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Larry Bird's historic club-record scoring outburst took place 31 years later to the day

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How and why Larry Legend burned the nets (and the Hawks) for 60 points on March 12, 1985

Tim DeFrisco/Getty Images

On March 12, 1985, Larry Bird authored the greatest scoring game in the hallowed 70-year history of the Boston Celtics.

On that night 31 years ago today, Bird singed the nets for a Celtic record and career-high 60 points against the Atlanta Hawks in New Orleans.

Bird bombed in 37 of his points in the second half with a remarkable perimeter shooting display - punctuated by an incredible 11 points over the final 1:56 of play.

In addition, Larry Legend scored the last 16 Celtic points of a 126-115 win to torment some of his favorite victims, the Hawks and Dominique Wilkins.

Atlanta coach Mike Fratello, who was to be the victim of another more famous Bird onslaught in the fourth quarter of game seven in the 1988 conference semifinals three years later, recalled that going into the game at New Orleans - the occasional Hawk home away from home back then - that he thought Atlanta had a chance to knock off the defending champions.

"I heard before the game that Larry had had a very late night the previous day before the game," said Fratello. Bird liked to drink beer and undoubtedly had enjoyed the Bourbon Street atmosphere on a rare trip to the Big Easy.

But he would find out the hard way that Bird's late night revelry would not deter his rare sharpshooting display that night.

Kevin McHale had burned Detroit for 56 points (and 16 rebounds) just nine days earlier on incredible 22-28 field goal accuracy and 12-13 foul shooting in a 138-129 shootout victory at the Garden.

So accurate that day was Kevin that when he missed for the lone time late in the game, a few in the adoring home crowd jokingly booed him.

Bird tallied 30 points, 15 boards and 10 assists himself in the win, and could have had several more assists had his teammates finished some other brilliant feeds. Late in the game Bird passed up an easy shot off an offensive rebound to dish McHale a slick underhand pass for a layin. Kevin scored his last three hoops off great Bird assists.

But nine days later in New Orleans, the Bird-nicknamed "Black Hole" was in the unusual role reversal of feeding Larry instead of Bird setting him up with pinpoint passes.

Bird had prophetically predicted after Kevin's 56-point outburst that "he should have kept scoring...the record will soon fall," and now Big Mac was helping him erase his own hard-earned mark just over a week later.

But that showed the level of high esteem Kevin and his teammates held the unselfish Larry in. For Bird had repeatedly assisted Kevin with unselfish assists down the stretch of the game nine days earlier as McHale broke Bird's Celtic regular season record of 53 points in a game.

Bird tossed in 23 points in the first half vs. Atlanta on March 12, a great half but not comparable to what was to follow in the final two periods.

Capping a beautiful fast break vs. the Hawks, McHale hit Bird in stride with a perfect 2-on-1 one-handed bounce pass that led to a pretty Bird layup near the end of the third quarter.

Moments later Larry then made one of his many great shots that night. Receiving a long outlet pass from Parish, he drove in one-on-one at Hawk rookie seven-footer Kevin Willis with a staccato stutter step move, freezing the big man in the lane. He was setting the kid up with typical Bird forethought and cunning.

Before the soon-to-be victimized big man could get to him, Bird lofted a running 14-footer off the fast break over Willis and his short arms. The ridiculously improbable shot arched about 18 feet up into the air before dropping down and swishing straight through the net just before the end of the third quarter.

It was a difficult running shot few players would even have the audacity or creativity to take, let alone make. Yet as such it was vintage Larry Bird.

As he went back on defense one could sense the excitement on Bird's face as his normally poker-faced countenance was tinged with redness due to the rare pleasure he was feeling.

As the fourth period began, even the grim perfectionist Bird allowed himself a brief smile as he took a short rest on the bench. Larry was clearly enjoying his red-hot shooting night and appeared very loose, his skin flush with pride.

