With All-Star weekend upon us, let’s look at Larry Bird’s stellar play in the annual mid-season classic - back when it was still a serious competition and not a bad playground game of absolutely no defense and slow motion, “can you top this one-upmanship” by players avoiding almost any expenditure of energy and injury.
When Bird played, the pay was good but not outrageous, and the games were still fiercely contested. In fact, Bird’s East squad won the first five All-Star Games he played in from 1980 through 1984. The first one he lost in 1985 - at the Indianapolis Hoosierdome in his home state no less - came partly because Bird got elbowed and bloodied, and had to leave the court in the second half. It was then with Larry on the bench that the West pulled away to win.
The other time Bird’s East team lost was in 1987 at the Seattle Kingdome, when the East lost an epic overtime game as SuperSonic hometown hero Tom Chambers scored 34 points. But that happened only after underrated Dallas guard Rolando Blackman canned two clutch game-tying free throws at the end of regulation with no time left to force OT.
Larry’s legendary All-Star game performances started in his rookie season. Boston pulled into the 1980 All-Star Game break with a 40-13 record. Ironically in their last game on January 31 before the ASG, Boston beat Washington 119-103 at the Capital Centre, the site of the mid-season classic. Bird scored 24 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and dished out five assists to beat the defending two-time Eastern Conference champion Bullets.
Three days later, Bird and teammate Nate Archibald represented the Celtics at the All-Star Game. Boston center Dave Cowens was also named to the team, but was unable to play due to injury. Still, Bird played sparingly in the 1980 All-Star Game as a green rookie forced to pay his dues. Bird played only 17 of the first 47 minutes.
Inserted at the end of the classic game in Washington by 76er head coach Billy Cunningham, a cold Bird came off the bench into a 128-128 game after a long break on the sidelines. Amazingly, the East team left the game-winning shot to Bird - who launched an open 20-footer that bounced off the rim short just before the buzzer.
Perhaps by letting Bird take the last shot it was the disgruntled veterans’ way of saying “hey you hyped-up rookie, if you are so great, let’s see what you have got.” Or maybe they also trusted him with the last shot, even as a rookie. Maybe both.
His top of the key shot would have won the game, and when it misfired the normally unemotional Kareem Abdul-Jabbar raised both of his arms toward the sky in triumph, even though the game was only headed to overtime.
Laker rookie Earvin Johnson also jumped up and down after Bird’s miss and punched his right fist into the air in celebration, dancing jauntily toward his West huddle. When he crossed paths with Bird seconds later as they walked to their respective benches, the Laker rookie prudently pulled his right arm down. But he continued prancing along like a little kid and had cut right in front of Bird in what appeared to be a bit of taunting. An obviously upset Larry gave him a little slap in the back as he walked by with a determined, angry gait to his East bench.
Taunting Bird after a rare clutch miss was the wrong thing to do, and Larry was clearly motivated to make up for it and more in the overtime. A determined Bird responded by coming up huge in the overtime and led the East to a 144-138 victory, the first in a long line of clutch performances that would help make him a legend and help rebuild the league.
In OT he buried a 22-foot left baseline jumper. After Johnson scored to tie it at 136-136, Larry answered his nemesis again. He drained a tie-breaking trey from the deep left corner to make the first three-point goal in All-Star Game history a memorable one.
His gutsy bomb, at a time when few three-pointers were taken (1979-80 was the first season the rule was in effect in the NBA) gave the East the lead for good at 139-136. “It takes a special kind of player to want that shot at a time like this,” offered CBS analyst Bill Russell.
He added two big rebounds and then put the game away with the assist of the year with his midair, basketball savant southpaw no-look rebound tip pass to George Gervin for the game-clinching layup.
Thus was born Larry Legend in the clutch and his penchant for making dagger triples at critical junctures. Bird almost always seemed able to will himself to rise to the occasion and make miraculous plays of all kinds in order to help his team win.
In just 23 minutes of play at the 1980 ASG, he dished out a team-high seven assists, grabbed six boards and scored seven crucial points. He did all this while taking just six shots and deferring to veterans most of the game until taking over in the crucial overtime.
Bird highlighted his All-Star christening and clinched the outcome with that spectacularly memorable midair pass, arguably as good a pass as has ever been thrown in an All-Star Game. One of the great plays of his career commenced when Bird rebounded a missed three-point try by Seattle center Jack Sikma late in OT. Larry then led the fast break and as he approached half court, he fired a 40-foot lookaway pass to Moses Malone. Moses missed a short shot and then tipped the ball out toward the left elbow during a rebound scrum with Sikma.
Bird had continued trailing the play after his pass, and with his splendid court vision and reactions, left his feet and lunged at the rebound with his left hand. He slapped a 12-foot, over-the-shoulder rebound/tip no-look pass – with his off hand - past a stunned Sikma directly to game MVP Gervin for a reverse layup.
“That was phenomenal, that pass he made on the flip,” gushed CBS analyst Hot Rod Hundley, who was himself known for flashy play as a Laker 15-20 years earlier.
