In recent years, there has been a lot of talk over who is the best “small” forward in NBA history, the incumbent Larry Bird or the challenger, LeBron James.
Of course since James has a far more unique first name than the pedestrian Larry, fits the visual stereotype and has a superficially flashier style of play, and is the beneficiary of much greater media coverage and Internet play today as a current standout - many succumb to now-ism and an an over-emphasis on flash and superior speed/leaping ability, and thus tend to think James has somehow surpassed Larry Legend.
Basketball, far more than other major team sports, has created a fan mindset that values or prioritizes style points as much or more than simply getting the job done, especially compared to baseball, hockey or football. Football especially celebrates the big uglies (linemen) who do the unspectacular grunt work.
But in hoops there is far too much emphasis on artistic offensive style, often of a very superficial or unnecessary variety. Isiah Thomas has called this mindset “winning plus”, where simply winning or getting the job done is not enough. How smooth or cool one looks from shoes, tattoos, jerseys and overall appearance to style of play counts more than efficient quality production, particularly in an increasingly visually-oriented society.
Wearing far less clothing than other sports and being much closer to the fans in the stands than other sports also sets basketball apart, and places more value on appearance. You can actually see a basketball player’s face and expressions as opposed to football players in helmets or other sport players in 80,000-seat stadiums.
So if a player doesn’t look as smooth or play like the stereotypical superstar many fans been brainwashed and/or accustomed to seeing, they tend to suspect they are not as good as others who are flashier, especially someone who looked like Larry Bird.
To the vast majority due to his physique and easily appreciated physical style of play, LeBron James also simply looks and plays much more like an NBA all-time superstar than the subtler, almost everyman-looking Bird to them.
Recently I had a college-age LeBron fan, clad in a new gold James Laker jersey, smugly brag with certainty that he was the greatest player of all time. When I simply replied that I thought Larry Bird was the greatest player ever, he sneered and without even giving Bird’s candidacy a single thought, immediately and disdainfully intoned that Larry was “not even close.”
Of course, he reached this uninformed opinion probably without even knowing much or anything of Bird’s career stats/history, his overall edge in the phases of the game, or having even seen Bird play, except perhaps in a few video clips.
And those clips probably came from the second half of his career when Larry was riddled with back and Achilles injuries, which reinforced the misconception that Bird was not very athletic. Not to mention the fact that Bird’s game was more subtle and less superficially attention-getting than that of James.
As far as position goes James, since he handles (read monopolizes) the ball far more than Bird ever did, has really evolved into much more of a guard than a forward over the last several seasons.
I would argue that virtually EVERYTHING James has attained in his career, and he has accomplished a lot, is tainted by constant uncalled traveling, palming, and offensive foul violations. If one cannot see these regular and flagrant infractions of the rules, they are either brainwashed, don’t know the rules, don’t care and just wat tobe mindlessly entertained, and/or are just diehard James backers.
And don’t try to argue that everyone in the NBA travels, so what is an extra step? First, James and other superstars today get 2-3 extra steps, compared to the regular player, who is usually granted an extra step. The fact that NBA refs tend to actually call traveling fairly strictly on reserves and third stringers only proves that they really do know what walking is, yet choose to let it go when the big names do it.
NBA officials actually also call the difficult charge/block foul better than college and high school refs, but they again make obvious excpetions for the star players. The preferential treatment James gets is like letting Roger Federer hit into the doubles alley in a singles match, or giving Mike Trout five strikes an at bat. Already great players don’t need that extra edge to insure they will triumph.
James’s accomplishments are lessened as well as by having played his first 15 years in a historically terrible Eastern Conference with relatively little team or individual competition compared to Bird.
For most of LBJ’s career, the NBA (East) he has dominated is a diluted and bloated 30-team product dragged down by over-expansion, poor fundamentals and a product geared more toward entertainment than fierce competition.
The East was the weak junior varsity half of the league during LeBron’s tenure with Cleveland and Miami, whereas the East was incredibly top-heavy with great teams during Bird’s career. Thus the “eight straight years in the Finals” argument for James is incredibly weak. Put the Hall of Fame-laden Bird Celtics in the NBA of the past decade and they would have won 10 straight conference crowns and almost that many NBA titles.
The league Bird ruled over for a decade was chock full of super teamss and far more top of the line Hall of Fame players. The big rivals he and the Celtics conquered (namely the 76ers, Lakers, Pistons and Bucks) and faced usually featured four to five Hall of Famers and All-Stara in the lineup. The league since then has been full of champin teams featuring one or two big stars and several complemtary players.
Unfortunately this opinion is all too common today when unlike baseball and hockey, basketball does not respect or revere its past. Ask a fan who the greatest baseball player ever was, and the most common answer is probably Babe Ruth, even though he retired 84 years ago and dominated as a pitcher and hitter well before the color barrier was broken.
Others might say Willie Mays (1951-73) or Mickey Mantle (1951-68), and it is fairly commonly held by many baseball experts that Ted Williams (1939-60) was the greatest hitter ever. All of these players RETIRED LONG before Bird (1979-92) even played a game in the NBA, yet his memory seems somehow as distant or moreso as those aforementioned greats who starred well before him.
In hockey history, Wayne Gretzky is usually invoked when the greatest ever argument comes up. Fair enough, but old-timers might state a case for Gordie Howe, who played into his early 50’s up to the late 1970s, or Bobby Orr (1966-79), Bird’s Boston sports ice hockey analogue. Howe (Father), Orr (Son) and Gretzky (Holy Ghost) have been dubbed hockey’s “Holy Trinity.”
Gordie once said that if a player came along who was better all-around than Bobby, he hoped the good Lord would keep him alive long enough to see him. I’m not sure Gretzky wa sbetter than Orr, all-around.
As an aside, Bird was once asked at a banquet what he was usually gazing at high in the rafters of the old Boston Garden during the playing of the national anthem. When the normally tight-lipped Bird answered that he was looking at Orr’s retired Bruins number 4 jersey, the humble Bruin was stunned and moved to tears.
Like Orr, Bird came to Boston as a much-awaited savior from the hinterlands when their teams were at the bottom. Orr was only 18 when he arrived from the minors from northern Ontario, and by his fourth season the Bruins were Stanley Cup champions for the first time since 1941.
Hailing from small-town southern Indiana Larry was almost 23 when he came to Boston - although as a transfer the Celts drafted him as a junior-eligible in 1978, he stayed in college to finish his degree - and two years after they finished last in the East he led Boston to the title in just his second season to ignite the third Celtic dynasty.
In Bird’s first seven seasons, he led Boston to the best regular season record six times, despite playing in a loaded East with the 76ers and Bucks, and later the resurgent Pistons and Hawks.
Both Bird and Orr were quiet, taciturn and tough, proud players who led by example and fierce competitive drive.
Each was the consummate all-around player of their time, and led Boston to multiple titles while earning three consecutive regular season MVP awards (Orr from 1970-72, Bird 1984-86). Both could and should have won more titles if not for injuries and tough competition from other dynasties of the time like the Canadiens and Flyers in the NHL, and the Lakers/76ers in the NBA.
Orr (1970/72) and Bird (1984/86) each won two Finals MVP awards two years apart as well.
Each had their careers cut short, sadly, by injuries - Bird by a bad back and Achilles trouble, Orr by severe knee injuries that limited him to just 36 total games over his final three seasons, the last two of which were with Chicago.
Both played with a reckless abandon, especially early in their careers, that helped lead to the injuries yet set the tone for a renaissance for the Celts and Bruins.
Artis Gilmore, Larry’s Chicago Bull rival/friend (and later Celtic teammate), told Bird in his first season that “you better quit mopping up the floor with your body if you want to last in this league.”
Later in his career Bird recalled that he thought Gilmore’s advice “was crazy” but when the bumps and bruises had taken their toll by the late 1980s, Larry admitted that he now knew what Artis had meant - yet that he only knew one way to play, and that was all-out. And that he had no regrets.
Howe and Orr were better and much more physical defenders than Wayne, and Bobby was named the NHL’s top defenseman eight straight seasons from 1968-75. With his great speed, Orr amazingly led the league in scoring twice and changed how the position was played, opening it up for scoring defenders.
In addition, Gretzky played in an era where the rules were changed to help create more offense. Similarly, James has operated in an era of flagrant preferential star treatment officiating that has leniently allowed him to constantly travel and palm the ball, as well as garner favorable foul calls on drives where he regularly initiates contact on his freight-train forays to the hoop.
After a while, why would a defender get in his way when you are going to get trucked and probably get called for a foul? Not many do, until the playoffs, if then.
Not to mention James jumped straight from high school to the NBA and had four extra seasons to compile gaudier career stats, while Bird was not allowed to come into the NBA under the old rules until his college class graduated.
LeBron also benefits from much better sports medicine treatment than Bird or Orr did, which has helped allow him to steer clear of any major injuries well into his 30’s.
Gretzky’s stats surpass everyone else by such a large margin that the argument is usually ended in his favor. Plus he had a great nickname (the Great Gretzky, a play on the character the Great Gatsby from the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald novel), is universally well-liked and won several titles with Edmonton.
In truth Gretzky was most like Bird, a contemporary blonde sports savant who did not appear physically imposing but had great skill, vision, touch, passing skills, creativity and determination.
While attending an NBA Finals game at LA between the Lakers and Celtics, Gretzky was asked which NBA player he most identified with and admired, he quickly answered Bird.
Of course Bird possessed the physical toughness Orr and Howe also played with, and which Wayne did not. He always had enforcers to protect him and like Jordan, James and Johnson, there was an unwritten rule around the league to not play him physically. Plus Wayne was very well-liked, the game’s greatest ambassador and biggest drawing card. Anyone who injured him would be hurting a borderline (in America) niche league greatly.
No one cut Bird that slack. As the great white hope in a black-dominated league AND by starring for the much-hated Celtics, the league’s runaway most successful franchise, Larry and Gang Green got every team’s best shot every game. Bird rarely if ever backed down from a challenge, and this constant grind helped lead to his injury-induced early departure from the sport.
Yet he earned the grudging respect of everyone in the league because of this (and his great ability/skill/toughness/clutch play), and also since he did not complain ar make excuses when injured or defeated. James does not enjoy this same respect, as he is known for whining and complaining, alienating teammates, disrespecting coaches and padding stats, as well as shamelessly chasing rings in order to augment his GOAT argument status.
He is also not known for playing hurt or being particualrly clutch, especially in scoring or making foul shots at the end of games. Even his idol, Michael Jordan, famously has put down LeBron’s game and competition, calling Kobe Bryant his closest competitor.
Bird probably would have been better off from a popularity standpoint had he gone to a different team without so much built-in hate. if Larry had come ou tin 1978 when The Indiana Pacers wanted to select their home-state hero with the number on eoverall pick, he may not have won as much but he would have scored much more and probably been less media-wary.
By contrast, his neemesis Earvin Johnson never met a camera or intervi he didn;t like, and his smiling persona endeared him to white America. Bird’s leery, tight-lipped personality mad ehim harder to like.
The old line about the rugged Gordie Howe was that he would regularly get a “Howe hat trick” in a game - in this case meaning a goal, an assist and a fight.
It also seems to me that in this age of analytics, too many people do not even watch basketball games, at least not with a sufficiently critical eye or knowledge of the game - and its often-flaunted rules which allow players to make individuallymore spectactular plays than prior generatins could have or were allowed to.
Too many people now just want to crunch numbers after games and lack the interest, knowledge and attention span to really watch an entire game and see what is going on out there on the court.
But basketball cannot be adequately rendered by statistics and analytics. Sure they can help, but far too much goes on that is unquantified, such as floor spacing, moving without the ball, getting back in transition defense, how long someone holds onto the ball before passing, and many other intangibles.
Football and baseball, with their inherent position/unit specialization and prolific down time, are more susceptible to accurate statistical analysis.
Anyway if fans did watch closely with a keen, informed eye, they would see the obvious - that James gets away with grossly flagrant rules transgressions constantly - most prominently traveling, palming and initiating contact on drives and running over defenders.
Because when all else fails, LeBron falls back on putting the onus on officials and simply running over defenders on power drives to the hoop and getting numerous bogus foul calls, often preceded by two or three extra steps.
Then when the defenders fail to get calls after getting run over by a large freight train, they are subsequently less likely to step in and take punishment next time, making LeBron’s path that much easier.
This lack of uniform application of the rules by the NBA and its referees is perhaps the biggest drawback of the game itself, other than the overly long season. When certain players are allowed to get away with constant rule-breaking, it kills the credibility of the game, and its integrity as a fair, evenly-enforced competition.
Star calls have long been part and parcel of the NBA (see Johnson, Jordan and Bryant), but they are far worse now than ever. Unfortunately the league thinks it needs to promote and protect individuals over teams in order to attract fans and the TV ratings that keep the league afloat and profitable.
I find it telling that the NHL rarely if ever promotes individuals above teams - it was always the Edmonton Oilers and Wayne Gretzky, or the Boston Bruins and Bobby Orr, not the other way around.
Larry Bird relied on skill, incredible basketball smarts, ambidexterity, creativity, underrated athleticism and body control, shotmaking, unsurpassed passing/court vision, rebounding, great hands, determination and more - not on 4-5 step drives and star calls - to beat opponents.