Future Dallas championship coach Rick Carlisle talked to him about his incredible shooting and patted Bird on the left shoulder, almost afraid to touch the magic right arm. Seated to his right, Ainge leaned forward to the edge of his seat on the pines and smiled in child-like delight at Larry's unreal perimeter sniping.

When he returned in the fourth quarter, the Hawks found out that Larry had not cooled off at all. He buried a long right wing triple, then had another trey try rim in and out from almost the same spot on the floor.

Ironically, he made only one three-point field goal among his 22 baskets that night. In fact, Bird nailed 22 of 36 field goal tries (21 of 32 on two-pointers), and hit on 15 of his 16 foul shots.

He then made a fadeaway 17-footer from the right side over a Hawk defender. "That is his pet shot, that fallaway," noted Hawk color analyst Charlie Criss, a 5-8 former guard for Atlanta out of New Mexico State.

Bird then uncharacteristically missed one of two free throws as he reached 49 points. After a technical was called on Hawk assistant Ron Rothstein, Larry drained the ensuing foul shot for his 50th point.

But less than two minutes remained for him to break McHale's team record. Kevin had scorched Detroit for 22 baskets on just 28 shots and a dozen foul shots on March 3 to narrowly surpass the previous franchise mark of 54 points set by John Havlicek, also against the Hawks, in the 1973 eastern semifinal playoffs.

A focused Bird swished two more free throws.

On the next Boston possession with Wilkins hanging all over him, Bird patiently backed him down near the left baseline in front of the Hawk bench. He then stepped back and drilled a 20-foot fadeaway off his left foot with his right leg stuck into the air, right in front of the disbelieving Hawk bench. Fifty-four points.

Then with Wilkins bodying him up tight and hard in the right corner, allowing him no wiggle room, Bird leaned forward into Wilkins and knocked in an off-balance 21-footer from almost behind the backboard - all the while keeping his concentration completely on the rim. "That was a tough shot," Criss admitted. Fifty-six points.

"You are watching the best in the game of basketball," gushed Hawk and future Yankees broadcaster John Sterling about Bird and the defending champion Celtics.

"The Hawks always play Boston well, though. The green wave is rolling tonight as it has many times against the Hawks. Atlanta is a young team playing well, but Boston is just a better club."

Criss explained that "when you play against the best, it brings out the best in you." He reluctantly agreed with Sterling when the Hawk announcer noted that Charlie had been on the receiving end of many such Celtic "green waves."

McHale then committed an intentional foul to stop the clock and give Bird a chance to break the team record.

Like the shot he made from directly behind the basket against Houston in Hartford the next season, Bird's best shot of the amazing night was one that didn't even count - even though it should have.

Larry was tied with McHale's team record of 56 and was looking to break the mark with a true flourish. He rubbed off a baseline screen and popped out to the left wing where he received a pass from DJ.

The 6-9 Celtic legend turned to the basket, gave a head fake from 27 feet out on the left wing, then drew body contact from a faked-out Hawk as he leaned to his left in front of the Atlanta bench.

As the whistle blew and he bounced backward from the contact into Hawk trainer Joe O'Toole, Bird kicked out his legs for extra oomph and let fly with a high-arching bomb. The improbable launch soared high into the air and seemed a literal long shot to even come close to going in as many eyes were drawn to the fallen Bird.

Then-Hawk guard and future Celtic coach Doc Rivers reported that Bird called out "rainbow" as he shot and fell into the Atlanta bench.

The shot's incredible degree of difficulty multiplied the surprise of the fans when the bomb descended toward the hoop, looking as if it mght actually go in. And as if it were a computer-guided missile, the bomb miraculously rattled around the rim and ripped through the net almost angrily. Larry had simply willed it in.

In response, the crowd erupted and two Hawk players at the other end of the bench fell off their seats after the ridiculous shot went in. Others Hawks on the bench simply put towels over their head in sheer amazement and embarrassment at being burned so badly.

But the potential four-point play was waved off as being too late for continuation, and a frustrated Bird knelt on one knee in front of O'Toole on the Atlanta bench in response to the ruling that his spectacular shot did not count. The crowd did not seem to mind or even realize it at the time though, as they roared their incredulous appreciation.