“I DON’T BELIEVE he saw George Gervin,” marveled CBS announcer Brent Musburger. The true no-look lefty tip was slapped over his right shoulder just over the head of Sikma perfectly to a surprised Gervin.
The improvised pass displayed Bird’s quickness of mind and hand, along with his creative flair for the dramatic. “This pass was just unbelievable,” added Russell. It was just a harbinger of things to come from Bird, and on top of the play’s sheer brilliance, it buried the West’s chances and clinched the East win.
As Celtic Hall of Fame player/coach Tom Heinsohn said many times, “Larry was playing chess when everyone else was playing checkers. He was three moves ahead of everyone else.”
Because Larry was all about winning and substance. He was flashy when needed, on top of his great fundamental skill base. In fact, Larry played a very key role as his East team beat Earvin Johnson’s West squad in five straight close contests from 1980-84, the longest such streak in league history.
The only year his archrival Johnson didn’t play in the mid-winter classic (in 1981 at Richfield, Ohio due to a knee injury), Larry had his worst All-Star Game without his foil there to push him. The East still won 123-120 as Celtic teammate Archibald was named MVP. Bird again was not voted in as a starter, oddly, but he got the starting nod in place of the injured standout Dan Roundfield, another Atlanta player helped greatly by the WTBS TV exposure.
Larry scored just two points, grabbed four rebounds, passed out three assists and made one steal in only 18 minutes.
When Johnson returned to the ASG in 1982, Bird upstaged him again by winning the MVP award with 19 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. He added a steal and block in 28 minutes, spearheading a 120-118 East win.
In the final seven minutes Larry scored 12 points by making four of five field goal tries and four foul shots. He also grabbed four big rebounds and made a pair of big defensive stops when retreating back by himself on the fast break to preserve the win.
Larry started out the game aggressively, making his first three shots. CBS TV analyst Bill Russell noted, “Larry Bird, although he played aggressive before, is playing even more aggressively this season in games I have seen.”
Bird knocked down a long left wing jumper to start his night. He then showed people his underrated quickness with a classic stop and go move where he faked a 20-footer and drove hard to his right past a frozen defender for a running banker.
Moments later he stuffed in a two-handed breakaway, but then East/Celtics head coach Bill Fitch took him out for most of the rest of the half.
In the second half Bird was fouled on a hard-driving fast break layup. The ball was about to drop in after bouncing on the rim, but East guard Micheal Ray Richardson foolishly tried to dunk it in and was called for offensive goaltending to take away Bird’s basket.
Bird split a pair of free throws for his seventh point but moments later Dennis Johnson, then playing for the West as a representative of Phoenix, blocked an off-balance Bird runner in the lane. As usual due to his competitive fire, Larry returned the favor moments later when he snatched a Dennis pass out of midair with quick hands and fine anticipation to thwart a fast break.
When he re-entered the game with a bit over seven minutes left to play, Larry swished a 17-footer from the right baseline. But the West scored on two straight fast breaks when Bird was the only player back on defense, the second time on a Jack Sikma 3-on-1 dunk that put the West on top 109-107.
Two Bird foul shots, with Larry curiously standing about six inches behind the foul line after he had uncharacteristically missed his first three free throws of the game, swished through to tie it at 109-all. When Sikma drove the right side on the next play, Bird blocked his fellow blonde’s shot, but Jack got the rebound and banked it in for a 111-109 lead.
Larry then curled around a screen and burst open in the circle. He took a pass, squared up and nailed a 17-footer to tie the game again. After a West miss, Bird took an in-bounds pass from under the basket at the top of the key and drained a 20-footer for a 113-111 East edge.
After the West tied it again, Erving untied it by splitting two free throws. Sikma missed a chance to put the West ahead by leaving a baseline jumper short, and Bird beat everyone to the rebound. Robert Parish, who tallied 21 points in 20 minutes, then slammed in a dunk for a 116-113 lead.
Lonnie Shelton of Seattle them made one of two free tosses to cut the deficit to two before Bird made one of his typical high degree of difficulty shots. Larry drove to the right elbow and appeared temporarily stymied. He then stepped back to throw off the defense as he picked up his dribble, then leaned forward to unleash a difficult 14-footer.
The East’s last field goal of the game was fittingly one of the best shots of the day and gave them a 118-114 lead.
Gervin scored for the West to halve the deficit. After a Gervin miss that could have tied it, Bird rebounded and missed a 20-footer himself, his only misfire of the stanza. Gervin drove down in transition and tried a right-handed layup from the left side. But Bird had hustled back on defense and forced the Iceman to miss.
At the other end, Bird was fouled and cleanly canned both foul shots for a 120-116 bulge with 94 seconds to go. Sikma then made a nifty left-handed pass to Norm Nixon for a 16-footer that cut it to 120-118. Richardson then drove and Nixon blocked his shot from the side, then raced out on the break as a teammate corralled the loose ball.
But once again Bird hustled back on defense and forced Nixon, who was a great finisher in transition, to miss a potential tying layup. The West got the rebound yet Sikma missed a jumper and Bird out-fought Shelton for the key rebound with 37 ticks remaining.