On the heels of an epic failure team season in 2018-19, firmly in his mid-30s and finally showing signs of injury susceptibility, now is probably the easiest time to criticize LeBron during his long career. The criticism of James when he left for Miami was more for how and why he did it, not his on-court play.
By the way, Bird has also said he would not have joined forces with a Johnson or Jordan like James and others since have done, preferring to compete against and beat his top foes. What James did made him look like he was simply chasing rings he needed help to accumulate in order to win a numbers game argument as to who is greater, based solely on rings (remember the arrogant Miami celebration when he arrived there with Dwyane Wade where they raised several fingers to represent how many titles they would win, before ever playing a game together?). Smacked of the WWE.
Of course the rings won in this past decade are not worth nearly as much as the titles won in the 1980s, 1970s or 1960s, when super-teams and great players dominated a smaller league before it over-expanded. The NBA weakened itself greatly when it added seven teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s, something it is just now recovering from, due in large part to the influx of skilled foreign players.
If it seems I am being unusually harsh on James (and if you read on it will get worse), it is in part to offset the constant, almost wholly unchallenged barrage of hyperbole, sans Skip Bayless, about how great the supposed King is on virtually every sports channel - mostly by shills, those blinded by spectacle and biased pseudi-journalists who benefit from pumping up NBA games for ratings and to ensure their employment.
I do think James is a wonderfully superb all-around player, but simply not as great as he is advertised. No one could be, really. In his time, Jordan was similarly lauded, although there was less coverage and no social media or Internet, except at the very end of his career.
If you believed his seemingly endless hype going back to his high school days and the “King” TV commercials with Jerry West and other hoop luminaries worshipping at the church of LeBron, you would think LBJ has won the title almost every year he has played - and the ones he has not won were due to inferior teammates - and rarely if ever misses a shot - and is literally the second coming.
Under the slick marketing of commissioner David Stern the NBA has had a habit creating superstars, usually in big TV markets, before they earned it, to carry the league ever since the unexpected retirements of Bird and Earvin Johnson in the early 1990’s left the league in a lurch.
Starting with Shaquille O’Neal (Shaq was even named to the NBA 50 Greatest Players List in 1996 despite having played just four years, for example) and going on through many other eventual stars, the league helped ensure its popularity and improved the all-important TV ratings by favoring such players and big market teams like the Bulls and Lakers in the post-Bird/Johnson era, when the Celtics and Lakers, the two traditional superpowers, were in decline.
Almost no one associated with the NBA or the networks who televise their games is willing to publicly criticize the self-proclaimed GOAT, although he has gotten a little bit of heat this season after his Laker team, which he helped put together, woefully underachieved and missed the playoffs for a sixth straight year.
I do think James has been a tremendous all-around player, the best in the game for most of the past decade. But he has had relatively little competition for that title, he gets ridiculously preferential referee calls, and his teams have had easy roads to the Finals in a terrible Eastern Conference until this year.
In missing the playoffs for the first time since his rookie year after jumping to the tougher West, James learned first-hand just how relatively awful the East has been during his career in Cleveland and Miami.
The incredibly disappointing 37-45 Laker 2018-19 season prompted team president Earvin Johnson to abruptly resign, and also caused a mutual parting of the ways between the franchise and embattled coach Luke Walton. The Lakers finished 10th out of 15 teams in the West, 11 games behind the in-city rival Clippers, who were eighth.
After the much-ballyhooed acqusition of James, many observers picked LA to be a second round playoff team, or a first round loser at worst. Instead they imploded and finished closer to 14th than they did to the eighth and final playoff qualifier out West. They were 20th in the 30-team league.
Of course, the recent acqusition of Anthony Davis coupled with the season-threatening injuries to star free agents Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant have elevated the Lakers to favorite status. Meanwhile the Warriors face many questions and are very unlikely to win a sixth consecutive onference title in the ruggest West.
Ironically, the East of 2019 is the best it has been this century - after James took his talents to Los Angeles, where his Lakers misfired despite great expectations, huge pre-season build-up and solid talent.
The fact James has shamelessly embraced and encouraged Biblical nicknames such as King James, along with religious bywords such as “testify” and “witness” featuring huge building-size posters with his likeness, indicates an enlarged ego and self-aggrandizing tendencies.
The far warier Bird, on the other hand, went out of his way to discourage media coverage, especially early in his career. He rarely gave interviews (and when he did was usually tight-lipped), did not like the attention and preferred to be left alone. He preferred to deflect publicity to his teammates.
Such brazen religious allusions, endless hyperbolic commercials, posters and constant coverage/exposure have tended to give James a larger than life personality, indeed an almost god-like, he can do no wrong aura. Of course, this is completely erroneous, as his game, as good as it is, has holes, particularly in terms of shooting, clutch play and overrated individual defense.
As much as he likes to pass, he wants to get recognition for the assist rather than selflessly enjoying making a teammate happy by scoring, as Bird did. Everything comes back to LeBron, and he loves the limelight and spotlight - until the end of the game, when the self-induced pressure from his constant publicity build-up is at its greatest.
His migration west to become a Laker has also drawn some criticism in LA-LA land for partly being a ploy to jump-start his Hollywood entertainment industry aspirations, a la Kobe Bryant and Shaq - O’Neal’s foray into film was shall we say kindly, forgettable (Kazaam?!).
One over-used reason to say LBJ is the greatest ever is that his teams made it to the last eight NBA Finals, four each with Cleveland and Miami. That run through the weak East has been tarnished by this season’s epic flameout and post-season whiff.
But rarely mentioned is the obvious fact that the Eastern Conference in that time was VASTLY inferior to the West. It has been like the junior varsity half of the league, with the West being the varsity.
The Eastern Conference when Bird played was a monster, with the 76ers, Bucks, Hawks and later on Pistons being championship-worthy opponents Boston had to navigate just to get to the Finals. The situation was almost exactly reversed then, with the West of the 1980s being extremely weak and giving the Lakers an easy path to the Finals eight times out of 10 in that decade.
It is not an exaggeration to say that had the 1980s Celtics been in the comparatively very weak East of this past decade they would have made the Finals every year.
Those juggernaut teams featured seven Hall of Famers (Bird, Archibald, McHale, Parish, DJ, Walton, Cowens) and three other All-Stars (Ainge, Jim Paxson, Scott Wedman,Regggie Lewis) and other fine players like Cedric Maxwell, so they were deep and uver-talented at every position.
Their on-court lineup at any time was filled out by not just one to three good players, with rosters filled out by complementary players, a style started by the 1990s Bulls and Rockets and carried on by the early 2000 Lakers.
With the recent Hall of Fame elections of Bobby Jones, Sidney Moncrief and Jack Sikma, the 76ers and Bucks also boasted multiple Hall of Famers and All-Stars in their lineups. The 1983 NBA champion 76ers best five had four Hall of Famers on the floor (Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Jones, Maurice Cheeks), All-Star Andrew Toney, and then they added Charles Barkley in 1984.
If perennial All-Star guard Doug Collins hadn’t been forced to retire due to injuries in 1980 at age 29, the overall number one pick in the 1973 draft would likely have been another 76er Hall of Fame player.
James faced no such teams loaded with superstars and All-Stars. The recent Warrior champions with Durant come closest, but even they had a relative hole in the middle and a so-so bench. Those teams were also very susceptible to strong post play and rebounding.
The list of Hall of Fame centers who played in the 1980s is long - Jabbar, Malone, Sikma, Olajuwon, Ewing, Parish, Walton, Issel, Gilmore, Lanier - as well as All-Stars like Alvan Adams, Jeff Ruland, Joe barry Carroll, Bill Laimbeer and others who would have feasted inside and on the glass vs. small, perimeter-oriented Golden State.
Just this season, with James moving to a weakened West as a free agent with the Lakers, his team missed the playoffs after a second half collapse brought on in part by publicly putting players out there as trade bait in an all-out, failed attempt to land Davis from New Orleans.
The first somewhat significant injury of his career, a pulled groin on Christmas Day 2018, also slowed James down considerably. Yet remember that Bird played with debilitating back injuries and double Achilles surgery in his early 30s, yet still remained a superstar player with far greater injuries.
But a closer look at comparing their games says otherwise. When one breaks the comparison down by phases of the game and intangibles, Bird is a clear winner.
Another thing rarely mentioned is that when it comes to using career stats to prove a player’s greatness, James had the advantage of coming straight out of high school into the NBA to compile more sheer numbers than most of his predecessors.
His early entry out of high school gave him four extra years to amass numbers, an option prior greats did not have. Up through and past Bird’s collegiate era, NBA players had to wait until their college class graduated to be eligible for the draft.
The Phenoemnal Rookie Season Turnaround
Making teammates better? Here’s proof for you, as I get a jump on my intangibles analysis/comparison later in the article. In 1978-79, the year before Bird arrived as the much-anticipated savior in Boston, the Celtics finished 29-53. That lousy mark put them last in the Atlantic Division, and 10th in the 11-team Eastern Conference.
Furthermore, Boston had the 21st-best record in a 22-team league, ahead of only a 26-56 New Orleans squad weakened by injury to Pete Maravich. It was the worst Celtic season since 1950, the year before Red Auerbach took over as head coach.
Enter rookie phenom Larry Bird in Ocotber of 1979.
With the same starting lineup except for the addition of Bird - a starting five featuring three 31-year old veterans on the back side of their careers in Dave Cowens, Nate Archibald and Chris Ford, plus third-year forward Cedric Maxwell - Boston went from next to worst to first in the league, posting an NBA-best 61-21 record.
Think about that. And it actually was the last full season for Cowens, Ford would retire in 1982, followed by Archibald in 1983.
Over the league’s first 45 years that 32-game improvement in 1979-80 stood as the greatest single-season jump ever in terms of wins.
And it still is the best season-to-season actual improvement when one considers the record was broken 10 years later only when 7-1 rookie David Robinson helped improve a 21-61 Spur team by 35 wins to 56-26. However, this jump was accomplished with a lot lower ceiling to build upon, and in a much more diluted 27-team league recently expanded by four very weak, new franchises.
Robinson’s 1989-90 Spurs went 12-2 against those four first and second-year expansion clubs (Orlando, Miami, Minnesota and Charlotte). Thus without those patsy games, the Spurs were 44-24 (.647 win pct.) as opposed to Boston’s 61-21 (.744).
Throw in the fact that the rival 76ers in Boston’s own division were 59-23 in 1979-80, the Knicks went 45-37 and that Washington had just been to the NBA Finals in 1978 (beating Seattle in 4-3) AND in 1979, and the Celtic turnaround season is even more remarkable.
In addition to his great rookie season stats (21.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game) and awards won - Rookie of the Year, first team All-NBA, fourth in the MVP voting - Bird’s unselfish ability to bring out the best in everyone else on the team paved the way for that incredible one-season improvement.
All this was achieved in a more competitive, less diluted 22-team league where only one team won less than 24 games.
And of course Bird could have scored a lot more, as he took just 17.8 shots per game and shared the ball in a team-oriented, offensively-balanced system, with Archibald doing the vast majority of the ballhandling.
Larry inspired the team with his all-around play, rejuvenating aging former All-Stars Cowens and Archibald, and really helped revitalize a flagging league that was dangerously close to contracting several teams.
His creative, all-out style with great skilled substance was infectious and saved a league that had become known for being flashily insubstantial, riddled by drug use, and plagued by low intensity, selfish play. The running joke was that you only had to watch the last two minutes of a game because that was the only time the players tried hard.
In Bird’s rookie first two seasons, NBA FINALS games played during weeknights were shown on TAPE-DELAY at 11:30 p.m EST. That’s right, the TV ratings were so abysmal that during the critical sweeps ratings periods of May, the league championship games were not even shown live by CBS.
By 1982, the league started moving its Finals back into June to avoid May sweeps time slots on weeknights and get its games on in prime time. Even the weeekend Finals games were shown in the afternoon, not on Sunday night like they are now, the best TV ratings time slot of the week.
More than anyone else in the struggling league Bird helped change all that, especially after his MVP performance in the epic 1984 seven-game Finals win over the Lakers, which really put the NBA back in vogue.
Without Bird, and to a lesser extent Johnson, Dr. J and later Jordan, there may have been no NBA for LeBron to even come into a generation later.
In LeBron’s Rookie of the Year season of 2003-04, the Cavaliers made a nice improvement from 17-65 to 35-47, but they missed the playoffs and James shot just 41.7 percent from the field. For his second season, James led the Cavs to a 42-40 record, but again they missed the playoffs by one spot, finishing ninth in a weak East again.
To be fair, James was 19 and 20 in his first two easons, while Bird was a grown man when he entered the NBA at 22, having matured earlier due to a divorce, fatherhood and the suicide of his father all during his college-age years.
But in Larry’s first nine NBA seasons from 1980-88, the Celtics made it AT LEAST to the Eastern finals eight of those nine campaigns - including five trips to the NBA championship series and three NBA titles - at a time when the East was brutally good and top-heavy with great opposition like the 76ers and Bucks in the early 1980s, and later the Pistons and Hawks in the second half of the decade.
His streak of five straight East finals from 2984 through 1988 was broken only in 1989 when he missed 76 of 82 games and the post-season due to double Achilles surgery.
Without Bird in 1989, Boston limped to a 42-40 mark and barely earned the eighth and last eastern playoff spot, where they were swept by the eventual champion Pistons in round one.
