The Celtics were battling the Bucks in an epic seven-game Eastern semifinal series during the grueling 1987 NBA Playoffs. Milwaukee head coach and former Celtic Don Nelson was standing courtside watching Boston warm up with his assistant, John Killilea, Tom Heinsohn’s key assistant on the 1974 and 1976 Celtic title teams.
In 1987, defending champion Boston was ravaged by injuries to six of its top eight players during that postseason, yet still managed somehow (mainly behind the hoop heroics of Larry Joe Bird) to fight its way to The Finals.
Because of their unprecedented spate of injuries, the team had to pick up some relatively unknown players to fill out the roster like Conner Henry and Darren Daye, or depend on little-used reserves like Sam Vincent and Greg Kite.
Looking at the fill-ins standing in the Celtic layup line, Killilea said somewhat disparagingly to Nellie, “Look, there are four average players” - as if to say, we should beat these guys.
Just then Bird jogged around to the back of the line behind the four supposedly “average” Celtics.
Nelson, a far-thinking hoops maven, then answered Killilea with a line for the ages. His succinct reply spoke volumes about Bird’s basketball greatness, and his unique ability to maximize the on-court value of his teammates, while showing how keen Nellie’s basketball intellect was.
“Yes, but look now - there are five great players standing there,” Nelson rebutted Killilea.
One can’t encapsulate the career of an all-time great in one sentence, but the far-reaching ramifications of that quote come about as close to doing so as possible.
Like Bird’s memorable steal of Isiah’s floating in-bounds pass at the very end of Game 5 in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, that Nellie quote still induces goosebumps.
Bird’s retirement press conference followed on the heels of his Olympic gold medal showing with the original Dream Team in mid-August 1992.
Celtics president Dave Gavitt uttered a few classic lines about Larry Legend’s great hand-eye coordination, skill, heart, basketball IQ and feel for the game.
Gavitt was an administrative basketball savant who had done just about everything in the game. He coached Providence, led by future Celtics Ernie DiGregorio, Marvin Barnes and Kevin Stacom, to the 1973 Final Four.
Dave founded the wildly successful Big East conference in the late 1970’s. In 1980, he was the head coach of the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team that unfortunately stayed home from the Moscow Olympics due to a political boycott.
Then he became president of the Celtics late in the Bird era.
In 1992, he devised a clever idea to get another year out of Bird despite his ailing back. He approached Larry with the idea of being the latest in the long line of great Celtics sixth men. Ramsey, Havlicek, Nelson, Silas, Carr, McHale, Walton...and now Bird?
Under Gavitt’s plan, Bird would play only home games and contests on the eastern seaboard he could drive to during the 1992-93 season to avoid the pressurized airplane cabins that irritated his bad back.
But Bird rejected the idea, not wanting to be a disruptive influence nor be a player who couldn’t play all 48. His body also could not take the pounding of NBA life anymore. He had made his mind up to retire from the league, and once Bird set his mind on something, it was pointless to make him budge.
Gavitt answered by telling Bird to take a few weeks to think it over, knowing full well that if Larry did not officially retire by September 1, he would receive a huge contract bonus.
Larry realized his ploy and told Gavitt to forget it, saying he wasn’t going to take the money. The hard-nosed Bird didn’t want any part of fooling the fans into thinking he was coming back so they would buy season tickets, when he knew he wasn’t going to play.
Sure, Bird had already been paid a lot of money over 13 seasons just to play a game, and saved a lot of it, as well as endorsement monies. But how many pro athletes would have turned that incentive down when he did not have to do anything to pocket a few more millions on his way out the door?
So at the press conference to announce Bird’s retirement, Gavitt came up with these lines to describe the singular career of one Larry Joe Bird.
“I’ve seen a lot of great players in my day...and I believe when the definitive history of basketball is written - whenever that is, today, tomorrow or 50 years from now - that this man on my right (Bird) will occupy a special place in the top five players ever to play this game.
“I don’t know how any one player could have ever given any more to a franchise, to a city, than Larry Bird has given to the Boston Celtics.
“And God may have, uh, not granted him an all-world body, but from the shoulders to the top of his head...and from his wrists to his fingertips, he played the game better than anybody has ever played it.
“And he played it with a heart five times bigger than anybody I ever saw,” Gavitt punctuated. Gavitt wiped his right eye briefly, then turned the podium over to Red Auerbach before walking away to sit by Larry, who was wearing a red, white and black shirt with no tie, of course.
