Larry Bird may not be a great culinary artist.
But when his ice blue eyes surveyed the defense with a basketball in his hands looking for the slightest crack to exploit, he was like the greatest master chef of the court, slicing and dicing opponents with pinpoint passing via an unsurpassed combination of superb vision, touch, basketball IQ, unselfishness, timing and creativity.
Even though LeBron James is a tremendous and unselfish disher, he simply is not in Larry Bird's class as a passer. Assist numbers can be misleading and are partly subjective, and are also tied to a team's style and pace of play, as well as the quality of one's teammates.
After all, one can make the best pass ever, but if the target drops the ball or misses the shot, there is no assist. And today, there is a tendency to pad superstar stat lines and allow them to get away with regular rule-breaking to build interest and ratings.
After Bird and alongside James, the other best forward passers I have seen are Rick Barry, Billy Cunningham, John Havlicek and Chris Mullin. For that matter as far as centers go, Arvydas Sabonis and Bill Walton are head and shoulders above everyone else, with Alvan Adams, Jerry Lucas, Wilt, Kareem, Johnny Kerr and Jack Sikma among the other best pivot passers.
But none of the other forwards are really even that close to Bird's level as a creator and passer. Bird's well-crafted feeds literally created easy scoring opportunities, often out of nothing or from double teams, for his teammates.
Larry's concentration level was so high and focused that his quick mind seemed to see the game unfold in slow motion, allowing him to go through all his options in a fraction of a second in real time.
A fine memory and a scout's knowledge of every opponent and teammate added to his ability to pass since he knew everyone's limits and tendencies, their reach, favorite places to get the ball and who might gamble for a steal, among other details.
Larry also was a fine basketball psychologist who was able to get into the minds of opponents and teammates to know what would work best against them, and how to maximize and motivate his fellow Celtics.
James and Barry were very smart players yet probably rank two and three as forward passers behind Bird. They lack Larry's anticipation, his improvisational genius, his off the charts basketball IQ and monomaniacal dedication to the game, as well as his ambidexterity, touch (especially James) and flair. Bird was very arguably the smartest player in NBA history.
Shooting and passing, two phases of the game he was incredible at, correlate strongly to great concentration, touch, instinct for the game, hand-eye coordination, confidence, repetition and proper technique. Bird ranks at the top in all those categories, and much more.
Barry was a master at jumping to shoot and then at the last second hitting the open man with a snap pass instead of shooting. But Bird was also superb at that very rare skill which takes superb vision, the ability to make split-second decisions and knowledge of teammate and opponent positioning.
James tends to hold onto the ball a tick too long to draw attention to himself and thus make the shot a little harder for his teammate by giving the defense more time to recover.
Conversely, Larry was the master of the crisp pass, the touch pass, the lookaway that gave his teammates maximum time to finish. Seeing the play happen ahead of time, the ball rarely if ever stuck in Bird's hands.
No NBAer saw the play unfold ahead of time better than Bird - only Bob Cousy, Pete Maravich and John Stockton are in that class and had similar creative vision, yet all were shorter and could not see over the defense as well as Larry.
"He had the best hands, maybe, of anyone who ever played," said Indiana University coaching legend Bob Knight of Larry. "He had a mind like a camera."
His first Celtic coach, Bill Fitch, called Bird "Kodak" for his ability to take a mental snapshot of the court at any given time and thus know where all 10 players were on the floor.
And as a truly great shooter, he also had superior touch on his passes due to great hands and vision, and a willingness to pass, which many players and top shooters lack due to selfishness. Teams could not double Bird because the basketball savant would simply pick them apart by finding the best option and delivering the perfect pass.
When Bird burned a Laker double team with his cerebral passing during a February 18, 1990 reglar season game at Los Angeles televised nationally by CBS, play by play announcer Dick Stockton said of his crosscourt dime to Reggie Lewis, "Boston beat the Laker trap."
But analyst Hubie Brown quickly corrected his partner. "NO, no - BIRD beat the trap," he emphatically noted.
As respected hoops writer Bob Ryan has said, when rating the best passing forwards ever (with apologies to Barry, James and others), "there are no seconds or thirds, just others receiving votes" behind Larry Legend.
Not only do I think Bird is clearly the best passing forward in NBA annals, I feel he is very arguably the best passer ever, along with Stockton (I have only seen Cousy in brief film clips). John may have the inch for inch advantage, but was not as creative as Bird. But of course he ran the break as well or better than anyone ever has.
Stockton was a master at rifling a one-handed post entry pass off the dribble, seemingly putting it through the spaces between the fingers of taller defenders trying to harass him, but most of it was timing, vision and deception. Like Cousy, Stockton also possessed extremely large hands for a 6-1 guard that allowed him to control the sphere unusually well.
Certainly no one was a better decision-maker with the ball than those three basketball savants, and they made snap decisions that were invariably correct even in the shortest synaptic time spans, often under great duress.
Larry has one major advantage over Stockton and Cousy due to being eight inches taller than both, and thus was more easily able to see and pass over defenses. Like Stockton, Bird almost always hit his teammates perfectly in stride, in the shooting pocket, with a soft yet firm pass.
Bird was also a superb outlet passer, and thought nothing of throwing such passes 50-60 feet left-handed, being a natural southpaw. I can think of no other player who routinely threw good, long outlet passes with their off hand.