The East called timeout and cleared out the left side for Dr. J, who drove in but was called for an offensive foul when Sikma took the charge with 17 seconds to go. New York native Gus Williams, who led all scorers with 22 points, went for the victory on a three-pointer that might have won the game and earned him MVP honors, but the Seattle guard’s launch missed badly.
Yet the rebound caromed out of bounds off the East, giving the West one last chance with five seconds left. On the final play Earvin Johnson took the in-bounds pass and drove hard right down the lane, but he missed a three-footer off the back rim and Parish rebounded as time expired.
This time it was Bird’s chance to celebrate at his rival’s expense, but in Larry’s case his 20-foot miss at the ASG buzzer in 1980 only necessitated overtime; in 1982 Johnson’s driving layup would have tied the contest had he made it. However, after the comparatively easy Johnson shot missed long Bird only clapped at the foul line far away from Earvin, not near his face.
Incidentally, rookie East starter Isiah Thomas was so nervous that he airballed not one but two free throws in the contest. His fellow Piston rookie, forward Kelly Tripucka, also made his All-Star debut in his home state of New Jersey as a replacement for the injured Dan Roundfield, and scored six points. West center Jabbar missed his first nine shots and ended up shooting an awful 1-for-10 to tally just two points in 22 minutes.
MVP Bird humbly deflected the praise of CBS announcer Dick Stockton in a post-game interview. He noted that it was easier to do well with two Celtic teammates on the floor with him (Parish and Archibald, even though each played less than half the game) and the Boston coaching staff on the sidelines calling plays for him when he got hot late.
He had scored 12 of the East’s last 15 points and come up with several crucial rebounds as well as the two key defensive stops. All 12 of his boards were of the defensive variety.
In 1983 at suburban Los Angeles, the game is remembered more for Marvin Gaye’s soulful rendition of the national anthem than Bird and the East’s 132-123 victory. Larry put together a solid all-around game with 14 points, a game-high 13 rebounds, a team-high seven assists and two steals in 29 minutes. But fan favorite Julius Erving won the MVP award with 25 points on 11-19 shooting.
In 1984 at Denver, Bird again helped the East win for the fifth time in his fifth appearance. It marked the second of three dramatic ASG overtime contests in Bird’s career, 154-149.
Larry posted good numbers of 16 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals. But he showed off his vast and unique skill set, one that was unmatched in its tangibles and intangibles in a game populated mostly by scorers who weren’t even as skilled as him in that area.
In the second period he ran down an overthrown long outlet pass, showing off the underrated speed he possessed before major injuries set in. He simply ran as fast and jumped as high as he needed to. On this play he chased down the long lead pass and just as he reached it, whipped a no look one-handed southpaw pass (without taking a dribble) hard 20 feet, past Jabbar to Parish for a dunk which Kareem blocked.
Moments later, Bird couldn’t quite corral an offensive rebound but tipped it to himself. After gaining his balance he then laid it in for an old-fashioned three-point play.
A few plays after that, he did something almost no one ever could to Jabbar. As Kareem wheeled left to take his vaunted hook from the right side of the lane, Bird darted underneath him and stripped the ball cleanly from the Laker center just as he was rising to shoot.
Jabbar was shocked by the rare steal, but it was typical Bird anticipation and quick hands. He alone had figured out how to stop the unstoppable hook shot down low instead of up high. After the steal, Larry then ran out in transition and took a long pass for what would have been an easy stuff shot. But instead he unselfishly shoveled a pass to a trailing Dr. J for a reverse dunk.
Early in the third period, Bird stopped an Adrian Dantley drive and rebounded the miss. He threw an outlet pass and sprinted up court on the break, filling the lane. He received a pass from Erving at full speed and laid it in softly for another three-point play. Breathing heavily after his exertion in the thin air of Denver, he swished the ensuing free throw.
He also did the little things that other big “stars” just don’t do. When Bird tossed a perfect in-bounds pass to Isiah Thomas with no defensive pressure in the back court, the Piston guard absent-mindedly mishandled the pass. The ball then hit his foot and ricocheted away from him, rolling fast toward the baseline.
Thomas didn’t even take a step toward saving the ball, but perfectionist Bird did. He adjusted from his up court trot to full speed in an instant, changed direction and sprinted over at least 15 feet to his left to recover the loose ball just before it went out of bounds.
Without drawing attention to himself, he then gave the ball back to the frozen Thomas and continued up court as if nothing had happened. It was one of those small plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet that only grounded people and players make (or notice), not usually superstars in an exhibition game.
In a game full of primarily offensive-oriented scorers not as good as him, Bird was the one man who did not have to “possess” the ball, to hold it for an isolation play or over-dribble, like Thomas. Instead Larry stimulated ball movement and the offense of everyone else on his team with great vision, intelligence and unselfishness via crisply quick, pinpoint passing. In so doing, he sublimated his own offense and ego to get everyone else involved, far more than they did for him.
