnaround jumper that he fired just before he reached his peak, throwing the defense off.
By contrast the better-balanced Bird scored from all angles and distances, and with both hands as the NBA's most ambidextrous shooter.
Bird went on to win the NBA season MVP again in 1985 and 1986, and he remains the only non-center in league annals to win three consecutive MVP awards. In that incredibly dominant three-season span, Larry Legend also won two Finals MVPs (1984 and 1986) and led the Celtics to the league's best record as well as the championship series each season.
It is doubtful any player ever put together three better, higher-achieving seasons in succession, especially when one considers the stiff team and individual competition of the decade.
Bird finished third in the 1987 MVP voting as Johnson won his first season award, and Larry came in second in 1988 to Jordan, who also won his first MVP that season. Only age and injuries ended his unprecedented run in 1988-89 when doubles Achilles surgery ended his 10th season just six games into the campaign.
So from 1980-88 Bird won three season MVPs and two Finals MVP awards, finished second four times in the season MVP voting and third twice. He led Boston to three championships and five East titles. In reality, he should have won three Finals MVPs (1981-84-86) and five season MVPs (1981 and 1982, in addition to 1984-86).
When fans want to argue that Johnson was better than Bird, they usually point to his team winning more titles (5-3) and more MVP awards (three season MVPs and three Finals MVPs).
Of course had the Lakers played in the much tougher East and Boston had not suffered numerous injuries that cost them titles in 1982 and 1987 that LA captured, part of that argument would be reversed. Not to mention that if Len Bias had lived, Boston may well have run off five or six more titles before Bird retired.
Less speculative is that Larry was pretty clearly denied at least two season MVPs in 1981 and 1982 which he deserved, and the 1981 Finals MVP which he also earned. That would take his numbers to five season MVP awards and three Finals MVPs.
Those tremendous numbers, made all the more impressive by the extremely great competition of the era, would make the argument for Bird as the game's greatest all-around player ever much more persuasive.
Whether he officially won those 1981 and 1982 MVP awards or not does not detract from his true greatness. In fact it may even make him greater since Larry never complained publicly about the snubs. He simply answered with his outstanding play, using it as further motivation to keep improving his game.
In any case, his career achievements were arguably as great as any player. "I've already proven a (supposedly) slow white guy who can't jump can play this game," he said in mid-career, proud tongue firmly planted in cheek.
He sure did, and then some, even if he should have won more MVPs.
If you wish to contact author Cort Reynolds directly, you can email him at email@example.com.