Over James’s first seven seasons with the Cavs - in a very weak East - Cleveland made it to just one NBA Finals in 2007, where they were swept by the Spurs, and to two conference finals. Only when he went to the Heat to join up with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and co. did his run of Eastern Conference title teams begin, again in a very poor conference easily dominated.
James, whose game depends greatly on size and athleticism, has a steep and fairly quick decline waiting for him once his athletic ability diminishes with age and wear and tear. Hints of that have alreayd shown this year with a mere groin injury.
Once they start coming in his mid 30s and recovery time lengthens, he will suffering the nearly inevitable decline at the end of most great careers, especially in a sport as demanding as basketball, where 100 games or more are played per season.
Not to mention, when a player is in his prime and dominating, it is always tempting to overstate how great they are and underestimate the past.
Most fans succumb to now-ism, a disease promoted mostly by mainstream major media (which is often not knowledgable and also has a built-in self-interested reason for existing - are you listening ESPN?) - to over-hype for ratings and brainwash a society lacking in the time and/or critical thinking skills with the notion that whatever is hottest or best right now is automatically better than anyone or thing from the past because of the falsely-purported, illusory notion of progress and in the case of sports, superior “athleticism.”
Of course, out of hubris and a lack of respect for the past and knowledge thereof, each new (sporting) generation also wants to believe it is the greatest and produces the best of everything, and is thus susceptible to now-ism.
Let’s also not forget that basketball is not track and field, a sport won by the fastest, highest-leaping and strongest, but is instead a game of skill, intelligence and athleticism. When played right and officiated uniformly by the rules, the game is usually won and played best by the more skilled, smarter, more unselfish/cohesive and better-conditioned - and better-coached team.
In time most knowledgable observers will come to realize that although James is a great player, he has dominated a very weak era rivaled by few if any peers in their prime, as well as a historically bad Eastern Conference. And because of that, plus his flashy style of play in a highlight-oriented society, his honors and reputation have outstripped his true level of play.
Lenient refereeing that allows multiple extra steps on drives to the basket also exacerbate his “athletic” advantage. Think about it - it is a lot easier to make spectacular finishes when you have a running start, a la th elong jump, as opposed to a standing or one-step broad jump.
Just over a decade ago most golf fans were ready to crown Tiger Woods as the greatest ever. Some even said he was the greatest athlete ever, which is a joke because golfers do not run, jump or even carry their own clubs - interestingly, no one ever called Nicklaus the greatest athlete ever when he dominated golf.
But Woods has won just one major since 2008, not even coming close or competing most times, and his all-time sports status has been revised and reduced after arguably the greatest sports fall from grace since O.J. Simpson - and Woods’s fall came during his prime, not 15 years after he retired like Simpson.
Despite his precipitous decline, the TV networks and highlight shows still often report how Woods does in tournaments before even telling who the leaders are, even when he is far off the pace, contributing to and reflecting the odd obsession with him.
When Woods finally broke his 40-plus major drought and won the 2019 Master’s to cop his first Slam win in over a decade, it was bigger news than probably any other green jacket winner in years.
But he followed that up by not even making the cut at the next Grand Slam event, the PGA. Then in the 2019 U.S. Open, he was never a factor and finished a pedestrian 21st, 11 strokes out of the winner’s circle. Runner-up Brooks Koepka’s quest for a third straight Open crown was not deemed as newsworthy as Woods finishing well out of the running.
Tellingly, the major media almost always refer to him as Tiger, not Woods, or Eldrick, betraying a familiarity and lack of journalistic impartiality. The major media also did the same thing by usually referring to Earvin Johnson by the ameliorative moniker of Magic, and Michael Jordan as Michael, and James as LeBron.
But Larry is almost always referred to by his last name of Bird. Interesting.
The obsession with Woods (other than the obvious ethnic angle of a minority dominating a supposed good ole boys sport typically dominated by whites) is due in part to the can’t look away from a car wreck syndrome. Bird’s dominance in the NBA was similar in reverse, but not quite the same as many whites had been great basketball players before him.
At one time in the 1980s the C in CBS was often jokingly called the Celtics or Cowboys (Broadcasting System) because the network so often televised those dominant teams who were fervently loved and hated, and thus drew huge ratings.
But the Woods obsession also reflects the hope of the media that covers and carries golf tournaments that he can resurrect his career, even temporarily, to improve the TV ratings and increase the coverage a niche sport like golf needs to garner major attention in an oversaturated sports and media market.
America also loves a second act recovery after a superstar trips up, only to rise again. After winning three NBA titles before age 23, popular Laker Kobe Bryant was poised to replace Jordan as the “Heir apparent” on the court and in endorsements. But then he suffered a huge blow to his image after the Colorado rape charges.
Yet eventually in time Bryant’s image was carefully and strategically rehabilitated. In interviews the normally unapologetic, blunt and arrogant Bryant obviously, and in forced fashion, tried to be more friendly and likeable, smiling more.
But more important to his rehabilitation was that after three non-contending seasons, the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol and won two more titles in 2008 and 2010 to partly resuscitate his image. Without that “comeback” and winning two more rings after Shaqulle O’Neal left the Lakers, his hoops legacy would be far less.
After retiring, he even won a minor Oscar award, a sort of Holy Grail in Hollywood, which helped him garner an ESPN analysis show called “Detail.”
Never mind the fact that he helped send the Lakers to a current franchise-record six straight non-playoff seasons by signing a huge contract over his final three injury-plagued years, and was unable to lure many big-name players to join him on the storied franchise because of his well-known inability to share the spotlight or get along with star teammates.
A decade or so ago it was a given that Woods would surpass the record of 18 major tourney wins set by Jack Nicklaus. But now that assumption is in doubt, with Woods stuck at 15, well into his 40s and recovering from back injuries and self-doubt. His former aura of intimidation as a bully and the ultimate frontrunner has also faded.
Nicklaus also finished second in 19 majors, despite playing in an era more top-heavy with great players to share the major titles with - although his era was probably not as deep in good players as the one Woods has played in.
Gary Player (nine), Tom Watson (eight), Arnold Palmer (seven), Lee Trevino (six) and Seve Ballesteros (five) all won multiple majors as contemporary rivals of Nicklaus. David Duval, once thought to be Tiger’s greatest future rival, disappeared due to vertigo. Phil Mickelson (five wins) has been a very good player and a solid foil for Woods, but that’s about it.
When one goes by the shaky argument of titles won as the ultimate measuring stick of greatness, more competition at the very top is certainly more detrimental to one’s Slam total, yet Nicklaus still leads Woods in that category, 18-15.
By comparison, Woods has finished second only five times in Grand Slam events, and usually has been well off the pace in majors he did not win. Plus the players he lost out to when he took second were one-hit wonders named Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson, Rich Beem, Y.E. Yang and Michael Campbell. Not exactly Palmer, Player or Watson.
To finish first or second in 37 majors is very arguably more impressive than winning 18. Yet Jack also had 48 TOP-THREE Slam finishes, almost twice as many as Woods. In his prime from 1970-78, Nicklaus finished in the top 10 in 31 - 31! - of 33 majors. And the two he missed the top 10 at, he finished 11th and 13th.
Clutch play? Woods, a notorious frontrunner, had NEVER come from behind on the final day of a major to win until this past April at Augusta. On the other hand, Nicklaus had EIGHT final-day comeback wins in major tourneys. Eight - no wonder he is considered the greatest pressure player ever in golf.
At the age of 46, six years after he had won his last major in 1980, Nicklaus was thought to be done, at least as a Grand Slam threat.
Yet on the last round of the fabled 1986 Masters, he overcame a four-shot deficit to shoot a 65 (29 over the final 10 holes), and won his last major and sixth green jacket at Augusta - making him the oldest man to win the Masters, a record that still stands today, 43 years later.
Ironically, Woods is 43 now.
Of course, Woods has also benefited by greater TV and media coverage of golf and better golf equipment that allows players to drive the ball farther.
But I digress.
Bird played the second half of his career in severe back and Achilles pain, yet still remained at the very top of the league at a time when the NBA was chock-full of Hall of Fame stars and great teams.
Like Nicklaus he was a lethal pressure player, renowned for making the buzzer-beater, the dagger three, the slick pass, getting the big rebound, or making the last-second steal to beat you. Arguably, he could beat you in more ways than other player ever.
In his first nine seasons before double Achilles surgery ended his 10th campaign after just six games, Bird was first team all-league every year, something only Bob Pettit - not James - ever achieved at forward.
From 1981-87 Bird finished first or second in the MVP voting each year, and is still the only non-center to win three MVP awards in a row (1984-86). He could have and probably should have won two more, and added two Finals MVP honors in 1984 and 1986. Bird also deserved the 1981 Finals MVP that went to teammate Cedric Maxwell.
That Bird accomplished all this and more in an era loaded with superstars and Hall of Famers makes his career all the more impressive. Meanwhile, James has won four MVPs in a league diluted by many more teams, with very few peers of top quality and when the fundamental quality of play is far lower, especially on offense.
Plus there are few true centers to bother James on his drives to the hoop. In Bird’s era, Hall of Fame and All-Star centers dotted most rosters, and they clogged up lanes, hammered drivers, intimidated and blocked shots regularly.
Extreme hubris has hampered James in his later years. He feels entitled to virtually every call, after years of endless hype and preferential treatment. He also feels entitled to question his coach and teammates publicly, and to branch out into new areas of endeavor - and to use his platform to spout his personal poltiical views, some of which are good, some are not.
This is a frequent downfall of people considered an expert or the top of their field; they start thinking that having a narrow expertise in one area makes them an expert or qualified to comment on areas they know relatively little about, abusing their pulpit. And many people erroneously pay attention to those put on a pedestal already, brainwashed into thinking that their greatness in one area transmits to other fields.
James has become a bit like an aging champion boxer who has been puffed up by fighting bums and getting questionably favorable decisions, like Ali did in the latter stages of his career, or Rocky Balboa in Rocky III.
In addition he has not faced much professional adversity, and when he does, he does not handle it that well or with much character. Knowing his status and turning into a diva as he aged, LeBron often points fingers at others and not himself when things go wrong, yet wants the accolades when things go well. Bird was never that way, and was a much better teammate.
When the Lakers were losing at the lowly Knicks this past sason, he sat down at the end of the LA bench, sulking, as if to dissociate himself from the rest of the team’s poor play (even though he played a role in securing some of the team’s mismatched talent). Even ex-Knick great Walt Frazier, a Hall of Fame guard and TV announcer, criticized James for his pouty attitude.
LBJ’s behind the scenes politicking with then-inexperienced/ineffective Laker president Earvin Johnson to throw most of the team’s young talent at New Orleans in an attempt to acquire Anthony Davis in the 2018-19 season undermined the fragile Laker chemistry and locker room trust, leading to their second-half collapse.
In Hollywood, he is finding out that a new generation of younger players is not as willing as his ex-Cavalier teammates to take his occasional non-accountability, ball-heavy usage and overbearing ego.
When his teams win, it has been framed as being because of LeBron. When his teams lose, it has been painted as due to the shortcomings of his teammates, not his.
After missing the 2019 playoffs following a huge publicity build-up and joining a traditional power as their new savior (basically he was marketed as the “new” Magic) in a huge market, this year is the first time it has become widely acceptable to criticize James.
Despite his good stats, and a 2/3 season partially hampered by a groin injury, 2018-19 was an epic failure for the once-proud franchise. Johnson made several embarrassing gaffes (a la the 1984 Finals) before shockingly and awkwardly resigning, and the team cratered in the second half, even after James returned. Their defense was far worse when LBJ came back as well.
Anyway, Bird’s post defense and shot selection could occasionally be criticized, but never his effort or mental preparation. He more than made up for those minor shortcomings in numerous other ways, and he often made shots that appeared ridiculous when he released them.
Larry rarely if ever backed down from challenges nor made excuses when he came up short. He has often said he would never have joined forces with Johnson or Jordan as many stars have done the last decade, becaus ehe enjoyed competing against and trying to beat the other greats so much.
He did not take the easy way out in order to accumulate trophies and numbers, which have become the easy way of arguing who is greater. If not for injuries, the death of sure-fire superstar Len Bias and a rugged East, Bird could easily have won seven to nine NBA titles.
James has also long been criticized for coming up small as a finisher in the clutch, and from the foul line. James would rather be a facilitator than a finisher a la Bird, Jordan, Bryant and Jerry West, prior masters of taking and making the last-second shot.
That does not make him a poor player - but it shows he isn’t that comfortable being a shotmaker at the end of close games. And that he is not in the same class as a clutch finisher of those great players who craved the last shot, which they usually made.
My theory is that he is so aware of all the hype he has benefited from that James dreads those end of game shots and free throws. He has created so much expectation that the pressure overwhelms late in games.
Bird craved those last-second shot opportunities, lived for them.
Intangibles aside for now, let’s break the comparison down by phases of the game...
Bird is one of the best shooters ever, and almost certainly the best-shooting non-guard in NBA annals. Only forwards like Rick Barry, Glen Rice, Chris Mullin and possibly Kiki Vandeweghe can even come close to Bird as a shooter.
Larry was a great mid-range shooter, a great foul shooter (88.3% and four-time FT champion), and an excellent three-point shooter (38%) in an era where the three was not practiced as much or emphasized as a main part of offense as it is now.