Only when he played with other great passing teammates like Walton (or Archibald and DJ to a lesser degree) would Bird cut a lot without the ball. Most of the time, he was instead the facilitator for others. Not only did he create for himself and others, he made everyone else better and thus helped lift his teams to win, whether it was the regular season, playoffs, or All-Star games.
Ironically, the first time Bird’s East team lost a mid-season classic was in 1985 at the new HoosierDome at Indianapolis. Playing near his Indiana home in front of over 43,000 fans Larry admitted to Dick Stockton and Tom Heinsohn that he had a rare case of butterflies before his sixth All-Star game in as many years.
On TV as Bird shot two foul shots, Heinsohn compared his game to American chess great, Bobby Fischer. Heinsohn noted that Larry was three moves ahead of everyone else, playing chess when others were playing checkers. Bird netted 21 points, including a gorgeous left-handed reverse layup three-point play to cap a fast break. In the second half he brought the crowd to its feet when he drained his patented high-arching, behind the backboard 12-foot jumper from the right baseline, but the shot was disallowed.
Larry netted a pair of free throws to pull the East within 112-105 with 7:30 remaining when the game took a turn for the worse. However, in the fourth quarter, with the East slicing into their deficit, West forward Dantley drove into the lane passed Dr. J and Kareem slammed a screen into Erving to free more driving room.
Moses Malone was out of position to hedge the screen and late getting over to stop the drive, so Bird slid over to help out and jumped backward into the air with arms extended high over the brawny 6-5 Jazz scoring ace. Dantley was a non-leaper who was a master at drawing fouls with good body control and wide shoulders, but Bird was not falling for his patented, contact-drawing moves.
So to keep from getting his shot blocked and clear space, Dantley used his powerful left arm to ward Larry off. In so doing he nailed him with a nasty elbow straight into the nose and upper mouth. Bird immediately flew back off the court under the basket and landed hard under the basket. He may have hit his neck on a camera or just landed awkwardly. Dantley came over to ask him if he was alright, but Larry did not respond or even look at the wide-eyed Dantley as he got to his feet silently and without apparent anger.
The Jazz forward walked away after Bird brushed by him without so much as a glance. The elbow had been wholly unnecessary and unprovoked and dangerous. He wasn’t interested in assuaging Dantley’s supposed concerns when he was in serious pain - in so doing he was telling AD in a very non-violent way that the move should not have been made. On top of that, he hadn’t even gotten the offensive foul call; Dantley was actually awarded two free throws.
Bird had to leave the game, and the East trainer vigorously checked his upper row of teeth for looseness, or worse. They stuffed his mouth with gauze to stop the bleeding. When he returned to the court, a dark red stream of blood began cascading down his mustache and chin onto his jersey. Still without a word or gesture of any kind, he walked reluctantly to the pine after Dantley hit the free tosses. A large red smudge adorned his white home jersey right next to the NBA logo with the Jerry West silhouette.
As a young boy he had watched his father Joe pull work boots on over a painfully swollen ankle and go to work without complaining. It had made quite an impression on the young boy, and he never forgot it. Few other star players or even a regular would have suffered such a shot without getting angry, yelling or complaining to the refs or anyone within earshot. When he first entered the league, Bird played with all-out intensity, with something to prove. Once he had achieved the pinnacle, he began to play and live less angrily and with less paranoia and more understanding – and peace.
But perhaps adding to Bird’s pain, he was forced to sit out at the crucial moment of the All-Star Game, the only one he ever played back in his home state. He lived for these moments to take over a close contest. Now all he could do was lean forward, head down, as a trainer held a bag of ice on the back of his neck for several minutes.
When he eventually came back in with his right nostril full of tissue to discourage any more blood, his eyes were glassy and slightly moist. Larry self-consciously ran his tongue along his upper row of teeth inside his mouth as he slowly got up and walked back onto the floor. No one on either team dared look at, touch him, or welcome him back onto the field of play.
The momentum had changed back to the West. Larry was now out of the flow and missed a step-back three-pointer that could have gotten the East back in it. It was on line but just short, and bounded up over the backboard. Moments later, he uncharacteristically stepped his left heel on the sideline after receiving a pass from Terry Cummings. His nemesis. Earvin Johnson, had rushed straight out at him to guard against a left corner three-pointer, forcing a surprised Bird to step back. Larry clearly was not completely recovered from the elbow to his face.
With Bird wounded and woozy, East coach K.C. Jones took his star out for good with the West ahead by 13 and just over two minutes left. With some red staining his blonde mustache, Bird watched the last seconds tick away intently from the bench while sitting between Parish and Cummings, his gnarled fingers folded in prayer-like contemplation in front of his face.
At the very end, he placed a towel over his mouth while his ice-blue eyes unblinkingly watched the action. The West had gone on to win easily 90 minutes or so from Bird’s backyard, 140-129.
As Larry walked off the floor alone after the game, his first All-Star loss in six tries, he wiped his mouth again with the towel, then flipped it over his shoulder nonchalantly - yet with an intense look that also bespoke of some chagrin. One wonders if he was thinking about Dantley’s elbow and the poundings he used to take from his older brothers when he played with them on the French Lick playgrounds 15-20 years before.