Had it counted, Larry would likely have had amassed 64 points. For good measure, he added seven rebounds and three assists in 43 minutes of play.

Celtic guard Quinn Buckner added that "Larry was so hot that night, even the Hawks were giving high fives to each other on the bench." Their celebrating was much to the consternation of Fratello, who fined the celebrating Hawks.

Fourteen years later when Bird was coaching the Indiana Pacers in the 1999 conference finals, an almost identical four-point play by Larry Johnson of the Knicks right in front of Larry was erroneously counted by the officials, helping lead New York to an upset of Indiana.

Bird, who possesses a fine memory, almost certainly flashed back to his own four-pointer that was disallowed when LJ's was counted. The officials later admitted they made a mistake on the Johnson shot since they allowed him to take a dribble (whereas Bird hadn't dribbled on his shot), re-set his shoulders and then shoot after contact was made.

Yet after his shot was waved off, the disciplined Bird quickly regained his composure and concentration. Many players would have been so pleased at making such a shot, and/or upset at having it discounted, that it would have distracted their concentration at the foul line.

But not the laser-like Bird. He cleanly canned the first of two free throws to break McHale's record as the PA announcer informed the crowd of his record, much to the split throng's delight.

Even though it was officially a Hawk home game, many in the audience were Celtic fans wearing green and displaying signs such as "Celtics Give Hawks the Bird." The ones who weren't Boston or Bird followers were still caught up in the once-in-a-lifetime chance to vicariously experience his dramatic shooting display.

After his record was broken, between free throws Kevin walked over to Bird and high-fived him in congratulation, clearly happy for his hard-driven teammate. In a rare public display of affection, Larry responded by tousling Mac's deep black mane. The shoe was on the other foot as Bird was the one who was getting to shoot in rare unrestrained fashion instead of feed.

It was also Bird's way of re-asserting his status as alpha dog on a super team featuring four Hall of Famers and an All-Star among its starting five.

With his seemingly on-demand showing, he was sending the message to the rest of the team that in his prime he could score 45 or more on almost night he wished, so they needed to be as prepared as him to play every night out or he might just take over the offense.

After the foul shot, Ainge also walked over from the left side of the foul lane and shook Larry's hand. Totally in the zone, Larry then cleanly canned the second free toss for his 58th point.

Doc Rivers banked in a three-pointer from out front in the final seconds, giving Boston one more possession with an eight-point lead. Bird missed badly on a long right wing triple try, but the rebound bounced out long to DJ.

The Celtic guard prepared to shoot a 24-footer, but then he saw Bird running wide-open to the circle area, so he coolly and unselfishly hit Larry with a perfect, soft pass in stride as number 33 cut towards him into the center of the key. It would be DJ's 17th assist of the night.

Bird caught the ball in rhythm and let fly at the buzzer over the outstretched arm of 6-6 fellow Hoosier native Randy Wittman. Fittingly the 17-footer splashed perfectly into the center of the net to complete a 126-115 win and put an exclamation point on his career-best scoring night.

Bird hugged DJ as McHale and several other teammates including Wedman, Buckner and Carlisle mobbed him at midcourt. Swept away in the emotion of his performance, his eyes closed briefly and his face was in an ecstatic yet relaxed state. Larry put his left hand on the head of Dennis as a circle of teammates surrounded him.

Ray Williams, a former rival for the Knicks and now a Celtic reserve guard, smiled broadly and admiringly while shaking Bird's hand as if to somehow inherit some of his magic touch. A year before, Williams and Rory Sparrow had tackled Larry from behind on a breakaway layup in the playoffs.

Now he was a nearly star-struck teammate. The crowd, liberally sprinkled with Celtic supporters and Hawk fans, stood and roared its approval as Larry exited the floor.

Many reached out to touch him and shake his hand as he walked down the tunnel toward the locker room.

"It's the greatest shooting exhibition I've ever seen," gushed Sterling. "Others have scored 60 or more before, but he made so many tough shots.