Bird made the hard pass look easy, unlike his rival Earvin Johnson, whose post-pass release antics, complete with leg kicks, lookaways, facial contortions, bug eyes, open mouth may have impressed the casual fan - especially the fair-weather, easily-amazed-by-flash, superficial LA fans in the glitz capital of the world.
But those useless actions did not make the pass any better in reality; they only gave Johnson more attention, which he craved.
James also has a tendency to draw attention to himself with post-pass antics, albeit not as dramatically as Johnson's almost constantly shameless showmanship. He got caught up in the illusion of nickname and living in beauty-conscious Los Angeles.
Bird's passes were much more subtle and did not draw attention to himself, unlike Johnson, whose every move was and often still is virtually aimed at gaining attention for himself.
Earvin always knows where the camera is and still often steals the spotlight from others, such as when Michigan State qualified for the 2009 Final Four and he was on the floor celebrating like a kid and member of the team, even though it was 30 years past his Spartan heyday.
Meanwhile, Jerry West's son Jonny was a reserve on the first West Virginia team to make the Final Four that same year since his famed dad had carried the Mountaineers within a point of the title 50 years earlier. Yet Jerry was nowhere to be seen stealing the spotlight.
Like Jerry West, Bird was exceptionally intense, introverted, serious and almost grim, the opposite of Earvin. Larry shunned the spotlight. He wanted his teammates to enjoy scoring and did not do anything to embarrass his opponents with his feeds.
Don't get me wrong, though. Johnson and James were/are excellent passers, and unselfish, although some of that stems from the fact that neither was a good shooter. James also would rather facilitate and pass in late-game crunch situations rather than shoot.
Johnson never even possessed a true jump shot, only a push shot he made fairly consistently when left wide open, ussually via double team kickouts from Worthy and Jabbar.
Anyway, Larry rarely held the ball and always gave the ball to his teammate at the right velocity and time, and almost always in the shooting pocket. James tends to dribble too much and throw the pass a tad late, after he has possessed it long enough.
By contrast, Bird's quick, crisp and unselfish (often touch) passes stimulated ball and player movement. No one threw the touch pass better.
And because he was such a superior shooter, shotmaker and scorer, it was even more unselfish of him to give the ball up so often when he could have easily scored, compared to much lesser shooters who were top passers like James, Johnson and Jason Kidd.
It is hard to quantify how unselfish Bird was. he could have averaged 35 points a game in his prime - he scored 29.9 ppg when he neared 32 with a bad back and two failing Achilles in 1987-88. He never came close to leading the league in shots taken, something Michael Jordan (nine times), Kobe Bryant and others routinely did.
When seeing Bird's best passes, it is interesting to note that many of them came off broken plays or loose balls, situations that lend themselves to improvisation.
Milwaukee, Portland, Atlanta and the Clippers seemed to be the teams Bird victimized most often with his wondrous vision, passing touch, creativity and unsurpassed hand-eye coordination.
In addition, many of Larry's best passes came in a halfcourt offensive setting against full defenses, a tougher needle to thread than the numerous fast break assists Johnson got with the Showtime Lakers (not to mention the notorious assist-padding the Forum was known to do for Earvin).
As he said many times, Bird was into degree of difficulty. He needed the challenge of making the hard play instead of taking the easy road, partly in order to stay highly motivated and to keep improving. For example, Larry rarely posted up smaller players like Michael Cooper, preferring instead to try and beat them on the perimeter and with fakes.
On the other hand, players like Robertson, Johnson and Jabbar rarely if ever missed a chance to post up smaller players and punish them inside. Oscar was the master of the backdown and mid-range jumper well before Charles Barkley did the eight-second backdown move.
With all that said getting back to passing, over all the thousands of good and great dishes Bird doled out, I am trying to boil it down to his very best. Because there was less TV coverage (and no Internet) when Larry played, some of his best feeds may have even been lost to history, at least on film if not in the memories of awed admirers.
Certainly he threw passes in his thousands of practice sessions that no one saw but the players and coaches, some of which may have been even better than many listed here. Those are lost to history, and reside only int he memory banks fo the Celtics who saw them.
However, thanks to Youtube many of his best game feeds are now preserved for viewings by old and new fans alike, thanks to fellow Bird-o-phile "Merkin Muffly" (look him up to see highlight compilations of his best passes).
"I always got a kick out of making the pass that helped a teammate score," said Bird. "I liked seeing that gleam in their eye when they scored...I think the game is played best when everyone is involved."
Christian Laettner recently told a story on ESPN that illustrates Bird's love for team play, and disdain for selfishness. Laettner said that during the 1992 Olympic Dream Team practices and scrimmages, Michael Jordan and Earvin Johnson constantly battled it out in an ego-driven battle for control of the team, and thus went one-on-one far too much.
Fed up one day by their relentlessly selfish play on arguably the most talented team ever assmebled, a disgusted Bird walked off the court and told the two that he "wasn't going to play if all they were going to do was go one on one."
Only a superstar of Bird's stature could have pulled off such a move and gotten away with it, and forced the two egomaniacs to share the ball more.