The irony of the elbow he took two decades later close to home was possibly reminiscent of those days. And motivated him to keep continuing to rebound from such physical play using even more inspired retaliation through his incredibly versatile game instead of by aggressive brute force.
Those courts seemed so nearby at the time, yet so far away at the same time.
In 1986 at Dallas, Bird scored 23 points to go with eight rebounds, seven assists, and seven steals as the East rallied with a late run to win the 36th All-Star Game, 139-132.
He started the game by getting the ball at the top of the key with Jabbar guarding him on a switch. Larry dribbled twice to his left and banked in a running left-handed hook from 12 feet over the 7'2 Kareem. He was probably the only played on the floor with the skill and audacity to take and make such a difficult off-hand shot, over Jabbar no less.
Moments later Bird hustled back and swiped the ball cleanly with incredible handiwork from a cherry-picking Jabbar as he went in for a stuff. Two plays later Bird reached in and stripped the ball again from Jabbar as he wheeled for his patented hook.
In the first All-Star three-point shootout at Dallas in 1986, Bird made it from a group of eight competitors into the finals against 6'1 Buck guard Craig Hodges, who had scored an incredible 25 points out of a possible 30 in the first round.
Hodges won the coin flip and chose to go first in the championship round, and Larry playfully stood by him before he started as a friendly form of intimidation. He smiled and then patted Hodges on the backside.
But Craig was out of gas and after starting slowly only scored 12 points, and had to rush to even get off all 25 shots in the minute allotted due to fatigue.
Dominique Wilkins and his brother Gerald were watching and waiting for the Slam Dunk Contest to start, and not surprisingly, ‘Nique appeared to be openly rooting for Hodges to win. “I knew Bird would be in the finals, but I think Craig might win it,” Wilkins said to his brother.
At the other end, Bird had no such problems at the start. He missed his first shot from the left corner, and then got on an incredible roll. He buried the next four balls in the rack, then proceeded to the left wing rack, where he drained all five balls for a total 10 points. With 15 shots to go, he only needed three more points to win the title.
The entranced Dallas crowd started counting now each time Bird fired a long bomb cleanly through the net. “Seven…Eight…Nine,” the throng chanted as they stood up en masse to better appreciate his classic shooting display. Larry moved to the center rack beyond the top of the key and made the next two. “10…11!” before he finally missed on a shot that rimmed in and out.
In all, he had canned 11 treys in a row to tie Hodges with 13 shots still left! As Bird continued to bury triples, the smile on the face of Dominique Wilkins turned to head-shaking, grudging concession. With the outcome now in hand, when he reached the money two-point ball at the end of the right wing rack of balls, Bird then nonchalantly banked in a triple to cap his triumph to stick the dagger in further.
After playfully launching his last shot high into the rafters before it rimmed out, he ended up with 22 points to whip Hodges easily by 10.Back in the tunnel, Wilkins looked at a fellow dunker, smiled slightly and conceded, “That’s why they call him the Birdman.”
Celtic teammates Ainge and Scott Wedman had teased Larry for weeks leading up to the shootout, saying that they should have been chosen ahead of him. They probably knew this would only serve to motivate Bird, who started practicing the three-point racks to prove them wrong.
But one teammate never doubted Bird would win the shootout. “When I heard Larry could win $10,000 in a day just for shooting three-pointers, I KNEW it was over,” said McHale, who knew well Bird’s legendary shooting ability and frugality.
In the actual 1986 All-Star Game the next afternoon, a confident Bird playing at his peak made a strong bid for his second MVP award with a fine all-around performance. Larry scored 23 points, second-most in the game behind only the 30 tallied by Isiah Thomas, and the East won a close game 139-132 with a late rally.
But Bird also yanked down eight rebounds, nabbed seven steals (his most ever in the ASG), and passed out five assists. Riding high from his three-point win the previous day, Larry knocked in two triples in four tries, made eight of his 18 field goal tries, and canned five of his six free shots. His seven steals were only one behind the record of eight set by Rick Barry in 1975.
Perhaps his best swipe of the day came when he charged back on defense to slap the ball from Jabbar as the Laker center was going in for a cherry picked fast break dunk, and then recovered the loose ball to complete the play.
With the East up 133-130 with just over a minute to play Earvin Johnson rumbled in on a fast break speedily straight at Bird, who was waiting for him just to the left of the basket. This was a rare summit meeting of the two archenemies who rarely guarded one another, and Bird steeled himself to meet and literally rise to the challenge.
As Johnson swooped in to shoot a right-handed layup Larry leaped intentionally a tick late, letting Earvin go just a bit by him before pulling off his trademark block from the side and slightly behind the offensive player. He appeared to block his rival’s layup shot cleanly with his left hand when Earvin thought he had snuck it past him, but the refs called a phantom foul on Bird.
The normally in control Bird was so upset that the clean block of his rival was miscalled that after corralling the rebound off the glass, he slammed the ball down on the floor to himself. Johnson had complained loudly on the previous drive that he had been fouled by Thomas yet received no whistle, and this whining no doubt played a part in the ensuing call. Thinking they might have missed the call when Johnson’s shot flung wildly off the backboard, the refs gave him the next call out of doubt and sympathy over the previous play – and also out of the assumption that supposed non-leaper Bird would not be able to block such a determined drive.