"Plus, Larry Bird isn't just a scorer who shoots all the time," Sterling added. "He is one of the greatest playmakers (passers) in the game. Larry Bird, Larry Bird, Larry Bird," he summed up.

Indeed, Bird could have enjoyed many more nights of 40 and 50-point games had he been more selfish, a la Jordan or Bryant. He knew he could score almost at will in his prime, yet he chose to involve everyone in the offense and settle for 25-30 points a game.

Unlike baseball with its set batting order where everyone basically gets the same amount of at bats, in basketball a person's character is revealed in part by how many or few shots a player takes since there is more free will and room to create involved in the game.

Plus, it takes more unselfishness for a great shooter and scorer like Bird to pass up shots he knws he can make in order to involve his teammates. But that is what Larry did, unlike othergunners like Wilkins, Jordan and Bryant, to name a few.

"I always felt the game was better when the ball is shared," said Bird of a basic fundamental that has been lost in today's me-first, instant gratification world.

Bird got as much as pleasure from setting up a teammate to score as he did from making a shot. The same can't be said of many other one-on-one oriented so-called stars of yesteryear and today.

But on that night 31 years ago, Bird was so hot and his teammates were feeding him so much that he was able to be a little more self-indulgent shooting the ball than usual.

"That (shooting) exhibition surpasses anything I've ever seen," admitted an admiring Criss, who was a solid shooter himself. "He put on a clinic."

But when Sterling, the Hawks play-by-play man, reiterated several times that Bird was "the best in basketball" and "the greatest in the game," Charlie was curiously silent and never once agreed, nor offered a different viewpoint - perhaps tellingly. The most he could muster was "he is a player; he's definitely a player," in a gross understatement.

At the time Bird was not just a player, he was definitely THE BEST player in the world, in the midst of an unprecedented three-season run of all-around greatness that saw him win three consecutive season MVP awards and two Finals MVPs.

Indeed, to this day no non-center has ever won three straight NBA season MVP awards. No one.

By 1985, Jabbar was then 38 and well past his prime. Michael Jordan was a mere rookie and Earvin Johnson stood clearly behind Larry, having been first team all-league just twice in their first five seasons, while Bird was first team All-NBA all five years and on his way to a second consecutive MVP award.

Yet Criss would not admit the obvious point regarding Bird's preeminence, not publicly at least.

Even though Bird captured three straight MVP season awards from 1984 through '86 - with two bookend NBA playoff MVP awards in 1984 and 1986 - there seemed a reluctance on the part of a few to admit the obvious.

Perhaps some of it was "Green-is envy", some of it was reverse racism, some of it was a lack of understanding Bird's multi-layered and unique combination of skill, talent and creativity.

Some of it probably came from the fact that Larry just didn't look like the stereotyped notion of a basketball superstar that had been ingrained into the brain of the average fan mesmerized by superficial, often unnecessary highlight plays and brainwashed into automatically thinking whites just were not as good as blacks in basketball.

Yet even in the other year of 1985, the only time in that three-year span he missed winning both the season and Finals MVP, he led Boston to the championship series despite injuries to Maxwell and himself, and would have been Finals MVP again had they won.

But Criss, who was otherwise charitable about Larry's all-around game after agreeing with Sterling that Bird was a great passer as well as shooter, still would not concede that Larry Legend was the best in the game at that time.

Incredibly, Boston was credited with 44 assists on the 52 baskets the slick-passing Celtics sank that night. Ainge added 13 assists to DJ's 17, while McHale even passed out five helpers while Robert Parish yanked down 19 rebounds.

With some of the best individual games in his career coming at the expense of the Hawks and often vs. Wilkins (who scored 36 himself in the game), it seemed like Bird was making a statement - that he could score better than Dominique if he wanted to, but that he preferred to play a more all-around, unselfish style of game.

And when a team's superstar leader - as well as the best player in the world - conducts himself that way, it forces everyone else to be unselfish, and more coginzant of sharing the ball and passing.


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