Bird may have developed his incredible eye for passing in high school when he was sitting out much of his sophomore season in high school with a broken ankle. Wanting to play badly as he took practice shots while on crutches with a manager rebounder, he was forced to watch from the bench and gained a new perspective on the game.
Of course, any great shooter has the touch and vision to be a good passer, if they are willing to pass. However, the timing, vision and creativity required to be a great passer are even more rare gifts.
His Springs Valley teammates recall a film session where Larry slapped a pass on the run through an opponent's legs for a layup assist. When asked how he did it, Bird just shrugged and laughed. It came almost naturally. From then on, he was hooked on passing.
When SV upper class teammate Steve Land was struggling to set their career high school scoring record in his last game, Bird told the coach to put him back in and "he would get Steve the record."
Sure enough, Bird came in and unselfishly fed Land with several good passes to set the school scoring mark.
Bird was also a master of the post entry feed, a lost art today due to a lack of good big men with inside moves - and also because guards today are far more interested in hoisting three's to feed the ball inside, especially at the formative high school and college levels, where the three line is temptingly short.
Bird frequently led McHale and Parish to the basket with perfect touch and timing, away from their defenders stationed behind or beside them to make the ensuing move easier. A true assist. Only Stockton and Johnson, and perhaps Robertson, rival him as a post feeder.
So without further ado, here are arguably his 40 best passes, at least in my opinion, since it was too hard to whittle the thousands down to a mere 10 or 20.
My top Bird feeders:40) In the first half of the 1979 NCAA finals, Bird hustled back the length of the court on defense against a Michigan State fast break to stymie the two biggest Spartan stars.
After a Sycamore miss and long rebound, Earvin Johnson tossed a running alley-oop pass from halfcourt intended for teammate Greg Kelser. But Bird anticipated the slightly under-thrown long lob, took off on one foot near the dotted line and made an astounding one-handed, mid-air snatch and steal of the alley-"oops" near the basket.
Just as impressive as the incredible steal was his subsequent court awareness, presence of mind and body control. As he came down full speed and shifted the ball to both hands to secure possession, he also landed first with his right foot, then with his left foot just inside the baseline. All while his momentum began to carry him out of bounds.
"Great play by Bird!" exclaimed NBC analyst Billy Packer, who noted that Larry had run all the way back on defense, almost 90 feet from end to end, to thwart the pass.
Veteran play-by-play announcer Dick Enberg yelled "What a play" and then let loose with his trademark "Oh my" which was muffled by the excited Packer and Al McGuire's "OHH, OHH."
"A standing ovation (for the play) from some of the fans, and they are not even in the Indiana State section," marveled Enberg.
But the flying steal was only the first part of the great play.
An instant after both feet had hit the ground, Bird took one quick hard dribble to keep from traveling, then rifled a 20-foot diagonal bounce pass to save it in to teammate Carl Nicks - all as he fell head over heels out of bounds, into a row of cameramen. And while avoiding a collision with teammate Leroy Staley and Spartan Kelser.
Talk about quickness of mind and hand.
"The Bird that flies the highest sees the forest," cryptically said NBC analyst McGuire in his New York accent, moments after the great sequence had settled in.
"Is that farthest or forest?" asked Packer, Al's infamous NBC foil.
"Faar-est," replied McGuire.
"I still don't know (understand)," chimed in a laughing Enberg.
No matter if he meant forest or farthest, the spectacular steal and save was simply classic Bird, and a play very few could execute - from first running back on defense, to anticipating the pass and snagging the airborne steal, then coming down and tip-toeing the sideline like an NFL All-Pro receiver before firing a difficult bullet bounce pass Nolan Ryan would have been proud of to Nicks as he fell out of bounds.
39) Many times the uber-competitive Bird would jump out of bounds quickly after a big opposition basket and rifle a full court pass to a streaking teammate for a key score - and to wrest the momentum back.
Two of the best examples of these feeds were a 90-foot bomb in the fourth quarter of a mid-1980s game against the Bulls that threaded past two flailing defenders to Kevin McHale for a layup; and
38) a 75-foot, quick step-out strike launched to Danny Ainge over a madly retreating Earvin Johnson and Michael Cooper late in game four of the heated 1987 Finals vs. the Lakers. Ainge made the layin but numerous bad calls late in this infamous contest (and many bad injuries) helped cost the Celtics a 16-point lead a possible banner.
37) At Madison Square Garden in 1986 vs. the Knicks, the best forward-center passing tandem in NBA history teamed up to show off their synchronicity with a pair of gems.
Posting up on the left block, Bird drew the double-team of 6-6 Ernie Grunfeld and 6-9 Ken "the Animal Bannister." As soon as Bannister doubled Larry, Bill Walton cut down the lane.
Bird tossed a two-handed alley-oop over his head perfectly to Walton for a flying layin. As he ran back downcourt, the big redhead smiled in glee, glad to be a Celtic after several injury-plagued seasons with the lowly Clippers.
In the same game, Bird curled off a Walton pick and took a pass near the left elbow. Larry reversed his field and dribbled toward the baseline. He then drove and jumped into the air as Knicks Louis Orr and James Bailey doubled him.
Again, showing their perfect teammate instincts, Walton rolled to the basket as Larry double-pumped a pass fake over Bailey before pulling it down and whipping it around his shoulder to Big Bill for a three-point play.