Had this potential game-clinching block counted it might have helped Bird’s MVP campaign. After Johnson made both foul shots to cut the lead to three, the West stole the ball moments later. Johnson had a chance to tie the contest on a trey but the Laker guard airballed the launch badly and it clanged off the board. The East rebounded and outletted to a leaking out Bird, who lightly stuffed in a breakaway to clinch the game with a five-point lead and just 18 seconds left. James Worthy then missed a triple try, Bird rebounded, and threw long to teammate McHale, who smartly waited a few seconds before stuffing in the final points of the game.
Larry Bird was at the height of his game then, leading Boston to the championship while enjoying fairly pain-free basketball for the last time. He played in all 100 regular season and playoff games that season, including 82 wins. He was also having fun teaming with Walton, McHale, and Parish on the greatest front court in NBA history, while averaging close to a triple-double himself (25.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 6.8 apg).
He also had a great shooting season, hitting 50 percent from the floor, making 42 percent of his threes, and converting a league-best 90 percent at the foul line. He finished fourth in the league in scoring, first among non-guards in assists, was a close second among non-guards in steals (166, 2.02 per game), came in seventh in rebounds, and first in three-point goals made (82). He also threw in 51 blocked shots for good measure. When combined with his great team defensive skills, clutch play and leadership, it was, quite simply, as good an all-around year as any player ever had in NBA history.
The Celtics won 67 games in that magical season, the most any team in the league won between 1974 and 1995, and ran roughshod over four opponents in the playoffs with a 15-3 mark. It seemed the Boston title run might go on for a while until injuries and the death of Len Bias set in. Had Bird won the 1986 mid-season classic award, he would have completed a rare triple that season as MVP of the regular season, All-Star Game, and playoffs. Only Knicks’ Willis Reed in 1970 had accomplished the rare feat.
His arch rival Earvin Johnson became the first player ever to receive a million votes for a single All-Star Game in 1986. Johnson, whose Lakers would not make the Finals that season, scored only six points and made just one field goal in 28 All-Star minutes, although he was credited with 15 assists.
Seattle forward Tom Chambers was added as a replacement for the injured Ralph Sampson, and went on to win the ASG MVP before a record crowd in the 1987 thriller at the KingDome. The East led 140-138 at the very end of regulation when Maverick guard Rolando Blackman drove baseline past Bird and was fouled at the buzzer while shooting.
Blackman cooly nailed both free throws to send it to overtime. The West outscored the East 14-9 in OT to win for just the second team in eight games. Bird scored 18 points, grabbed six boards, and dished out five assists. He added two steals.
The day before in the Seattle Civic Coliseum, he defended his inaugural three-point title successfully. Bird advanced to the semifinals where he scored 18 points. In the finals, he defeated Maverick forward (and future Sonic star) Detlef Schrempf 16-14 to win his second crown in a row.
Larry had one more legendary three-point shootout performance up his sleeve when the All-Star break convened in old Chicago Stadium in 1988. Bird made his eighth straight mid-season classic start, and the East won for the seventh time in his nine appearances by a 138-133 score as Jordan gunned in 40 points before the home fans. Up to that point Larry had never missed an All-Star Game in nine seasons, a record for selections surpassed only by Jerry West (14-14) and Bob Pettit (11-11). Bird ended up being chosen for the game in each of his 12 healthy seasons, but he missed the 1991 and 1992 contests, as well as the 1989 game when he was out for almost the whole season.
It was the first time in K.C. Jones’ five years as head coach of the Celtics that he wasn’t the East All-Star coach; this time, Atlanta’s Mike Fratello opposed Pat Riley, who was coaching the West for the sixth time since he took over the Lakers in 1982. The last time someone other than Jones was head coach of the East was in 1983, when 76ers mentor Billy Cunningham guided them to a 132-123 win in Los Angeles. By 1988, Billy C was working as the main TV analyst for CBS’ NBA coverage, having replaced Heinsohn.
Jabbar later broke Oscar Robertson’s career All-Star points record in the 1988 classic, his 17th such appearance at age 40. Cunningham noted of his great longevity, “I played in the All-Star Game against Kareem, then coached against him, and now I am broadcasting him still playing…”
Celtic guard Danny Ainge scored 12 points off the bench in his second All-Star Game by making three of four triple tries, while Bird scored just six points and McHale two. The game itself was probably Bird’s worst All-Star showing, as the contest became basically a hometown showcase for Jordan. Looking slightly tired and perhaps disinterested, he made just two field goals in eight tries. His first field goal came on a left-handed layup and the last was a right baseline 16-foot jumper off a nice drive-and-dish feed from Celtic teammate Ainge.