Larry, who won the first three All-Star three-point shootouts from 1986-88, only took 1.9 three’s a game over his career. 1.9! That is an average quarter for many guys today. He did not even like the rule, but took advantage of it to deliver many backbreaking triples (see game 6 of the 1981 Finals).
James has improved his shooting from less than average to adequate at best in recent years. But there simply is no comparison here.
The eye test suffices here, as a stat comparison is not really even necessary. But to give just a few, James shoots 34% on three’s and 75% at the foul line over his career to this point.
Edge: huge edge to Bird
Scoring: Bird could score more ways, and more efficiently, than James. A much better shooter from all distances, Bird was also a better post-up player and more creative. James is more effective in transition, but that is the only area of scoring he is better at.
Although their career scoring averages are similar, James hasn’t had the decline phase to his career that will lower all his numbers. And playing in a much less competitive era while being awarded more foul shots - as well as star calls and extra steps regularly - skews things wrongly for James.
Larry, a natural southpaw, is easily the most ambidextrous
player in NBA history. he had games where he scored 20 lefty!
Layups, runners, even 15 foot shots left-handed were fairly routine for him. His long left-handed outlet passes haven’t been seen since.
He took and made clutch lefty shots late in tight playoff game 7’s vs Detroit in 1987 and Atlanta in 1988. Against the Pistons, the Lakers watching the game out in LA fell off the couch when Bird nonchalantly executed a running 14-footer off glass in the waning moments of arguably the most rancrous, tough series in NBA history.
James couldn’t even begin to make those or have the guts to even try them. And dont forget his flying lefty rebound flip of his own miss in game 1 of the 1981 Finals. Other than maybe Paul Westphal or Pete Maravich, no other NBA player comes to mind who could have the instincts, guts and skill to pull off such a miraculous shot, especially late in a huge game.
James has a slightly higher career scoring average, but that is bloated by inferior competition, constant star treatment and the lack of a decline phase to his career, which is coming and will drop his scoring 3-5 ppg by the time he retires in five to six years or so.
Edge: slight edge Bird
This phase is a clear edge to Bird stat-wise, by a wide 10-7.4 per game margin, with James’s career numbers likely to dip even further under seven per game as he ages. Bird had several top 10-ranked rebounding seasons, and grabbed more defensive rebounds than any forward in the 1980’s.
Yet somehow his great board work goes overlooked, partly because his scoring, shooting and passing skills were so wondrous.
But Bird’s very good board numbers could easily be even bigger than the stats might indicate because he played with other excellent double-digit rebounders on his team, cutting into how many boards he might get. Parish and Cowens were top rebounders, while McHale and Maxwell excelled on the offensive glass.
Furthermore, when McHale emerged as a superstar in the Celtic double-low post offense in the mid 1980s, Bird moved his offensiv egame mostly to the perimeter to accomodate Kevin and Parish.
Because he was so versatile and skilled, Bir dmade the transition almost seamlessly. But the move outside robbed Bird, who was a very good offensive rebounder and post-up player himself, of more board opportunities. He also sacrificed his offensive board skills in order to get back in transition defense, a hidden part of the game he excelled in.
By comparison, James has not played with any other high-rebound teammates in his career, probably not with anyone who ever even averaged 10 a game. LBJ’s best season board averages are 7.6 per game on some Miami teams without much rebounding prowess or big men, which is much less than Bird’s worst seasons on the glass.
Larry pulled down 11 boards per game in 1982-83 for his best year. In each of his first six seasons he averaged 10 or more per game. And in 10 of his 11 of his full or nearly full seasons, he averaged 9.2 or more each time (the only other year, his penultimate season, he grabbed 8.5).
In the brutal seven-game 1984 Finals, probably the greatest championship series since 1970 if not ever, he pulled down 14 caroms per outing.
In 164 career playoff games when the competition was higher, which equals two full seasons exactly, Bird grabbed 10.3 rebounds a game. In 31 Finals contests where the intensity was at its peak, Larry pulled down 361 rebounds, or 11.64 per game.
In the 1981 Finals he grabbed 15.3 boards per outing. Only after back, elbow and Achilles injuries hit in the mid-1980’s and began limiting his underrated mobility did his prodigious board numbers start to decline a bit, yet they still remained at a high level.
Plus Bird, a fine offensive rebounder early in his career, sacrificed most of that when McHale emerged as a star with Parish in a double-low post offense, which forced Larry almost exclusively to the perimeter on offense.
After a Celtic shot went up, his main role then was to get back on defense to stop transition offenses, which every team utilized back then, especially against the less than speedy Bostonians. Few clubs consistently run the fast break now.
Bird, with his cunning, anticipation and quick hands, probably stopped more two on one and three on one breaks than anyone since Jerry West.
In addition, the indomitable Bird possessed a knack for getting the tough rebounds. In game 1 of the 1981 Finals, he yanked down 21 caroms in a hard-fought 98-95 win over grind-it-out underdog Houston and their frontline of rebound champ Moses Malone and 6-11 Billy Paultz.
Bird’s last two rebounds came off the offensive glass vs. the bigger Malone. Amid a crowd under the hoop with Boston clinging to a 96-95 lead, he grabbed a weakside rebound of Parih’s missed left baseline shot.
On his first putback try, Bird was fouled by Moses but no call came. Larry then grabbed his own miss and out-foxed the bigger Rockets by snaking along the baseline to the other side of the hoop and banking in a reverse left-handed layin with 19 ticks left to clinch the critical win, staving off the upset bid.
Bird got the big rebounds, the tough ones, when it counted most. He had superb hands, as well as good timing and underrated leaping ability when he was young.
In game 4 of the 1984 Finals, an epic struggle at LA with Boston trailing 2-1, Bird again snared 21 boards and scored 29 points, including the game-winning fadeaway over nemesis Earvin Johnson.
Before that, Bird nailed two pressure free throws in the final seconds of regulation to send it to overtime after Jabbar was called for his sixth foul for pushing Bird, who had gotten position and boxed the 7-2 Jabbar out, in the back.
Edge: Clear edge to Bird
Bird did make three All-NBA defense second teams in the early 1980’s, at a time when the coaches still voted for the honor, which speaks well for his work at that end of the floor.
Today’s all-defense awards by the media are like the Gold Glove in baseball has become, more a function of reputation and flashy highlight plays than actual performance.
As is often pointed out by his usually-biased detractors, the 6-9 Larry did not have the fastest feet, but he did have lightning quick hands and reflexes, and a great memory/basketball IQ to detect and exploit opponent weaknesses and tendencies.
In the second half of his career when back and Achilles injuries affected his underrated movement, the more-competitive Bird adjusted to use his less obvious gifts (mainly his quick hands and hoops smarts) to remain a very dangerous defender.
Often he would allow opponents to get a half or full step on him, only to steal the ball away/block a shot from behind or from the side against the unsuspecting player with a devilishly quick one-handed swipe move. No one ever has done that one-handed block/steal sucker move regularly as well in NBA history.
No less an expert than Bob Knight has said Bird had, arguably, the best hands and hand-eye coordination ever of any basketball player.
His high school coach, Jim Jones, called Bird the greatest team defender he has ever seen, as well as the best anticipator he ever saw. A few of the players who might rival him in that respect are all-time greats like Barry and Jerry West, who was exceptionally quick and had long arms, as well as superb anticipation. All three played the passing lanes superbly.
Bird’s biggest weakness was actually guarding big and/or better-leaping forwards inside. Worthy gave him trouble inside, but he scored on almost everyone inside too. Larry just got singled out because the rest of his all-around game was so unimpeahcably great, his actually ok individual defense seemed to pale in comparison.
Plus there was always a tendency to nitpick against Bird because he of a built-in bias against Boston (for winning too much before he got there). There was also a sense among casual, uninformed fans impressed by unsubstantial flash that there was no way that a player who lacked great speed and leaping ability could be the best player in the world.
Never mind the fact that Earvin Johnson and Oscar Robertson were not greap leapers or speed merchants.
James is a better individual defender, although he isn’t as good as people think and Bird was better than is usually thought. It has been statistically proven this year that the Laker defense has been far worse this season with him in the lineup, particularly after his return from a groin injury.
James simply gets more eye-catching chase-down blocks and steals that impress casual fans than Bird, who was better at blocking shots from behind and playing the passing lanes.
Our highlight-obsessed society gives James too much respect for his flashy blocks. Perhaps the most famous of his chase-down blocks came late in game seven on the 2016 Finals. Some have called it the greatest block of all time, but I am sure Bill Russell would have to laugh his trademark cackle at such a notion after blocking thousands of shots en route to 11 titles before the league kept track of that stat.
Yes it was a great play, but three factors are rarely pointed out - Warrior Andre Iguodala had a back injury and could not explode off the ground like he normally would have for a dunk - and two, the J.R. Smith distracted AI enough with a swipe to force him to slow down and alter his shot enough to allow James to catch up.
Third, Steph Curry should have just pulled up and shot an open 10-foot bank shot instead of eschewing the easy shot and bouncing a pass to Iguodala in tight quarters by the time his dish went through.
If LBJ is such a superior defender, why did Kevin Durant outplay him to win Finals MVP in 2017 and 2018? If James was the stopper he is purported to be, he would have at least slowed Durant down somewhat. Instead Durant upped his high normal numbers in the Finals.
You say well, James could not guard KD too closely in order to avoid foul trouble, and to conserve energy for everything else he had to do? Sorry, but if he truly was the stopper James is purported to be, he would have at least slowed KD down a little.
At that point, a player who is the self-proclaimed GOAT should want the challenge of trying to slow down Durant - with the summer coming to rest up, barring injury, there is no reason to not go all out, especially with the Finals games spaced out by an average of three days apart.
Bird played 1,015 minutes over 23 games in the most grueling playoff run ever during the 1987 post-season, where an injury-plagued Celtic team had to go through Jordan in round one, then endure consecutive seven-game epics vs. the Bucks and Bad Boy Pistons just to reach the Finals. But he did not complain or make excuses, like Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman did after Bird beat Detroit in the rancorous eastern finals.
Durant shot 53 percent from the floor in the 2018 Finals, averaging 28.8 ppg. James scored 34 ppg but took 17 more official FG attempts and 11 more free throws (Durant made 26 of his 27 foul shots).
In the 2017 Finals, Durant shot 56 percent from the floor and scored 35.2 ppg. Golden State also won eight of the nine games over the Cavs and LeBron that the teams played in those two Finals.
Larry was almost always in position, which is a lot of what defense entails, and was as good a help defender at forward as anyone. In his autobiography “Giant Steps”, Kareem wrote that he knew something must be wrong with Bird when he noticed he was uncharacteristically out of position in the 1988 playoffs, when Boston lost in the ECF to Detroit to end their streak of four straight championship series showings.
And just six games into the 1988-89 campaign Larry was sidelined by double Achilles surgery, a degenerative condition that had been worsening for years.
No forward in his era got back on transition defense better to stop the break than the hustling Bird, who was rarely out of position.
Other than Jerry West, no one stopped as many fast breaks as Bird, with his great anticipation, mental intimidation skills and quick hands.
Edge: slight edge to James
James is a tremendous passer, arguably the best passing forward ever behind Bird, although Rick Barry, Mullin, Maurice Stokes, Billy Cunningham and Havlicek are in the conversation too for the number two ranking.
Almost all of Bird’s assists came in the halfcourt offense, which is much harder to compile assists against, versus a set defense.
As esteemed Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan once said, “there are no second’s when it comes to voting for the all-time best passing forward, there are only others receiving votes.” Any check on YouTube of Bird’s greatest passes - or a look at one of my prior articles on Bird’s 33 best passes - should convince any doubters.
Larry always hit his teammate in stride and in the shooting pocket with a soft but firm pass, making it as easy as possible to score, the true definition of an assist.
He also possessed much greater creativity than James but didn’t use it unless needed, as his showmanship was still somehow pragmatic, as well as done with an efficient flair. His vision was superior - many if not most of James’s assists come off penetration and dishes when he draws defenders.
No non-guard saw the floor as well as Bird, nor visualized the play unfolding 2-3 steps ahead of time. All-time great Celtic point guard Bob Cousy, an ingeniously slick passer himself, once said only he, Bird and Ernie DiGregorio saw the play two to three steps ahead of time.
The ball rarely stuck in Bird’s hands, and he was a deadly passer out of double teams. His crisp feeds always caught the defense off guard and when moving, sometimes like a tennis player hitting behind his scrambling opponent.
Bird was also a superb post entry passer, virtually a lost art today when guards over-dribble and arrogantly control the game and hog the ball in order to shoot far too many three’s. Plus, far fewer big men have good back-to-the-basket games today.
LBJ is very unselfish, but part of that is because he isn’t a good shooter and would rather facilitate a la Earvin Johnson, than be a finisher/scorer in the crunch like a Jordan or Bird.
He is far more Johnson than Jordan. Bird’s unselfishness was greater because Larry passing up shots to get teammates better shots, therefore maximizing them, was an act of greater sacrifice precisely because he was such a superior shooter and great scorer.
Bird could easily have averaged over 30 ppg any year through 1988 had he wanted to. In fact, in his final mostly injury-free season of 1987-88 as he approached age 32, he tallied a Celtic franchise record 29.9 ppg.