Smiling with his head down as he headed to the foul line, Walton extended his right arm and hand to Bird, who slapped it softly in celebration. Walton truly appreciated playing with, and as he likes to say, for Larry Legend.
36) In the first half of the 1979 national semifinals vs. DePaul, Bird drove into the lane, hung in the air and threw a left-handed pass behind his neck to a teammate, who missed an easy layup.
Almost as good was a mid-air lefty wraparound pass to a teammate, jump-starting a pretty give and go culminating in a basket by Bird to end the first half vs. DePaul in the Final Four.
35) Also in the first half vs. DePaul, Larry posted up, drove the baseline and gave a head fake to the Demon defense, and in the same motion fed a soft, nifty pass across the lane aroun the defense to Alex Gilbert for a resounding slam dunk.
34) Late in the 1979 NCAA semifinals vs. DePaul with Indiana State trailing 73-71, Bird cut to his right across the lane and received an entry pass from point guard Steve Reed. Since he had made an amazing 16 of 19 shots from the field that game, the Blue Demon 2-3 zone defense collapsed on Bird.
Expecting this, Bird jumped into the air, twisted his body and threw a nearly blind bullet two-handed pass back behind himself to Bob Heaton cutting down the baseline. Heaton laid in the basket that tied it late and led to a nailbiting 76-74 win.
In that game vs. Mark Aguirre and the DePaul iron five, Bird scored 35 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and dished out nine assists. Which shows the folly of the triple-double statistic. 35, 16 and nine, but no triple-double. Haha.
33) In a stated tribute to his one-time hated foe turned friendly nemesis Earvin Johnson, who had recently announced his HIV-induced retirement in the fall of 1991 shortly before Bird's final season, Larry threw a long behind the back pass in the season opener vs. Charlotte (a 111-108 Celtic win) to recognize Johnson.
76er superstar Charles Barkley also switched his jersey number from 34 to 32 just for that 1991-92 season to recognize Johnson. Ironically, Johnson and Bird each wore 33 in college, but Earvin had to switch to 32 in the NBA when he joined the Lakers because six-time MVP center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar already owned that number.
In a further irony, Charlotte Rookie-of-the-Year and number one overall draft pick Larry Johnson was making his NBA debut in that contest.
At that time, LJ was the subject of a Bird/Earvin Johnson commercial where the veterans were conjuring up the "perfect" player to follow them in a witch's cauldron, and came up with "Larry Johnson" by combining their games - as well as their first and last names. Of course, injuries and a lack of game kept LJ ultimately from even approaching their level.
32) On the opening tip-off of the 1979 Final Four epic vs. DePaul, skywalking Sycamore Alex Gilbert hit the tip to Bird near the midcourt circle. In midair, Larry leaped and slap-passed a one-handed NO-LOOK feed in stride 30 feet ahead to teammate Carl Nicks for a layup on the very first play of the contest.
31) In a surprisingly difficult 1982 eastern semifinal playoff series vs. a very physical Washington club, Bird was double-teamed near the top of the key by bruising Bullets Rick Mahorn and Greg Ballard.
Dribbling with his back to the basket, he suddenly rifled a 20-foot, two-handed over the shoulder pass perfectly in stride to Kevin McHale cutting through the lane, and number 32 dropped in a patented short fadeaway over Spencer Haywood.
30) Against Washington in the early 1980s, Bird jumped in the air to receive a pass near the Boston bench along the sideline and rifled a 22-foot two-handed touch pass crosscourt amid traffic to Nate Archibald for a transition layup.
29) At Golden State in the magical season of 1986, Bird was trapped on the right baseline by seven-footer Joe Barry Carroll and burly 6-7 Greg Ballard. After picking up his dribble, he tossed a one-handed underhand scoop pass to a cutting Bill Walton - THROUGH THE LEGS of Carroll.
28) Diving recklessly between Hawks Glenn Rivers and Dominique Wilkins to secure a loose ball he had dislodged from the Human Highlight Film, Larry then threw a perfect left-handed outlet pass 35 feet upcourt around the defense - while on his back - to Ainge for an easy fast break layup.
27) After grabbing an offensive rebound going away from the hoop on the right baseline, Larry looked to be out of room as he drove behind the basket just outside the lane in a game vs. the Hawks at New Orleans.
As number 33 got to the edge of the lane he was met by the close guarding of 6-10 Scott Hastings, and picked up his dribble. But Larry simply moved to his right as he went nearly out of bounds and delivered a blind wraparound pass behind Hastings through close quarters to a cutting McHale for a layup.
26) While dribbling in the backcourt at the Garden vs. the Bulls in the mid-1980s, Bird leaped into the air as a Bull defender aggressively charged at him for a steal. Larry avoided him and a turnover by throwing a midair 40-foot, behind-the-back pass up the sideline to Quinn Buckner.
25) In a 1985 game at Boston vs. the Rockets, Bird slapped the ball away from Rodney McCray and dove for the loose sphere in the deep right corner while sliding on his back between McCray and Lewis Lloyd.
After recovering the ball, Larry managed to turn his body as he slid between the duo and fired a perfect 17-foot pass over the pair to open teammate Ray Williams along the sideline - from his backside - just before his momentum carried him out of bounds.