He did grab seven rebounds and made four steals, including one to choke off an Earvin Johnson fast break, but he only had one assist in a team-high 32 minutes played. Most of his missed shots came up well short as he seemed more interested in helping Jordan dominate at home than getting his legs into his own shots. By contrast, Jordan jacked up 23 shots in 29 minutes, and Wilkins launched 22 attempts in 30 minutes.
Perhaps he was just tired from the previous day’s shooting, but one cannot help but wonder if the effects of the double Achiiles surgery he would undergo just six games into the next season were not already being felt.
The real fireworks for Larry that weekend came as he sought his third consecutive three-point shootout title the day before the game. In round one, Bird was paired off with Detlef Schrempf, the man he narrowly beat in the finals the year before when the German missed a potential tying two-point money ball at the buzzer.
After a typical slow start, Bird warmed to the occasion. He nailed three money ball two-pointers to total 17 points and advance to the semifinals with the second-best score behind Byron Scott’s 19. Also advancing were Dale Ellis with 16 points and Schrempf with 15. Ainge and Mark Price were eliminated despite solid scores of 14.
In round two, Schrempf went first and scored a lowly five points. Bird then put on a tremendous shooting display in his second go-round. He swished the first right corner shot, then missed three in a row before draining the two-point ABA ball shot. On the next rack he canned the last four shots, then moved to the center. Again he made four of five shots including the money ball.
Feeling in a groove, he went to the left wing and continued his fine shooting rhythm, again making four of five shots. In the left corner, Bird went four for five once more and drilled the money ball for a tremendous score of 23 out of a possible 30. Ainge smiled broadly and gave his teammate a hearty handshake as he headed to the bench following his hot-handed display.
The appreciative Chicago crowd gave Bird a huge ovation for his shooting acumen. “He is like a machine, back and forth, he really has it down to a science,” said WTBS analyst Rick Barry when describing Bird’s shooting routine.
Ellis then scored 12, and all Scott had to do to advance to the finals was score 13. But he faltered badly down the stretch and ended up with just 11. Ellis won the coin flip, chose to go first and scored a respectable 15 to head to the clubhouse with a decent chance to win.
In the final round, Bird was struggling through the first 15 of a possible 25 shots, trailing Ellis badly. Larry needed to make at least seven of his last 10 shots to tie or win, depending on the two-point money balls. “He only has seven points with 25 seconds left (to shoot),” warned WTBS announcer Bob Neal as Bird came to the last two racks of balls.
“He doesn’t seem to have that normal Bird rhythm going for himself,” observed Barry. “He is over-adjusting on his shot.”
Yet just like in a Hollywood script, Bird got rolling on the next to last rack and buried four in a row. “Huge rack for Bird,” said WTBS co-analyst Steve Jones. When the two-point ABA money ball from the left wing went into the basket teammate Ainge yelled “Pow!” on the bench next to Ellis while rooting his legendary teammate on in reverential glee, like a little kid brother with a gleam in his eye reserved only for a hero.
Bird headed to the final rack needing three points to win and two to tie. Still wearing his shamrock green Celtic warmup top, he missed two in a row from the left baseline and had to make the last three shots from the deep corner to win. “He still has to drop one,” warned Barry.
Larry nailed the first one cleanly off the back iron slightly to pull within one point of the lead, then launched another (“this is for the tie” said Barry as he let go). The tying shot was straight and true, and dropped perfectly into the very center of the basket as he got into a good shooting rhythm. As he reached for the red, white and blue ball and the final two-point shot, Barry very aptly intoned “and this one is for the money…”
Bird almost blindly reached for the ball, and as he almost always did, kept his eyes on the rim with a single-minded focus and steady resolve as much as possible. As Heinsohn had noted before, Larry was “like the man who pulls a locomotive down the tracks with ropes all by himself. He will endure anything to win.”
With his ice blue eyes bulging as they focused on the rim, Bird cocked the ball off the right side of his head, laid it back lightly on his palm and fingers, and then flicked the last shot off his ear with his fingertips in a typically quick release.
Shortly after it left his hand, he stuck his gnarled right index finger in the air in a number one pose (“to have that good a hands with his fingers,” DJ would say and shake his head) as he confidently walked toward the winner’s circle, indicating that he was sure the ball was going in for the victory as it began descending toward the hoop from the deep left corner.
The multi-colored ball spun in the air with the full, rapt Chicago Stadium audience holding its breath and millions more on TV watching the basketball drama unfold. The sphere arched downward on a straight line, nestled against the back of the rim and settled softly into the basket as the crowd exploded in appreciation of yet another dramatic performance by the king. A great shooter himself, Barry yelled out, “Whooaaaa!” in admiration as the winning shot rattled in.
“LARRY BIRD!” Bob Neal exclaimed in amazement. “At the buzzer with the two-point ball, 17-15, defends the long distance shootout at Chicago Stadium…Ice water in his veins.”
Even a typically anti-Celtic crowd in Chicago was jolted to its feet by the display for a nearly standing ovation, unabashedly cheering another incredible comeback by the master. Boston fans and Boston haters alike cheered him on and even his competitors smiled like children, clapping and congratulating the winner after his theatrical finishing flair.