In addition, Bird had the ball far less than James does yet did more with it, particularly from an efficiency standpoint, and with far less ioslation and dribbling or monopolization of the ball.
One also suspects that LBJ’s assist numbers are slightly inflated by lenient scorekeeping meant to help market him better. Too much of his offense starts out with James dribbling 30 feet from the basket, then driving into a waiting help defense for a predictable drive and kick.
Larry made the hard pass look easy; his passes were often subtly spectacular, done not to draw attention to himself, unlike Johnson or even James at times. Others like James and especially Johnson sometimes made the easy pass look hard with needless post-pass lookaway facial antics or leg kicks/arm flails.
Larry wanted his teammates to look good and to enjoy scoring, something he discovered back in high school. That sort of chemistry-building unselfishness, especially from your superstar, is almost immeasurable and inspires teammates to play even better and harder. They fall in line when the superstar is so unselfishly, plays so hard and helps them become better with incredible feeds.
In the early spring of 2018, Yahoo sports broke a story detailing how many of LeBron’s then-Cavalier teammates had begun openly griping about James’ tendency to not only monopolize the ball, but holding onto it too long in order to insure that he got credit for assists.
Holding onto the ball for an extra tick or two makes it much harder for spot-up shooters to get off clean looks, making it paramount to get th eball to the open teammate as soon as possible with a firm but soft pass into the shooting pocket.
The shrinking dimensions of an NBA court due to players getting taller and longer-armed makes it even more important to pass the ball crisply and quickly instead of holding onto it too long. James is very guilty of this “selfish unselfishness”, preferring to get the credit for his penetrate and pass mentaility where he is in control of everything.
Bird, on the other hand, almost never over-dribbled and possessed the ball FAR far less. Usually he did something with the ball quickly, unless he was backing down an opponent to shoot later in his career.
LeBron’s tendency to over-dribble and hog the ball shows his increasingly egocentric style of play. After years of being pampered by his organization, protected by the refs and and fawned over by the major media, he has gotten to where he believes he is beyond reproach or criticism.
But when things don’t go his way immediately, he shows off his impatience and spoiled personality by sulking, complaining and blaming teammates, things Bird rarely, if ever, did.
Edge: slight edge to Bird
Being as much a guard as a point forward, James handles the ball much more than Bird did. He has the better handle, although he gets away with a lot of palming that gives him an edge on drives. Bird was efficient with the dribble, and almost never over-dribbled, except when backing down a defender.
James gets the edge here again, although it probably isn’t as clear-cut a huge edge as most might think off the top of their heads. People today tend to have a narrow concept of athleticism, confined mainly to speed and leaping ability, two areas James excels in while Bird was only okay by NBA standards, and less than that in his later years when injuries and age took their toll.
However, in his early years Bird had a decent 28-inch vertical and was far more athletic than people tend to think or remember. The tendency is to see his pale body with less definition - due in large part to light skin which does not show every line and definition like it does to people with tan or dark skin - as evidence of a lack of great conditioining, muscularity and athleticism.
Subliminally, this made Bird look even less impressive than James, whose naturally darker skin tone accentuates his impressive physique and makes it look even better (think of bodybuilders, who are black or always tan to get darker skin so all their muscle definition stands out better).
Of course, James often wows fans with spectacular, speedy and explosive drives. He may have the greatest combination of power, strength and speed for finishing in transition of anyone in league history, even more than comparable guys like Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Gus Johnson.
Yet in other more subtle forms of athletic ability, such as vision, body control, hand-eye coordination, quickness of hands and first step, Bird was at or near the top, and as good or better than James. Plus remember, the guy was 6-9 and he ran the floor quite well in his early years when Boston was a fast break team from 1979-83.
Once the back and Achilles injuries crept in as he aged, Bird did not run or jump as well. And the image people tend to have of Larry is that of the older, hobbled player in his 30s rather than the younger, agile Bird.
Part of this is also due to the fact that the NBA wa smor epopular, covered better and more games were on TV in the second half of his career, compared to his early years when the NBA playoffs were on tape dealy on weeknights, and ESPN was in its infancy.
This mis-perception is also due to the misconception/stereotype that is constantly (and erroneously) repeated that says Bird supposedly could not run or jump well at all. The NBA has also done little to downplay this myth, thinking it helped make Bird more popular with the typical fan who lacks great size or athleticism, while emphasizing traits the average fan can relate to, such as hard work/practice, skill and intelligence.
Sure Bird worked very hard on his game and conditioning, and was arguably the smartest player in NBA history. But he also possessed enormous talent, unsurpassed vision and hand-eye coordination, creativity and skill. You don’t get to be the greatest player in the world for roughly a deade in the world’s most demanding sport without having immense talent.
Yet even in Brazilian gunner Oskar Schmidt’s Hall of Fame induction speech with Bird as his presenter, the brash Oskar said Bird was his idol because he could not run or jump yet still dominated the game.
An embarrassed Bird, standing nearby, merely chuckled and shook his head at the outspoken Schmidt’s repetition of an erroneous myth as the crowd laughed. It was not the time or place to disagree, and Larry swallowed his enormous pride. But one could tell that repeating this misconception (repeated so often that people tend to believe it), and being unable to disprove or dispute it, bothered Larry.
One must also factor in that today star players like James are given 2-3 extra steps on drives (as well as much leeway on ititiating contact and getting foul calls), making it much easier to jump higher, hang in the air longer and be more spectacular on highlight-type finishes, which are are often excessively flashy for style points. By contrast, Bird could be flashy but only when needed.
It is sort of like comparing a one-or-two step long jump in Bird’s day to a running long jump today in terms of what players get away with; of course the person with the longer run-up will be able to do more, and thus appear even more athletic.
Also, this category is not as important to being great, nor is ballhandling a huge part of being a forward.
1) Clutch play: James doesn’t like to take last shot, while Bird lived for it and made numerous winners. James would rather facilitate and shrinks from the big shot. Along with Jordan and West, Bird made more big dagger shots than any player ever.
Throw in his superb positioning, help defense and board work, and Bird might have been the most clutch all-around player since West. James has been notable for his lack of clutch play, game 7 in the 2013 Finals notwithstanding.
With 11 seconds left in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals with the Cavaliers ahead of the warriors 92-89, a prone James drew a foul and immediately began rubbing his shooting arm frantically as if he was shot, laying the groundwork for an excuse if he missed the free throws.
To someone who had justifiably been accused of avoiding the last shot and coming up short in the clutch, it was an obvious attempt to shirk accountability in case he missed. Even a beaten-up, aging Bird rarely if ever backed down froom taking (and usually making) the game-winning shot.
James missed the first foul shot but made the second to provide the final margin of 93-89, but it was Kyrie Irving’s amazing shotmaking down the stretch that won the title for Cleveland. In that seventh game, James shot just 9-24 from the field.
Ultimately, I feel James has enjoyed so much hype and publicity from high school on that he feels the weight of the massive expectations he has helped create, and tends to shy away from late-game shots because the pressurs is too great.
Bird lived for the last shot, the last play, to beat you, similar to other late-game assassins West, Jordan and Bryant.
And much more than James, Larry made everyone around him better. By hogging the ball and over-dribbling, James limited his teammates to being spot-up shooters. In fact, one could really argue that because of his constant ball usage, James is more of a guard a la Earvin Johnson than he is a “small” forward.
As a true forward, Larry did more with far fewer touches and dribbling. And much less preferntial referee treatment.
Edge: huge edge to Bird.
2) Toughness/competitive drive: Bird played the second half of his career in constant serious pain due to back and Achilles injuries. James plays hard, but Bird played consistently harder. Maybe not quite as hard as guys like Dave Cowens, Dave DeBusschere, or Jerry Sloan, who probably played harder than anyone, but Bird was close.
In the epic “Sauna game” 5 of the classic 1984 Finals, Bird enjoyed the best outing of his 31 championship series games despite severely trying conditions.
Tied 2-2 with the hated Lakers and playing in 97-degree heat with no air conditioning in the ancient Garden, Bird shot an astounding 15-20 from the field and grabbed 17 rebounds to lead Boston to a decisive, series-turning 121-103 win.
As even Pat Riley conceded after the pivotal defeat, “the difference tonight was Mr. Bird...he looked fresh as a daisy out there.” Noted hay baler Bird noted, “Aw hell, I play in hotter weather back home in French Lick in the summer.”
Fast forward 30 years to game 1 of the 2014 finals in a similar situation where the AC went out in San Antoni...James cramped up down the stretch and could not return in crunch time. Thus the Heat lost a close game and it set the tone for their convincing 4-1 loss to the Spurs that effectively disbanded the big three in south Florida.
Now I know that cramps are very painful and can be temporarily debilitating. But can you see Bird not being able to play in a championship series game due to cramps, or not being prepared enough to avoid them (Larry was well-known for arriving hours before games to practice and get treatment)?
You’d have to drag him out of there, plus he would have put in the running preparing beforehand to be in top shape in an era where the game was much faster-paced and all teams ran the fast break as a part of the offense.
Thus in the NBA Finals games where the conditions were most similar, Bird shone at his brightest while James withered.
Bird played with severe back pain from 1985-92 at a very, very high level.
His legendary physical toughness - see game 5 of the 1991 first round vs. a young, up and coming Indiana squad, when he came back from a fractured cheekbone, bad back and possible concussion to lead the Celtics to a thrilling win over the Pacers in a decisive playoff shootout/trash-talk fest with Chuck “the Rifleman” Person - is quite possibly unsurpassed in NBA playoff annals.
Only greats like Jerry West (nine broken noses, numerous muscle pulls, 29 ppg career playoff average) played as consistently well while hurt.
His second half comeback performance vs. the Pacers at age 34 (against doctor’s orders in the locker room), is perhaps the greatest injured playoff performance ever, along with Willis Reed in game seven of the 1970 Finals, and is the stuff of NBA legend.
Losing Pacer center LaSalle Thompson even said after the loss that “this is the stuff you tell your grandchildren about; I had a lot of respect for Larry before, but now even more”...as he shook his head in amazement and his voice trailed off.
And of course mentally, Bird was as tough as anyone. Coming from such a difficult background and being doubted at every succeeding level along his way to the Hall of Fame - the complete opposite of the hyped James - Bird learned to compartmentalize and block out the noise, and use the doubters as motivation.
As even fierce rival Isiah Thomas admitted, “Bird was the toughest” of the superstars in that golden era chock-full of all-time greats. “If you put myself, Bird, Magic and Jordan in a room together, Bird is the one who would make it out,” said Thomas.
High praise indeed from a major rival, not one to give compliments easily.
3) Bball IQ: Bird’s brain and basketball IQ are at the very top; James, like Earvin Johnson, is a very smart player but not as much as Bird. Along with Russell, Hondo, West and Stockton, Larry rounds out my all-time NBA brainy starting five, with apologies to Oscar, Bill Bradley, Kareem and others. In reality, most great players are also smart players, with a few exceptions.
As Tom Heinsohn, a smart Hall of Fame player and coach himself, said more than once: “Larry Bird was playing chess when everyone else was playing checkers.”
Bird was the proverbial coach on the floor, going back to his college days at Indiana State, where first-year coach Bill Hodges got the credit for leading ISU to the title game in 1979. But Larry really ran the team, as he did for most of his Boston years too.
And does anyone would think James could be as good a coach or front office executive as West or Bird?
4) Making teammates better: Perhaps the best and my favorite quote about how Bird’s heady and unselfish play made his teammates reach as close to their full potential as possible (partly due to great shooting which created great spacing, and crisp, timely and creative passing that opened up opportunities for his teammates) came from ex-Celtic Don Nelson when he was coaching the Bucks vs. Boston during a tough mid-1980’s playoff series.
As both teams were warming up, Nelson noticed Bird run to the back of the layup line behind four Celtic players, most of them non-stars. Nellie turned and sagely remarked to his assistant coach, “before Bird lined up with them, I saw four average players. Now I see five great players.”
Quite a tribute, maybe the ultimate one in basketball, from a very smart basketball lifer in Nelson, who won six rings as a player and more games as a coach than anyone in NBA history.
James makes his teammates better, but no great individual player maximized the talent around him as much as Bird, with the possible exception of John Stockton. And Stockton was not as good a scorer as Bird.
Bird also inspired his teammates with his no-excuses, leadership by example style, playing with pain, and being incredibly unselfish despite being a better shooter and scorer. James has been known for diva tendencies that alienate his teammates, exemplified by his constant isolation ballhandling that reduces his teammates to dependent, stationary statues waiting for a possible pass when he deigns to give it up.
5) Intensity/leadership: As mentioned before, James plays hard, but not as consistently hard as Bird did. Every night, being a member of the hated Celtics, playing in a much better league and in particular a brutally good and physical Eastern Conference, Bird and Boston got every team’s best shot - every night for 13 years.
Yet Larry always rose to the challenge, never backed down and didn’t make excuses. That sort of mental and physical toughness and leadership is irreplaceable too.
James and Miami faced similar pressure and attention during his Miami run, but the competition level was far, far lower. And his Heat tenure only ran four years, whereas Bird faced it from day one as the hyped white hope leader of the NBA’s winningest franchise in 1979 until his last game in 1992.
Larry led by example. He didn’t have to say much but when he did, it meant more because he said little. Thus when he spoke, it was important. he subscribed to th eless is more style of talking leadership.