24) A fake behind the back pass in game two of the 1986 Finals at home vs. the Rockets forced almost the entire Houston defense to bite on the feint, and when he brought the ball back around to his front side, Bird uncorked a pretty wraparound feed to fellow Hoosier Jerry Sichting for a short left baseline jumper.
In the same game, Bird went up to shoot a long jumper, spied Robert Parish open underneath and selflessly passed it to the Chief for an easy layin.
23) On defense in the backcourt during a mid-1980s contest at Portland, Bird quickly slapped the ball away from above the head of unsuspecting Kiki Vandeweghe in the deep backcourt.
Larry then dove to the floor to recover the loose ball, dribbling it to himself Globetrotter style to avoid traveling, as he fell while also keeping the ball away from Terry Porter and another Blazer.
From a seated position he then turned his body and perfectly fed Kevin McHale streaming down the lane for a slam dunk. The NBA - where amazing happens, 1980s style.
22) Against the Bulls at the Garden in the 1986 playoffs, Sidney Green grabbed a defensive rebound and appeared to have an easy outlet pass to Chicago guard Kyle Macy.
Bird started to run back on defense, then faked out Green as he stopped and blindly anticipated the outlet, turning to picking it off in front of stunned fellow Hoosier Macy.
To top the play off, Larry faked a pass around Green while being double-teamed to buy time for a teammate to come back downcourt, then fed a lefty underhanded scoop pass to Dennis Johnson for a layup.
21) Larry stole the ball with a hard slapaway from Bullet Ladell Eackles near the foul line, and while going to the ground to recover the ball he was bumped hard by Eackles, yet he managed to tap a one-handed pass to McHale for a layup against Washington in the mid-1980s.
20) In game four of the 1981 eastern semifinals at Chicago, Bird led a 3 on 3 fast break down the middle of the court. As he neared the top of the key, Larry lobbed an unusual underhanded pass high over the defense off the dribble to Rick Robey filling the right lane, leading him to the hoop so the 6-11 center would not have to dribble.
Bird's beer-drinking buddy then laid it in over David Greenwood to complete the unique transition bucket.
19) During a mid-1980s contest vs. Atlanta at the Garden, team defense roamer extraordinaire Bird anticipated an entry pass to Kevin Willis, stepped in front of him and batted a chest pass away into the air.
Larry then chased it down, caught the ball in midair near the deep corner, and with the seven-foot Willis draped all over him, launched a perfect 88-foot baseball pass to Parish for a layup.
18) While driving along the right baseline against Milwaukee in the 1987 playoffs, Bird threaded a perfect bounce pass through the legs of Jack Sikma right in stride to Robert Parish past a trailing Paul Pressey for an easy one-handed stuff.
17) Being very closely guarded by 76er Reggie Johnson in the closing moments of a big game, Larry protected the ball with his crouched body while dribbling the ball. He then spun past Johnson and as the clock ran down, fired a head down, lookaway pass to his left off the bounce to McHale for a game-clinching slam dunk.
16) In game five of the 1987 eastern finals vs. Detroit, a missed Celtic missed bounced high off the rim not once but twice before Bird timed the second carom perfectly and re-directed the ball by tipping it left-handed just over the head of frozen Piston Adrian Dantley to McHale for an easy layup.
15) Bird literally jumped and dove through the lane past Sidney Moncrief to take a loose ball away from the slower-reacting Paul Mokeski, who had been much closer to the loose leather, during the 1987 playoffs at Milwaukee. While on the floor Bird then turned and hit McHale for a simple layup while sitting on his backside.
14) As Boston hosted the Spurs in the mid-1980s, Bird dove for a loose ball on the sideline in front of the Celtic bench, barely beating a San Antonio player to the ball. After he collided with the Spur player, Larry twisted and threw a perfect left-handed over the shoulder bounce pass ahead to Danny Ainge as he went face-first to the parquet.
13) Stationed approximately 30 feet from the hoop on offense vs. Atlanta's halfcourt zone press in the early 1980s, Larry took a reversal feed and immediately threaded a long bounce pass back against the grain through the middle of the scrambling Hawk defense perfectly to Cedric Maxwell, who was slicing through the lane for an easy layin.
As then-Hawk coach Hubie Brown corrected play by play man Dick Stockton many years later as a CBS commentator after another great Larry dish burned a Laker zone - "No Dick, BIRD beat the press by himself."
12) Against Indiana in an early 1980s game at the Garden, Bird out-quicked several players to a rebound, tapping it away in the air toward himself along the baseline.
Chasing down the loose ball, he planted himself just in bounds, leaped along his defensive baseline and grabbed the ball out of the air, THEN fired a length of the court feed to Cedric Maxwell, who then hit ML Carr for a fast break layup, robbing Larry of the assist.
"Are you SERIOUS?" screamed then-ESPN NBA commentator and ex-Detroit (Pistons and the collegiate Titans) coach Dick Vitale.
11) In game four of the 1987 eastern semifinals at Milwaukee, Bird posted up along the low left block, drawing a Buck double-team of 6-9 Terry Cummings and long-armed 6-5 defensive ace Paul Pressey.
At precisely the right time, he faked the Bucks out by looking over his RIGHT shoulder while firing a no-look two-handed backhand pass over his LEFT shoulder to an open Parish for an easy layup.