As he walked away Bird smiled in satisfaction of yet another three-point title won. “The man is really spectacular,” gushed an admiring Barry, someone who was very difficult to impress as a former superstar turned insightful NBA TV critic. “He needed to make the last three to win…three times in a row.”
“He knew it when he let it go and he was headed for that check in the winner’s circle,” said co-analyst Jones. “Bird came through with the big shot.” Final score: Bird 17, Ellis 15 – and Larry Bird 3-0 vs. the field in the first three All-Star shootout competitions - with the big money checks to go along with it. Again, Bird had further cemented his role as three-point king, and even more, as the game’s preeminent clutch shooter with a flair for the dramatic.
He had been the only player to win the title in the three years the contest had been held, winning each with panache and showing that when he put his mind toward achieving a basketball goal, he was almost impossible to stop. Especially if he was doubted by others, giving him even more motivation to achieve a new goal.
As Ainge later said about the fantastic finish, “It was almost like Larry was missing before just to make the end more challenging, more dramatic.” That probably isn’t true, but it is highly possible that after all he had achieved in the game, it took a dramatic situation to get the juices truly flowing and bring out his best.
In 2008, twenty years afterward in an NBA All-Star Weekend remembrance show on TNT, the “Inside the NBA” crew did a retrospective on the memorable events of the 1988 All-Star Game weekend festivities. Even the outspoken Charles Barkley said, “I love to watch the good old days, when they played real basketball, not this stuff they play today. The players today don’t have any respect for the past.”
Of course, with Bird sidelined by surgery in 1989, he missed his first All-Star Game of the decade. There was an ill wind blowing through the league, a harbinger that the great eighties were over, and change was in the air.
Larry returned to action in the 1989-90 season and as Comeback Player of the Year. He also started in the ASG at Miami, but only played 23 minutes. He scored eight points, grabbed eight boards, had three steals and dished out three assists.
But it was clear that the younger group of stars - Barkley, Karl Malone, Jordan, etc. - and their one-on-one style of play had taken over the game in Bird’s short absence. At one point Barkley selfishly bombed a contested triple while a wide-open Bird called for the ball, only to be ignored. Larry could only shake his head slightly at being dissed. It would be his last All-Star Game appearance.
He also failed to get out of the first round in an attempt to win his fourth three-point shootout. Michael Jordan participated in his only three-point shootout and scored just five points, the worst round ever recorded in the event’s history. Craig Hodges nipped Reggie Miller in the finals to win his first of three shootout titles. To this day, Bird and Hodges are still the only three-time All-Star shootout champions.
Now a firmly established legend in a league buttressed mainly by his great play, Bird was voted in by the fans as a starter for the 1991 and 1992 mid-season classics, but each time back pain forced him to sit out of the game and the three-point shootout. It was a far cry from 1980 and 1981, when he had been snubbed by the fans as a starter in the All-Star Game in his first two seasons, despite leading Boston to the best record in the NBA both years and being named First Team All-NBA.
The NBA was now on strong financial footing, having expanded by seven teams by then, and featuring several national and cable TV contracts that filled league coffers and mushroomed player salaries. The league that had shown its weeknight NBA championship series games on tape-delay on CBS those two years was now a prime time power, thanks mostly to Bird, the renewed Celtic/Laker rivalry with Larry and Earvin at its core, the emergence of Jordan, and the marketing of commissioner David Stern.
After Larry’s teams won in 1988 and 1990 while barely losing the classic 1987 All-Star Game in OT, Bird finished 8-2 in All-Star competition (7-2 vs. Johnson since the Laker star missed the 1981 ASG). Bird’s great All-Star record at a time when the mid-season classic was still a hard-fought battle of proud standouts - and not simply a bad, defense-less playground battle of bad highlight show slop - made their all-time pro head-to-head record a much closer 23-22 in Johnson’s favor (24-22 when one includes the 1979 NCAA Finals).
Larry Bird All-Star Game stats (starter 1981-88, 1990)
Yr Min FG/A 3P/A FT/FTA OffR/Rebs AST STL PTS
1980 23 3/6 1/2 0/0 3/6 7 1 7
1981 18 1/5 0/0 0/0 1/4 2 1 2
1982 28 7/12 0/0 5/8 0/12 5 1 19
1983 29 7/14 0/1 0/0 3/13 7 2 14
1984 33 6/18 0/0 4/4 1/7 3 2 16
1985 31 8/16 0/1 5/6 5/8 2 0 21
1986 35 8/18 2/4 5/6 2/8 5 7 23
1987 35 7/18 0/3 4/4 2/6 5 2 18
1988 32 2/8 0/1 2/2 0/7 1 4 6
1990 23 3/8 0/1 2/2 2/8 3 3 8
1991 Selected but DNP due to injury
1992 Selected but DNP due to injury
AVG 287 52/123 3-13 27/32 19/79 41 23 28.7
42.3% 23.1% 84.4% 1.9/7.9 4.1 2.3 13.4
1986, 1987, 1988 All-Star Three-Point Shootout Champion
1982 All-Star Game MVP
To email the author, contact Cort Reynolds at email@example.com.