With James, he tries to lead by example, but he lacks the toughness and true unselfishness that players respond best to. His teammates know from being around LeBron that he is about himself first. Bird was not.
James’ unselfishness was born out of no tbeing a good shooter; he is more of a point guard/facilitator, far closer to Johnson than Jordan in style of play.
Bird’s level of unselfishness was greater because he could shoot so much better and score in so many ways - from deep, mid-range, posting up, on the offensive glass, at the foul line, in transition, and with his left hand better than anyone in NBA history.
Yet Larry got as much satisfaction out of passing up a shot he would likely make to get a teammate a basket.
I also feel compelled to emphasize how much James benefits again from star treatment. The NBA has long run on marketing star players instead of the game and its teams, and it needs to create superstars and ensure big-hame players and big-market teams go further in the playoffs.
James constantly travels, palms the ball and simply bullies defenders. Along with Jordan, Bryant and Johnson, he is the most protected star in NBA history from an NBA officiating standpoint.
Throw in playing his first 15 seasons in the decidedly weaker Eastern Conference, and one realizes that LeBron has had a far easier road with less superstar competition.
The 1980s and early ‘90s were chock full of superstar players and teams to share the awards and titles with. During LeBron’s career, there have been far fewer great players and teams.
I would argue that the Milwaukee Buck teams of the early and mid-1980s, who won six straight division titles but never even got to the Finals after the league moved them East in 1980, were equal to or better than the Cavalier teams that James led to the Finals - certainly better than the 2007 squad that got swept by the Spurs.
But for eight straight seasons the Bucks were eliminated in the playoffs by great teams - the 1980 champion Lakers (in their last season as members of the West); the 76ers in 1981-82-83-85; and the Celtics of 1984-86-87. Four of those times they lost to the eventual NBA champion (1980-83-84-86), and six times to the conference champion (also 1982 and 1987).
Edge: clear edge to Bird
Overall intangibles: Huge edge to Bird
James supporters, blinded by flash, a narrow notion of “athleticism”, hype and now-ism, will argue that LBJ has won 4 regular season MVPs to “only” 3 by Larry. And I say, so what? You cannot make definitive judgments on close MVP totals compiled in totally different eras, especially when one era is far better and supersar-laden.
See my 2015 article on this subject here: http://www.celticsblog.com/2015/11/27/9806146/how-larry-bird-was-gypped-out-of-the-1981-nba-playoff-and-1981-82
Bird should have won at least two more - 1981 and ‘82 - and played in an era with much tougher competition for his MVPs (to name just a few Jabbar, Johnson, Jordan, Erving, then later Barkley, Hakeem, and even McHale on his own team in 1986-87, as well as other rival greats like Ewing and Bernard King).
Bird’s three season MVPs in the 1980’s are worth roughly double the ones James has won in a weakened era with few worthy rivals.
James’s biggest contemporary rival, Kobe Bryant, only won one MVP and was several years older than LBJ. It could be argued easily that James would be lucky to win one MVP, and no titles, had he played in the much better NBA of the 1980’s and early ‘90s.
Steve Nash, as great a player as he was, is not as good as John Stockton was. John was a much better defender. Yet Stockton never sniffed an MVP award over 19 mostly brilliant seasons spent in the shadow of many superstars, while the flashier Nash won consecutive MVP awards in 2005 and 2006. In the 1980’s, Nash would have been fortunate to finish in the top five of MVP voting in his best years.
The methodical Tim Duncan, in reality, is not as good as McHale or even Karl Malone - nor as dominant as Bob Pettit (26 ppg, 16 rpg) in his time. Yet “Timmy” parlayed solid fundamentals, great size and a dearth of good big-man competition along with good teammates and a superb coach into five titles during a weak era.
Three of the teams his Spurs beat in the Finals (the 1999 Knicks, 2003 Nets and 2007 Cavs) are very arguably among the five worst teams ever to reach the Finals, and the 2005 Pistons are not much better.
Only the Heat of 2014 were a truly worthy adversary that the Spurs overcame. The Laker team Boston beat in 1984 - the only time the Celtics were healthy in their three 1980’s Finals showdowns - featured five Hall of Famers, and several other All-Star caliber players.
Dirk Nowitzki, often compared to Bird for obvious reasons, is a legitimate Hall of Famer, but even the humble German great admits he is not in Bird’s class. Larry was a much better passer and a slightly better rebounder, as well as the superior defender.
Nowitzki, Nash and Chris Paul, who has yet
to sniff a Finals, might be termed Bird, Stockton and Isiah Thomas-lite.
And that brings me to the next point, that the NBA of Bird’s era was FAR better than the league James has played in. And in particular the East in the ‘80s was like the West now, but more top-heavy with great teams like Boston, the 76ers, Bucks, and later Pistons and Hawks battling it out just to reach the championship round.
LBJ’s East in the 2000’shas been even weaker than the West of the 80’s, making their road to the Finals a comparative joyride. The Bird Celtics probably would have made the Finals in his first nine seasons were they playing today; they led the NBA in wins per season from 1980-88 at nearly 60 wins per campaign.
And since 2/3 of a team’s schedule is played in-conference, this is more impressive and important than one might think even before the playoff gauntlet must be run. And the playoffs, always a battle of attrition, are far easier to navigate through shallow waters like the East of the 2000’s.
Bird led Boston to the Finals from 1984-87; a quarter century later James led Miami to the Finals from 2011-14, the first time since then that a team won the East four years in a row.
But the East Bird took Boston through was a minefield littered with great teams and players; the Heat played in a relative sandbox with nary a truly good or great rival.
The first half of the 1980’s in the Bird era featured such teams as Boston, the 76ers and Bucks who routinely won 55-65 games. As the decade wore on, the Pistons, Bulls and Hawks came on as serious contenders, with Detroit winning two titles and Chicago two in Bird’s final seasons.
One could easily argue that from 2011-14, Miami faced no team as good as those Hawk teams who routinely won 50-57 games.
Not to mention the fact that in today’s heavily-marketed, style over substance NBA, James receives star calls far more than Bird, which is multiplied by the fact that LBJ also has the ball far more than Larry did.
Used to getting every call despite often initiating contact, LBJ can be a crybaby who whines when he doesn’t get a call; witness his tantrum this past spring when rookie Mason Plumlee rejected his dunk at the buzzer.
Bird rarely if ever whined or made excuses, even when injured or getting bad calls. James travels, palms, pushes off and runs over people regularly, and gets away with it, even being rewarded with free throws. Larry took an average of five foul shots per game, while James gets 8.` per (up to 9.2 in playoffs).
If you doubt me on star calls and the far more lenient officiating of today, particularly for big stars, google Youtube for the end of game 6 in the 1981 Finals to see a striking example.
You will see Bird hit four clutch jumpers in a row to clinch his first title, including a dagger corner trey that sealed the crown. But one of the shots, a pull-up jumper from the circle, was disallowed for an almost imperceptible carry call on his left-hand dribble to the circle before he drained the shot.
There is NO way that tiny palming violation gets called on James, Bryant, Jordan or any star in the last 15-20 years, especially in that situation, with the title on the line. Yet it was called on Bird, in his second season, with the title on the line.
In fact, Bird was bumped slightly on the hip during his drive which caused the slight mishandling, but that was not called, as it would certainly be for James, Jordan, Bryant, et al.
James’s career stats also look more prodigious than they are since he was able to play right out of high school while Bird played three years in college.
Yet Larry was very arguably already the best all-around player in the world as a fifth-year college senior in 1978-79 when he led an otherwise just ok Indiana State team to the finals with a 33-0 record, making them the LAST club to reach the championship game UNDEFEATED - 40 years ago. Four decades ago.
Think about that for a moment. The fact that Larry virtually carried the modestly talented Sycamores to the finals unbeaten is one of the greatest college basketball achievements ever, yet is overshadowed by the final title game loss to a more talented team playing an unusual, tough gimmick matchup zone Indiana State had little time to prepare for, especially with an inexperienced, first-year interim coach in charge.
LBJ is also a coach killer. He has run through many head coaches, and has become well-known for openly questioning and defying his coaches, from Erik Spoelstra to David Blatt, Ty Lue and Luke Walton, who is almost certainly a lame-duck coach now. Even in Miami, he bumped Spoelstra and begged Riley to come back and coach the Heat before they won two titles under Spoelstra.
Bird looked on his coaches usually as father figures to be respected and listened to, not constantly doubted and disrespected. His first NBA head coach Bill Fitch was a literal drill sergeant and former college coach who pushed Bird, seeing he could take it and liked to be pushed.
When Fitch asked the more carefree McHale “why can’t you be more like Larry?” in terms of his devotion to the game, Kevin replied “Because I have another life to lead.”
After Bird’s incredible rookie seasons, Fitch psychologically motivated the already-driven Bird by saying if he did not work on his game in the summer to continue to improve, his first season might end up being his best.
Adding nuances to his game every summer became a Bird staple, be it an improved left hand, better three-point shooting, and new moves.
Fitch was hard on the team and Larry. On a commercial flight to Kansas City during Christmas Day of 1981, the defending champion Celtics were imbibing too freely on the plane for the coach’s taste. As punishment, Fitch made the club practice hard as soon as they landed in KC for their game the next day.
Third string center Eric Fernsten was the only player not drinking, and he dominated that practice. Afterward, Bird joked to the benchwarming Fernsten that “you were me today.”
On Dec. 26 at the Kings, McHale hit a shot to force overtime and the Celtics went on to win 124-119. Bird posted a 23-15-5 line, while McHale scored 22.
Bird fractured his cheekbone later that season in a game vs. Milwaukee when reserve center Harvey Catchings elbowed him in the face, and Larry was forced to miss several games.
When he came back donning a clear facemask, the Celtics had continued on what would become a club-record 18-game win streak. Super sixth man McHale had been inserted into the starting lineup during Bird’s five-game absence and played so well that Fitch did not want to interrupt the team’s strong play.
So he did something almost unthinkable to a two-time first team All-NBA first team pick who was the leader of the the defending NBA champions in his third year - a superstar who had finished a close second in the 1981 MVP voting and would again finish second for that 1981-82 season.
Fitch made Bird the newest Celtic sixth man.
Boston continued to win with Bird coming off the bench as the latest in a long line of great supersubs, but as the injury healed and the streak carried on, the proud Bird began to bristle at coming off the bench. Yet he did not lobby Fitch to get back in the lineup.
Larry had been doubted at every step in his career due to his appearance and coming from a small town and mid-major college, and used those digs as extra motivation. Yet he swallowe dhis considerable pride for the good of the team. I cannot imagine James putting up with being a sixth man in his prime.
The 18-game win streak finally came to an end at the hands of the rival 76ers on a Sunday CBS game. But even then Bird was not inserted back into the linup for several more games. Finally Fitch relented and put his superstar back in the starting lineup, knowing he would be even more mnotivated than ever to show his greatness.
Boston would go on to post an NBA-best 63-19 record and would likely have repeated as champions had playmaker Nste Archibald not separated his shoulder in the seven-game Eastern final loss to the Sixers. Larry finished a close second in voting to Moses Malone for the MVP award, even though he deserved the award.
When the Celtic team mutinied against Fitch in 1983, leading to his ouster after a 4-0 playoff sweep at the hands of Milwaukee (Bird was slowed by the flu and missed game 2), Larry was the only Celtic who did not criticize the demanding Fitch. When he was inducted to the Hall of Fame, he chose Fitch and Bill Walton as his presenters.
During his HoF Induction speech, Bird told a story about Fitch treating him like any other rookie and keeping his ego in check. Midway through his phenomenal rookie season, the 6-9 Larry approached the coach and said, “I am a first-class player and I deserve to sit in first class” on airplane flights, not the coach section, as was the custom then for Celtic rookies.
Fitch simply looked at Larry and replied, “Get your butt back in coach where you belong.” And Bird complied. Can you see a Cavalier, Laker or Heat coach saying that to the pampered LeBron? Or him not complaining, and/or following orders without making it into a big deal?
After Fitch was canned in 1983, Larry then flourished under the lighter hand of the taciturn K.C. Jones, winning all five of his season and Finals MVP awards under K.C. from 1984-86.
Bird’s only coaching run-in publicly may have come in his comeback season of 1989-90, when long-time Fitch and KC assistant Jimmy Rodgers finally got his chance to be the Boston head coach.
Unfortunately for Rodgers he took over at a time when Bird was hurt, McHale was hampered by recovering from a broken foot, while Parish and Dennis Johnson were aging. They traded Danny Ainge, the youngest starter of the great starting five, to obtain more size and depth.
Early in Bird’s comeback season of 1989-90, the only in-house criticism I ever heard of Larry filtered out. Attributed to reserve Jim Paxson - who has denied saying it - an anonymous Celtic claimed Bird was “tearing the team apart” by shooting too much, trying too hard early in his comeback from double Achilles surgery to regain his status as top dog.
Not knowing how well Bird was going to be able to recover from such a terrible injury in his early 30s, Rodgers had instituted a more balanced, less Larry-centric offense that Bird, hungry to show everyone he was back after sitting out almost a full season, objected to.
For Bird ran his whole career on being motivated by disrespect, by people doubting him. After all he had accomplished by 1989, he felt he deserved the right to work his way into reclaiming his place atop the team, and the league.