"How did he see him?!" exclaimed CBS analyst and an excellent passing forward himself, Billy Cunningham, from courtside.
10) At the end of game four between the rival Celtics and Lakers in the 1985 NBA Finals before a packed Los Angeles Forum crowd, the game was tied 105-105. Boston had the ball, down 2-1 in the series and desperately in need of tying the Finals.
Everyone in the tense, loud Forum expected Bird, the premier clutch shooter in the NBA, to take the last shot. Amid the din he curled off a low screen to receive a pass beyond the right elbow, but time was running out.
He dribbled into the circle against the defense of 6-9 Bob McAdoo. As he penetrated, Earvin Johnson dived down to help out and tried to swipe away the ball. Bird anticipated the attempted steal as he split the double team and protected the ball well, pulling it away from his nemesis.
For a steal at this most critical of junctures would mean overtime on the road at the very least, and at worst maybe even a breakaway winning basket by the whippet-fast Lakers against the unprotected backcourt - and a 3-1 deficit in the championship series.
Almost in the same motion as he split the swarming top two defenders, Larry left his feet and whipped a perfect pass out to Dennis Johnson, who had been left open by the doubling Earvin to Bird's left and behind him, 20 feet away.
Most superstars would have forced a shot in an attemt to win the game, but not the prescient and unselfish Celtic great.
Instead, Larry's soft pass surprised the Laker defense and hit DJ deftly in his shooting pocket. The clutch Celtic guard stepped into the shot and launched a perfect jumper that swished through the cords just before the buzzer sounded, giving Boston a 107-105 victory that sent the partisan Laker crowd into depression and tied the title series 2-2.
It wasn't the most flashy or spectacular pass of Bird's long and storied career, but it was one of the most meaningful, clutch and substantial.
9) In what turned out to be the final home game of his legendary Celtic career, in game six of the 1992 eastern semifinals vs. Cleveland Larry put on one of the greatest passing displays of his career.
In 37 minutes, Bird gave an incredible passing clinic that brought a raucous Boston Garden crowd to its feet time and again, and this assist is representative of several similar ones he passed out in that historic game.
Bird dished out 14 assists to spark a series-tying 122-91 Boston blowout of the Cavs. Perhaps the best pass he threw was a beautiful wraparound pass that led long-time teammate McHale perfectly to the hoop on a textbook pick and roll play for an easy layup. But all of his feeds that special day combine to be worthy of high mention on this list.
"Larry Bird is holding class on the art of passing," crowed Celtic announcer and Boston Hall of Fame forward Tom Heinsohn. "Professor Michelangelo..."
8) Throughout the draining and memorable Boston 23-game 1987 playoff run, Bird made many incredible passes. One of the best was a superb, subtle and quick feed that took place in almost the blink of an eye.
First he out-fought several Bucks and teammates for an offensive rebound under the Boston basket in the conference semifinals vs. the Bucks.
Then as he fell out of bounds while corraling the loose ball, he nonchalantly tossed a true no-look lefty pass over his shoulder right past startled, unsuspecting Milwaukee center (and frequent Bird victim) Sikma as well as teammate McHale directly to Parish for an easy dunk.
The dish was reminiscent of an even better pass Bird made several years earlier past Sikma, but I am getting ahead of myself...
7) In an early 1980s game at Boston against Dallas, Bird had his left baseline driving shot blocked and recovered by former Michigan State foe Jay Vincent. His pride and temper roused, Bird quickly chased Vincent down from behind along the sideline by the Celtic bench and stole the ball back with an angry but clean smack-away.
Larry then dribbled past Vincent with a nifty crossover and tapped a one-handed, lookaway pass off the dribble past Bird-watching Maverick big man Pat Cummings to Cedric Maxwell for an easy layup as he ran back on defense.
6) In the final regular season game of the 1986-87 season, first place in the East was still up for grabs as Boston hosted the up and coming young Atlanta Hawks (look up their laughable "Nothing Can Stop Us" music video for "Atlanta's Air Force").
The Celtics were 58-23 and the Hawks 57-24 coming into the finale, with the all-important homecourt advantage on the line for an aging, injured Boston squad in the upcoming eastern playoffs.
But this game would be all Gang Green as the Celtics ran out to a 93-77 lead and won handily, 118-107.
Highlighting the big victory was a classic piece of Larry Legend hands, snap decision-making and passing creativity. Ahead of everyone running out on the fast break, Larry showed off his great hands first by grabbing a slightly-overthrown 65-foot lead pass from DJ as he raced toward the basket while being hotly pursued by Hawk seven-footer Kevin Willis and 5-6 Spud Webb.
But Bird was going too fast and was too far under the hoop to shoot when he snared the long bomb. Unable to shoot, in one motion Larry instead grabbed the long aerial and without looking as he went out of bounds, passed it around his head and over his right shoulder past the stunned Atlantans to a trailing Parish, who threw down a resounding slam dunk that brought the house and the cocky, high-flying Hawks down for good.
It was the most spectacular of the 14 assists Bird doled out that day. Oh, and he also added 32 points for good measure to clinch the all-important top seed in the rugged East.
5) Larry threw far more spectacular passes in his career, but arguably his most meaningful dish was a fairly simple pass executed at the very end of game five in the 1987 eastern finals during that incredibly heated series vs. the bad boys of Detroit.
Most everyone recalls Bird's great sucker-bait steal on the floating, hurried Isiah Thomas in-bounds pass with time running out and Boston down by a point. But few remember the calm, cool and clear-headed vision it took to complete the play.
For Bird first had to corral the loose ball while tightroping the baseline. Nearly out of bounds when he snared the orange, it appeared Larry kept his heels in the air to avoid possibly stepping on the line while surveying the court from his behind-the-backboard position.
Tick. Would he shoot it over the corner of the backboard as he did vs. the Rockets the year before, or try a hook shot from 15 feet? Tick...
DJ suddenly flashed into the picture, cutting cleverly to the hoop. Larry, without hesitation, fed the ball softly and right in stride to Dennis.
DJ then put Boston up 108-107 with a shot that was more difficult that people think, a driving right-handed layup from the left side that nestled into the hoop high off the glass. Thomas futilely rushed in for a rebound that never came, desperate to make up for the error that would haunt the rest of his career.
One second remained on the clock as the Garden shook. Yet always in the game competing until the final buzzer, Bird was the only Celtic who rushed back on defense to guard against a long pass. DJ cleverly jammed the Detroit in-bound passer as the rest of the Garden bellowed perhaps as loudly as it ever has, forcing a timeout by the shocked Pistons.
"Oh my, this place is going crazy," screamed Celtic radio play by play announcing legend Johnny Most from his perch high above the parquet floor.
Sidelined by injury, Walton smiled gleefully on the bench, raising both arms in triumph after the incredible game/season-saving play.
"Everyone hated the Pistons," he recalled later. "Isiah Thomas made a play he will remember the rest of his life...I wasn't surprised though. I see Larry make that (type of) play every day in practice."
During the ensuing timeout the crowd noise reached a crescendo as the break in the fierce action allowed the enormity of the preceding play to fully sink in.
After the Piston timeout advanced the ball past halfcourt, Bird again came up big. The ball came in to Bill Laimbeer for last-second desperation try, but Larry anticipated the pass again and smothered him along the sideline. The flustered Detroit center lost the in-bounds pass before he could even get off a potential long winning trey to preserve the epic victory.
Celtic guard Danny Ainge noted years later on the NBA TV show celebrating Bird's 50th birthday with his 50 greatest moments, "I think that was Larry's greatest play...a combination of determination and destiny. Everyone had pretty much given up except Larry. But Isiah made a big mistake - he forgot about Larry. How could you forget Larry Bird was on the court?"
4) In a late-January 1980 Sunday game vs. the San Diego Clippers during his rookie season, Bird put on a masterful display of all-around brilliance for the nationally-televised CBS audience.
The game was likely scheduled for broadcast as a Bird vs. Walton showdown by CBS execs before the campaign, but the matchup never materialized as Bird's oft-injured high school idol was sidelined by foot surgery and out for the season.
Larry had extra motivation for the outing since Clipper forward Sidney Wicks, a recent ex-Celtic who had been cut by the team early in Bird's first pre-season, had made some unseemly remarks about Larry being the latest white hope in Boston.
Wicks' ex-UCLA runningmate Curtis Rowe was also in on it as well with some rough training camp play directed at the heralded rookie, as Bird recalled years later on the 2012 NBA TV special "Bird and Magic: A Courtship of Rivals."
But in typically tight-lipped Bird fashion, he would not divulge exactly what happened. However he did note, in his understated way, that Sidney and Curtis were not with the team the next day.
Anyway, in this game Bird was on fire, scoring a then-career NBA high of 36 points. At one point he burned Joe Bryant (yes Kobe's dad) on a classic fake so badly that the journeyman forward also known as Jellybean was clearly infuriated by the spectacular rook.
On the memorable play, Bird caught the ball along the left baseline near the basket, guarded so closely by Bryant that the Clipper forward was practically in Larry's jersey.
Responding instinctively to the overly-tight defense, Bird faked a pass around Joe's back, and when the completely-fooled Bryant turned to look where he had passed the ball, the clever Bird pulled it back and softly swished a 10-footer over the embarrassed veteran.
However, Larry saved his best actual real pass for last. Late in the 131-108 Boston blowout win, Bird received a long feed for an easy breakaway fast break layup. Nothing but clear parquet awaited him for an uncontested dunk that would cap his career game perfectly with an exclamation point on national TV.
But instead of taking it in for the showboat slam as almost every other superstar would have done - can you imagine Jordan, or Kobe not doing so? - Larry instead looked to his right and saw third-string center Eric Fernsten filling the lane, running hard.
So Bird, who always had a soft spot for the hard-working reserve type teammates who received little playing time or glory, unselfishly gave the ball up to the seldom-used big man.
Fernsten slammed in perhaps the most satisfying dunk of his NBA career. Eric scored just 517 total points (including 175 that season) in 218 games spread out over six NBA campaigns with four teams, interspersed by three years playing in Italy during a journeyman career, yet those two had to stand out.
CBS analyst Keith Erickson, a former star at UCLA and long-time NBA swingman with the Lakers, Bulls and Suns, raved from courtside about the unselfish dish.