An unselfish player despite having the ability to score 30 points a game or more anytime he wanted, Bird was the game’s greatest pure passer, and any claim of his being selfish cuut him to the core.
Predictably, Larry lashed out at the criticism, saying his critic was a loser who had never won anything. If it was Paxson, you coul dnever tell by the way they played together. When Jim wa sopen, Larry passed him the ball.
Paxson had been an All-Star player at Portland in the early and mid-1980s, but by the time Boston acquired him in 1988, he was a shadow of the star he had been due to back problems, advancing age and weight he had gained sitting on the bench and being unable to run as well.
Known as a very smart player and for moving superbly without the ball a la another former Ohio native Celtic great (John Havlicek), Paxson never really settled in or found his shot in Beantown.
Larry eventually went on to win Comeback Player of the Year honors (24.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 7.5 apg, 93 percent foul shooting to lead the league for the fourth and final time) and made second team All-NBA - after making first team in each of his first nine full seasons from 1979-88.
Bird probably should have made first team all-league again that 1989-90 season, but the league had moved on from the 1980s and Larry into the new decade of the 1990s, and named the less well-rounded but younger Karl Malone and Charles Barkley ahead of him.
A playoff collapse to the rival Knicks after leading 2-0 in their first round series led to Rodgers’ ouster, and the hiring of former Celtic teammate Chris Ford, a starting guard on the 1981 NBA title team in Larry’s second year.
So Bird played for just four head coaches over 14 years in the NBA, while James is on number nine - and counting - as we prepare for 2019-20.
LeBron’s disingenuous TV ads claiming it was all about getting a title “for the ‘Land (Cleveland) show how fake he can be. In a clear attempt to ingratiate himself to a fan base that deified him, then turned its back on him in 2010 when he left for Miami, LeBron was acting phony.
For in the past he had emphasized he was from Akron, which is not even a suburb of Cleveland, more than an hour south of ‘the Land as its own decent-sized city. He also and went out of his way to show off his Yankees fandom, wearing a navy New York cap at Indians home games, of all places knowing Clevelanders hate the pinstripers, and pointing to it.
So in categories, Bird wins five of the eight - with three of those by a clear or large margin, except for passing and scoring, where his edge is lesser. If one counts the five intangibles listed separately, it is 10-3 for Bird.
And of the three he lost, only defense is really a big part of a forward’s game, and none were lost by as big a margin as Larry’s shooting, intangibles and rebounding advantages were won. Ballhandling and great athleticism are great to have, but not as essential to a forward as shooting, scoring, passing and rebounding.
If one cloned five Bird’s and five LBJ’s for a full-court, 48-minute game, I think the Bird team would win clearly. For Larry is the far superior shooter, thinker and scorer, more determined, tougher physically and mentally. He is a much better rebounder and the better passer, and is able to score in many more ways (and within the rules), as well as with his off hand better than any player in modern NBA history other than arguably Paul Westphal.
Bird has that get it done mentality to a far greater extent than James. I also feel that Larry’s poor background, somewhat homely looks and unlikely appearance imbued him with an innate humility that kept him grounded despite his incredible career, and constant motivation to prove his doubters wrong.
Even though James came from a similarly deprived upbringing, he was pampered, highly-publicized and marked for greatness from early in his high school career. Bird was a relative unknown, a late bloomer from a small school in southern Indiana who grew six inches one summer and took his guard skills into a big forward’s frame.
So lightly-regarded was he as a recruit that Kentucky head coach Joe B. Hall would not even offer him a scholarship because he didn’t think Bird was athletic enough to get his shot off in the SEC. LOL.
Bob Knight only gave Bird his last scholarship to Indiana in 1974 when that year’s Indiana Mr. Basketball Steve Collier (NOT Larry, despite his gaudy 31 points and 21 rebounds per game averages) decided to attend Cincinnati instead of IU.
In retrospect years later Bird remarked that although he wasn’t sure of it at the time, he was the best player in the state - but the snubs only made him work that much harder to become better and prove everyone who doubted him wrong. The suicide of his father at 19 and a short, failed marriage by age 20 only strengthened his resolve.
His substance over flash personality and dogged determination inspired his teammates and raised their level of play to their maximum. Bird’s will to win was as strong as anyone, moreso than James. Rhodes Scholar Tom McMillen, a 6-10 All-American forward from Maryland and later NBA journeyman who was ranked ahead of the great Bill Walton when they came out of high school, once remarked that trying to stop Bird was like trying to rein in the wind.
In a 2014 article excerpt from the book “Showtime” about the 1980s Lakers, LA sixth man and defensive stopper Michael Cooper called Bird a “10-dimensional player...if anything, he was underrated. Larry could beat you in so many ways...he was the hardest player for me to play against.” Not Jordan.
Even fierce Laker rival Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said Bird was the best all-around player he ever played against - “he could do anything” and had the mind to beat you, added Jabbar. The man coached at UCLA by another Hoosier hoops legend in John Wooden noted in his autobiography “Giant Steps” that Bird was always in perfect position.
”He was playing chess when everyone else was playing checkers,” said ex-Celtic Hall of Fame player and coach Tom Heinsohn of Bird. Heinsohn, an accomplished painter, was also an insightful network TV analyst for CBS and ABC.
Bird loved and learned to take advantage of those who underestimated him. Those who mistook his southern Indiana drawl and country boy persona for an unintelligent rube were in for a very rude awakening.
UCLA superstar and future NBA MVP and Celtic championship teammate Bill Walton was Larry’s lone hoops idol in high school. A supremely intelligent and competitive all-time great player himself, Walton attested to Bird’s basketball brilliance in a CBS show ranking NCAA basketball’s 10 greatest all-time shooters, with Bird rated number one.
Although often given to hyperbole, Walton’s comments on Bird’s hoops IQ were genuine. “While he loves to portray himself as the Hick from French Lick, this guy is truly a genius,” said the big redhead. “He did things that nobody had done, did do or will ever do again.”
Former fierce 76er rival Julius Erving, who faced off with Larry in four epic Eastern Conference finals showdowns from 1980-85, echoed Walton’s comments. “Larry wore a mask of a hick, but if you believed that for a minute, you were in trouble,” said Dr. J. “He was a basketball savant.”
Larry vs. Barry
Robert Parish was Bird’s frontcourt runningmate in Boston from 1980-92. But he played his first four seasons with Golden State, the initial two of which he teamed with 6-7 Warrior superstar forward Rick Barry, Bird’s closest NBA analogue player.
In Peter May’s fine book about the 1986 champion Celtics called “The Last Banner,” Parish was quoted as saying Barry was the most arrogant person he had ever met in his life. Then Robert came to Boston in the 1980 draft trade to play with another blonde superstar forward in Bird, who was confident but very grounded and not nearly as outspoken as Rick.
The Chief benefited greatly from Bird’s slick passing for the next dozen seasons and won three NBA titles, a number that could have easily been doubled if not for injuries, the death of Len Bias and a rugged East.
A top athlete, Barry has sired five professional hoop-playing sons, one of whom (Brent) won the NBA slam dunk competition. Rick is the ONLY man to win scoring titles in the NCAA, NBA and ABA. That is a record which can and will never be equalled. He also is a member of the NBA 50 Greatest list and the ABA All-Time team, and led his teams to championships in both leagues.
One of the last underhanded foul shooters, he won seven NBA and ABA free throw titles and ranks just ahead of Bird at over 89 percent free throw accuracy for a career.
Barry actually has the highest NBA Finals scoring average of any player in league history with a minimum of 10 championship series games (36.3). That’s ahead of Wilt, Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, everyone. And as a great long-range shooter, he did it without the three-pointer. In just his second season, Barry led the NBA in scoring and tallied 40.8 ppg in the Warriors’ six-game 1967 NBA Finals loss to the 76ers.
At age 30 in 1975, a more mature and well-rounded Barry carried the Warriors to the NBA title, the only one the franchise won in nearly six decades between 1956 and 2015. He averaged over 30 points a game and led the team in assists (6.2) and steals (2.9) as a forward. Yet because he was so disliked, Barry was not voted the regular season league MVP.
In the 1975 NBA Finals, Barry led Golden State to a shocking 4-0 sweep over the heavily-favored Washington Bullets. Rick scored 29.5 ppg in the sweep and was the obvious choice for Finals MVP as the second-leading Warrior scorer in that Finals was rookie Keith (later Jamaal) Wilkes - who averaged just 11.5 ppg. That 18-point gap between the top two scorers on a title-winner is the greatest in championship series history. Think about that for a moment.
The next year Golden State was the favorite to repeat as they posted the league’s best record at 59-23 behind Barry. Yet in the Western finals, they were upset 4-3 by an upstart 42-40 Phoenix team led by Westphal and Rookie of the Year Alvan Adams.
Golden State lost game seven on its homecourt in part because pugnacious Suns rookie guard Ricky Sobers picked a fight early in the game with Barry. When the officials and his own teammates were tardy coming to his defense, and/or unsupportive in the abuse of their superstar, Barry went into a shell and refused to shoot most of the rest of the game as Cinderella Phoenix posted the shocking upset.
Legendary NBA official Earl Strom admitted in his autobiography “Calling the Shots” that he held back his fellow referee when he originally went to break up the fight because of a grudge against Barry. In his book Strom named Rick, Elvin Hayes and Oscar Robertson as the three worst chronic complainers he dealt with in his long officiating career.
After the shocking loss to the Sunderella Suns, the Warriors never returned to the conference finals for 39 years as Barry bolted the Warriors as a free agent for Houston in 1978.
Barry was very smart, incredibly competitive, a great shooter and passer, yet was one of the most disliked great players in NBA annals by players and officials, as well as some media members. He emoted regular negativity and was perceived with some validity as arrogant, a chronic complainer, and a selfish, money-hungry narcissist.
NBA superstar and legendary general manager Jerry West has even called Barry nearly the equal of Bird. Like Larry, Barry led a big first-season improvement (17 wins to 35), was named Rookie of the Year (25.7 ppg, 10.6 rpg) and guided the Warriors to the Finals in his second season. However they lost to Philadelphia while Bird guided Boston to the 1981 NBA crown in his second season over Barry’s former team, the Rockets.
Rick was the first great player to jump from the NBA to the ABA, as he headed across the bay from the then-San Francisco Warriors to the Oakland Oaks to play for his father-in-law Bruce Hale, who also was his college coach at Miami (Fl.).
After being forced to sit out a year in a lawsuit, Barry led the ABA in scoring (34 ppg) and Oakland won the 1969 ABA crown, aided also by future coaches Larry Brown and Doug Moe. But Rick missed the playoffs with a knee injury.
By the time a court order forced him back to the Warriors shortly after he led the New York Nets to an ABA Finals loss to Indiana in 1972, he had matured into a great all-around player and less of a gunner.
Ironically, Rick retired in 1980 after the Celtics and rookie Bird swept them 4-0 in the eastern semifinals (Houston moved to the West the next season, when they would face Boston in the NBA Finals and lose again, 4-2). In retiring, Barry passed the torch to Bird.
The main differences between Larry and Barry? Bird was a much better rebounder - (10.0-6.7 per game) - two inches taller, a more creative passer and scorer, and much more humble. Larry used his deadly left hand much better to score.
Both were great at anticipating steals and playing the passing lanes. They were the two best passing forwards ever, and both excelled at the art of jumping to shoot before, with incredible court vision, unselfishly passing off to an open teammate for a closer shot.
Barry ran and jumped better, and was nicknamed the “Miami Greyhound” early in his career for his speed. Both were very slender early in their careers before muscling up later on.
Rick was more selfish early in his career, averaging 28.7 shots a game during his second season when he led the NBA in scoring (35.6 ppg) to end Wilt Chamberlain’s seven-year stranglehold as scoring champion.
Barry averaged about 24 shots a game through 1975, while Bird only took as many as 20 shots a game in four seasons out of 13. Larry’s career-high of 22 attempts per outing in 1984-85 came when he was in the process of winning his second straight MVP award and shooting 52.2 percent from the field.
Several years after he retired, Rick was asked during an interview with Bird by broadcast partner Bill Russell if he was as good a shooter as Larry Legend. Barry surprisingly answered he was not in Larry’s class as a shooter.
Off the court Rick was much more handsome, talkative and self-promoting, and was far more eloquent and comfortable speaking publicly. He served as a top-notch and often-critical (but accurate) CBS analyst from 1974-80 when he was still a player, then became a full-time broadcaster for many more years after retiring. He co-wrote a book on his life as a self-confessed basketball gypsy.
But I think Bird’s greater humility endeared him to teammates and made him much better to play with. He inspired his mates, who also related better to Larry Joe Bird’s no-nonsense style and similarly poor southern Indiana upbringing.
Meanwhile the notoriously difficult Richard Francis Dennis Barry III was relatively comfortable growing up in Roselle Park, New Jersey with his basketball-coach father.
Gary Holland, Larry’s varsity coach at Springs Valley High School, noted that the more humbled, self-sacrificing Bird always had an ability to blend well with others, to quickly detect opponent and teammate strengths/weaknesses and mesh his skills with other players, even the black hotel workers in French Lick/West Baden he played with and against as a teenager.
Holland added that playing basketball at its highest level is really about helping and meshing with others, something Bird excelled in, even to the detriment of his own scoring numbers.