"That is the type of play that gives you goosebumps," said an admiring Erickson. Indeed.
After Bird was taken out of the game for good amid many Garden cheers moments later by hard-nosed coach Bill Fitch, Larry passed unceremoniously by his future Hall of Fame presenter toward his seat on the bench.
But the normally hard-to-please Fitch made it a point to grab Bird and congratulate him face to face on his superb play.
3) In a 1986 regular season blowout of the Clippers at the Garden, Bird crashed the offensive glass between Marques Johnson and former Celtic Cedric Maxwell (sending Cornbread flying out of bounds) in pursuit of a miss and snared the carom ONE-handed AS HE FELL onto his back along the sideline nearest the Boston bench.
Seeing his basketball soulmate splayed out on the parquet, the quick-thinking Walton alertly cut through the lane calling for the ball as Larry was lying flat on his back, legs spread out wildly while maintaining possession of the ball after a slight bobble.
From his prone position, Bird rifled a perfect one-handed pass to a cutting Walton between the two Clippers for a Big Red dunk over 6-10 Richard Anderson.
The added irony of the play is that Walton had been traded from the Clips before that season for Maxwell, simply making a great play even greater.
2) At the 1980 All-Star Game in Landover, Maryland, eventual first team all-league forward Larry Bird was a rookie reserve, unlike his more popular but less-accomplished rival, Earvin Johnson, who was undeservingly voted in as a starter ahead of better veterans like Dennis Johnson and Paul Westphal.
Indeed, Bird would end up being a landslide Rookie of the Year award winner (63-3 in voting over Johnson), as well as first team all-league, an honor Johnson would not attain until 1983.On the final play of regulation, a cold Bird came off the bench and with the score tied, the other All-Stars interestingly deferred to the rookie who had barely shot all game.
But he left a 20-footer that would have won the game on line but short just before the buzzer. Johnson celebrated briefly by clapping almost in Bird's face after the miss as he walked by him toward the West bench, and an angry Bird would make amends in OT. The miss merely set the stage for a far greater finish.
In the extra session the determined Celtic rookie drained a long left corner deuce. On the next possession, he splashed a left corner triple from almost the same spot to put the East up to stay.
Then came the coup de grace. Larry grabbed a West miss and started the fast break with a long outlet pass. Not content to stay back and watch the play unfold, he hustled downcourt and followed the action.
When teammate Moses Malone missed in close and the loose ball was batted around before bounding out erratically toward the middle of the lane, the trailing Larry went airborne, reached back for the ricocheting ball and almost blindly pulled off a miraculous feed.
With his left hand, he batted a shockingly brilliant pass on a line about eight feet just over the head of frequent Bird victim Jack Sikma and Earvin Johnson to teammate George Gervin for an easy reverse layup.
"That was phenomenal, that flip pass," gushed CBS commentator Hot Rud Hundley, no stranger to flashy plays as an imaginative Laker guard of the early 1960s.
"I don't believe he saw George Gervin," exclaimed Brent Musburger. Making the play even more memorable was that his body had been twisted somewhat away from Gervin as he rose up to slap the ball out of midair.
NBA action like that was truly fan-tastic, as the league's highlight commercials back then trumpeted.
The spectacular, quick reflex tip-pass clinched the 144-136 East victory, and showed off Larry's exceptionally quick mind/hands, as well as his basketball genius for improvisation.
Bird, named as a reserve to the annual mid-season classic behind fan-voted starting forwards Dan Roundfield and Julius Erving, only played 23 of the game's 53 minutes, but he was clearly the star of the decisive overtime.
1) During a late February 1982 game early in his career vs. the Clippers at the Boston Garden, Bird chased down an offensive rebound that bounced out toward the right sideline near the baseline.
Before 6-10 Jerome Whitehead and 6-8 Michael Wiley double-teamed him tightly once he recovered the ball, Larry took a quick peek out of the corner of his eye to survey the scene.
Then after he grabbed the ball with his back completely to the basket while being crowded by the two big defenders, Bird authored a totally blind, two-handed, over the head diagonal BOUNCE pass that tighroped the baseline in the only spot away from the Clipper defense that it could go through in order to get through to teammate McHale.
Sensing the pass, Clipper guard Jim Brogan raced down the lane but was too late deflect the pass - something that Bird had impressively anticipated by throwing it away from the defense, with the bounce coming up over the baseline under the hoop but where only the long-armed McHale could snag it.
Big Mac was open under the basket and again was the recipient of one of many great passes he got from the Legend, and this time he threw down an emphatic two-hand dunk stuff to punctuate the incredible pass.
The forethought, caution to the wind gambling, cunning and sheer passing ability it took to execute such a high degree of difficulty pass put all of Bird's mental and physical passing talents on display.
As Celtic passing whiz Bob Cousy put it, the three players he saw or knew of that saw the pass develop ahead of time - and then were able to finish the feed - were himself, Ernie DiGregorio and Larry Legend.
High praise, indeed.
My All-Time Passer teams, by position:
6th man-Oscar Robertson
6th man-Jason Kidd
6th man-John Havlicek
All-time Passer/Shooter team
6th man-Chris Mullin
6th man-Jeff Hornacek
6th man-Brian Winters
If you wish to contact the writer, you can email Cort Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.