Bird set the Celtic franchise single-season scoring average of 29.9 ppg in 1987-88, his age 32 season, with back and Achilles issues that would sideline him for almost the entire upcoming 1988-89 season. Obviously he could have scored in the 30’s per game years before in his physical prime had he not been so unselfish.
Michael Jordan led the league in shot attempts nine times and took over 30 shots a game some years if you count fouled in the act misses; Bird never even came close to leadng the NBA in shots.
As a high school junior Bird’s senior teammate named Steve Land was close to setting the school career scoring record when Larry went out of a game. When Land subsequently struggled to score, Bird asked the coach to put him back in because he could get Land the record. A few slick assists later from larry, Land had the mark.
Bird often has said he got a big kick out of seeing the gleam in a teammate’s eyes when they scored off a pass from him. By contrast, James’s teammates in Cleveland groused in a Yahoo sports article in 2018 that LeBron, who had the ball most of the time unlike Bird, deliberately held onto the ball too long to pad his assist totals.
Bird was the master of the quick touch pass, the lookaway, the post entry feed away from the defender, a lost art today. He didn’t have to possess the ball like LeBron does to excel or draw attention to himself.
Larry’s Springs Valley High teammates point to a pass Bird made in a game as the first time they realized he had extra special court vision, creativity and hand-eye coordination. Bird re-directed a long pass on the fast break with an intentional “one-timer” deflection through a defender’s legs perfectly in stride to a teammate for a layup. In the film room, the players replayed the incredible pass over and over in amazement.
Ultimately in our increasingly visually-obsessed society, Bird tends to get underrated because of his appearance. He wasn’t overly muscular, a high leaper or exceptionally fast, although he was more athletic than given credited for, especially in the firts half of his career. He also was unsurpassed in more subtle athletic talents such as hand-eye coordination and vision.
His very pale skin made it harder for his muscle definition to stand out as compared to more tan or darker-skinned players. Bodybuilders tan or are dark already in order to make every line of definition stand out. He didn’t do unnecessarly flashy plays.
Larry could be spectacular but much of what he did superbly was more subtle than the more visually flashy Jordan or freight train James. It takes an aficionado to completely understand the subtlety of Bird’s hardcourt art. Any kid or casual fan can appreciate the superficially flashy plays and get a brief thrill from a James or Jordan highlight play.
As for comparative toughness, remember how LeBron begged out of game one in the 2014 Finals due to cramps against the Spurs? Miami got blown out late by SA and went on to lose the series convincingly in lame-duck fashion, 4-1.
When Bird was viciously elbowed in the right cheekbone battling hard but cleanly for a rebound by Jabbar in the contentious fourth game of the epic 1984 Finals at LA, Larry and Kareem exchanged harsh words. An enraged Jabbar clearly said “F you” right in Bird’s face, supposedly adding “white boy” as players from both teams separated the two superstar number 33’s.
Laker players were clearly surprised at Kareem’s outburst, and official Darell Garretson even rolled his eyes at Jabbar’s tantrum since he was the one who threw the elbow and pushed away a few teammates - yet no foul or technical was even assessed on the Laker big man. No complaint from Bird to the refs either.
Yet Bird did not lose his cool like Jabbar did, and later on he drew Jabbar’s sixth foul on a blatant push in the back as Bird blocked out late with 16 seconds left and Boston down two. Larry hit both ensuing clutch free throws to tie it 113-13, arguably the two biggest of his career, to force overtime.
With Jabbar on the bench in OT, Bird muscled inside to make a layup that tied it 123-123 with 1:12 to go. After Earvin Johnson blinked under pressure and blew two critical free throws with 34 seconds left, Bird rebounded and Boston smelled blood in the water.
At the other end Larry moved furiously without the ball to get free of defensive ace Michael Cooper and caught Johnson on a switch when Cooper tripped over teammate Bob McAdoo’s foot. With Johnson on his back, Bird immediately went into the left post and jockeyed hard with him to gain position.
Larry then turned and swished a 13-foot turnaround fade over his helpless nemesis with 16 seconds remaining to give Boston a 125-123 edge on what turned out to be the final lead change. Larry’s mammoth 29-point, 21-rebound effort led Boston’s 129-125 gut-check road win in a hostile atmosphere that tied the series 2-2 and turned momentum in favor of the Celtics.
Back in the non-air conditioned Boston Garden for game five on June 8, the Lakers were smothered by Bird and the 97-degree heat of the famed “sauna game.” Unused to the oppressive heat and humidity, the Lakers and Jabbar gulped air from oxygen tanks in a futile attempt to cope.
Under the extreme circumstances, Bird displayed his championship mettle as he authored the biggest game of his 31 Finals outings. Larry Legend drained an impressive 15 of 20 field goal attempts to score a game-high 34 points. He also yanked down a game-best 17 rebounds to carry Boston to a 121-103 rout and a 3-2 lead in the series, which they eventually won 4-3.
Sensing an LA fold, after the game Bird told reporters (and the Lakers) that he played in hotter conditions back in French Lick, Indiana.
I wonder what kind of cramps LeBron would have gone to the sidelines with under such conditions.
Despite being swarmed constantly by the Lakers and their thinly-veiled zone defense, Bird willed his way to the Finals MVP award with series-best averages of 27.4 points and 14 rebounds per game in the most fiercely-contested of Finals.
Earlier in game two of those epic 1984 Finals, McAdoo lifted his knee and intentionally stuck it into Bird’s groin area on a drive into the lane, but no foul was called as the rebound went out of bounds to LA.
On the very next play McAdoo again drove the lane and Bird was right there once more in perfect help defense position to thwart the former three-time scoring champ. Surprised to see him back in a similar spot to take the punishment and probably feeling a bit guilty for kneeing Bird seconds before, Big Mac pulled up short to avoid a collision and missed an easy shot, which Boston rebounded.
That illustrates the sort of determination, physical and mental toughness, and desire to get even with Johnson that James, who never had a true similar Finals foil to lift his game, lacks. Seven years later a battered and bruised Bird saved his last great playoff game for his home-state Pacers, a young and talented team on the rise.
In the first half of the decisive game of the 1991 eastern first round series vs. Indiana, a 34.5 year old Bird dove for a loose ball and smashed his head and right cheekbone on the parquet floor, knocking himself out briefly.
Already plagued by back pain, he ignored doctor’s orders to stay in the locker room. Chuck Person gave Bird a blind cheap shot in the back as he back-ledale don defense, buckling but not breaking him.
Ultimately Bird came back to the roar of the Garden crowd in the second half to score a game-high 32 points and lead Boston to a 124-121 victory to clinch the best of five series, 3-2. It was the last of his many truly heroic playoff performances.
One can look to his no-excuses stoicism under great pressure as well, compared to a relative lack of self-restraint by James. Look up game 4 in the 1987 NBA Finals. With Boston down 2-2 to the Lakers, they held a 16-point secon dhalf lead before fatigue and six bad calls by the refs helped LA rally. Bird cleanly stripped Byron Scott on a fast break drive, but was called for a foul erroneously.
As Scott and A.C. Green picked a fight with McHale, Bird silently protested Hue Evans call by palming the ball, walking up to the ref and just staring him straight in the face without a word. After a few seconds, Larry just shook his head, dropped the ball and walked away.
Then after his highly-contested left corner trey (James Worthy was grabbing his jersey with both hands and Mychal Thompson fouled him after the release) gave Boston a 106-104 lead in the final seconds, another bad call on a missed free throw that the Lakers hit out of bounds helped LA regain the lead 107-106 with two seconds left.
Could Bird save Boston again like he had vs. Detroit a few weeks earlier with the steal, and just moments ago with the corner three?
Bird’s rushed left corner 22-footer narrowly missed at the final horn, but he never changed expression even as the Garden buzzer grated on for several seconds in disbelief and despair that the savior had finally missed. Had it gone down, the final score would have been the same as the 108-107 Houdini act against the Pistons in game five. Yet Bird made nary an excuse nor changed expression.
Conversely, how would LeBron have reacted in the same spot after missing? Remember how he whined and complained when Mason Plumlee blocked his last-second layup to preserve a win in a mere regular season game a few years ago?
As Johnson said afterward, “I’m not going to take no three like he did...(at the end.) “I’ll take the two and under,” then laughed nervously and happily, knowing they had won a game they did not deserve to.
It is pretty hard to imagine James acting similarly in such a difficult situation. Unlike the stoic Bird, he is known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve, begging for calls and acting as if he has been hammered on brush fouls - all while he gets away with running over defenders regularly.
James regularly complains and makes histrionic hand and facial gestures about perceived missed calls, sometimes laying on the floor even while play goes to the other end. At the end of game seven in the 2016 Finals, he acted like his arm was nearly broken when he was fouled and had to take two big free throws, one of which he missed.
Let us not forget too that Bird played his ENTIRE NBA career with a badly mangled right index finger, the result of a softball injury suffered on a diving catch the summer before his rookie year.
The index finger is the most important digit to shooting! Bird hid the injury from the Celtics and briefly contemplated learning to shoot southpaw before re-working his jumper with constant practice, yet his shot which was never quite as pure or fluid as it was in college before the mishap.
His right pinky was also gnarled by injury. Remember how Bird scored 20 of his 47 points in a 1986 game at Portland LEFT-HANDED? or that at age 35.5 he authored the highest-scoring triple-double (49 points) in NBA history in a nationally-televised double OT win over Portland (the team with the league’s best record) in 1992, near the end of his final season?
Bird navigated the racial minefield of the NBA without a single publicized problem, despite constantly being goaded into potentially inflammmatory situations. He graciously brushed off the obvious sour grapes, racially-motivated comments by Isiah Thomas and controversial rookie Dennis Rodman, who claimed Bird was overrated because he was white, after he had led the Celtics to an epic seven-game series win over the Bad Boy Pistons.
Their silly comments were made after the reigning three-time MVP had averaged 27.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 7.6 assists a game and canned 47 of 50 foul shots in the pressure-packed series. He posted a 37-9-9 line, shooting 10-10 at the line and 13-24 from the field in the seventh game (Thomas shot 10-28 and Rodman was 1-2 with no rebounds).
In addition, Bird’s legendary steal of a floating Thomas in-bounds pass and his assist to DJ with one second left in the classic fifth game snatched victory from defeat, 108-107. Overrated? Yeah, right.
Before game two of the 1987 Finals in LA, Bird bailed Thomas out at a press conference before game two, saying that if the comments did not bother him, they should not bother anyone else. he could easily have used the coments to reiterate his accomplishments or make a self-aggrandizing or self-pitying scene, as many would have. Yet he took the high road.
But his friendship with Thomas was fractured, and he made Isiah apologize to his mother over the phone when he called to explain himself - then rightfully fired Thomas as Pacer head coach in favor of Rick Carlisle 15 years later when he returned to his home-state organization.
Isiah had also criticized Bird’s coaching acumen as an NBC analyst, despite Larry leading Indiana to the only NBA Finals in franchise history in 2000, as well as the three best seasons (two other East finals) in the club’s NBA history during his short tenure. When Thomas succeeded Bird, the team barely made the playoffs as the eighth and final East seed the next two seasons.
Was Larry a perfect player? No, yet no one is. His shot selection was occasionally questionable (although he had a penchant for making outrageous shots as K.C. Jones in particular allowed him free rein to take those wild attempts at times), and his nitpicking detractors loved to point out that his individual defense could be exploited in certain situations. He wasn’t able to stop players like James Worthy around the basket. But few if any were able to, either.
An inability to control his beer drinking led to weight gain and hurt his underrated quickness/leaping ability in the mid 1980s. A quick temper in off-court incidents such as the bar fight that injured his shooting hand and possibly cost Boston the 1985 Finals illustrates another flaw, although he usually managed to harness his anger into authoring psychological daggers on the court.
Yet at least Bird owned up this foibles. When asked what it meant that he had allowed a bar fight to jeopardize the Celtic repeat title chances in 1985, he replied that it showed people should not look up to him as a hero. It is pretty hard to imagine LeBron, who also became something of an elder statesman NBA ambassador in his later years (and often a PC political commentator on off-court issues) owning up to that.
Larry’s superior shooting, creativity in shotmaking and passing, his crisper passing, better board work, persistence, clutch play, ambidexterity and intangibles would more than overcome LBJ’s greater athleticism, ballhandling and flashy, chase-down shot-blocks.
While his career stats compare well with any of the greatest all-around players, his superior intangibles on top of the awesome numbers he amassed (while hurt in a golden era of the league) put him over the top against James - and arguably anyone else too, with luminaries Robertson, West, Havlicek and Jordan ranking right there with him.
Dave Gavitt, the 1980 U.S. Olympic team coach and founder of the Big East basketball conference, was a far-thinking basketball man. He also coached Providence, led by Ernie DiGregorio and Marvin Barnes, to the 1973 Final Four and served as Celtic team president in Bird’s final seasons.
After unsuccessfully trying to convince Bird to come back for one more season as a sixth man playing only in home games and close road games he could drive to since flying irritated his back so much, Gavitt authored one of my favorite quotes about Larry Legend.
At Bird’s retirement press conference in 1992, Gavitt said that “from the top of his head to his tips of his fingers Bird played the game better than anyone ever has - and with a heart five times bigger than anyone I ever saw.”
To contact the author, you can e-mail Cort Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org