Knowing how difficult it was for Bird to call it quits, Gavitt patted and rubbed Bird’s right shoulder, then draped his arm around his left shoulder. Larry smiled briefly and shook Gavitt’s hand warmly as Auerbach took the microphone.
“I could go on for hours and tell you about his accomplishments,” said Red. “Nobody - and I mean nobody - deserves it more.” Pretty high praise from a man who coached the likes of Cousy, Russell and Havlicek and drafted Cowens, among other Celtic greats.
Quite a tear-jerking tribute.
“I told him, the way he conducted himself throughout the series made me proud to be a Celtic,” Bill Russell said of Larry Bird after the 1987 NBA Finals.
In the rubber match of their epic 1980’s championship series showdown, Boston was seriously depleted by major injuries. On top of that, multiple ugly incidents and racial strife served as a backdrop for the series.
Bird played a record 1,015 minutes in the 1987 NBA Playoffs as the defending champion Celtics gutted their way to The Finals. First they swept the Jordan Bulls, then nearly blew a 3-1 lead before rallying late to escape an upset bid by Milwaukee in seven games.
Then came one of the most rancorous playoff series in NBA history against the rising Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. Bird’s steal and assist to Dennis Johnson with one second left propelled Boston to a 4-3 series triumph.
After the sour grapes comments by rookie Dennis Rodman that Bird was overrated because he was white, comments that Isiah Thomas agreed with, defending three-time MVP Larry brushed aside the controversy.
Meeting with the media in Los Angeles before Game 2, Bird gave Thomas a free pass, then left to prepare for that night’s game. Thomas proceeded to bury himself at the press conference and again that night in a halftime interview on CBS with Brent Musburger.
A rabid Laker crowd jeered McHale, playing on a sprained ankle and broken navicular bone in his other foot, as he hopped off the court in Game 2 as LA ran out to a 2-0 lead.
Despite all the injuries and drama, Bird and Boston were all but set to tie the series 2-2 when they took a 16-point second half lead in Game 4.
But several missed calls and a tiring short-handed team helped LA rally.
Just before halftime James Worthy took a hard foul from Greg Kite and punched Kite, the unlikely hero of the Game 3 Celtic win, but was not ejected.
A clean Bird block of a Byron Scott fast break erupted into a melee where Scott and A.C. Green attacked Kevin McHale. Bird calmly palmed the ball during the fracas, walked up to referee Hugh Evans (who had erroneously made the foul call) and stared right into his face before shaking his head wordlessly.
He dropped the ball and walked away shaking his head, realizing there was something else afoot.
Evans also called offensive goaltending on a McHale tip when Jabbar clearly knocked the ball out of the rim, an error the other official Earl Strom admitted in his book, “Calling the Shots.”
Despite being grabbed by the jersey with two hands by Worthy in the final seconds, Bird broke free to bury a left corner three to put the Celtics back in front 106-104.
Jabbar was fouled, hit the first free throw and missed the second. On the rebound McHale was clearly pushed in the back and hit on the arm by former college teammate Mychal Thompson as the ball went out of bounds.
Yet Evans gave the ball to LA. Bird told Danny Ainge “don’t leave him” but he switched off, forcing the broken-footed McHale to guard Johnson.
Admitting years later he still has nightmares about not forcing Johnson left to the baseline, McHale allowed the Laker guard to drive right into the lane, where his running hook gave LA a 107-106 lead with just two seconds left.
After a timeout, Bird broke free from Worthy as DJ lofted a perfect in-bounds pass from halfcourt to Larry. The shot was perfectly on line from directly in front of the Laker bench - but he rushed the 22-footer and it went just long off the iron at the buzzer.
Surrounded by celebrating Lakers, Bird then stoically walked off the parquet floor without betraying any emotion. He made no excuses, but the bad calls and 14 free throws LA shot in the fourth quarter alone - to just one by the Celtics - told the real story.
Incensed Celtic patriarch Red Auerbach chased Strom off the court to the referee’s locker room, calling it the worst officiating he had ever seen. But 30-year veteran Strom had gotten even for years of abuse from Red.
Instead of being tied 2-2 with Game 5 at home, the weary and beaten up Celtics were all but done down 3-1, and after a Game 5 blowout win, lost in six.
Boston led 56-51 at halftime despite three-point plays by Bird and McHale incredibly being disallowed by terrible calls. A 30-12 third period meltdown ended their chance at forcing a seventh game showdown.
#6 “I did the whole thing by myself, and I got SOME help from Larry Bird however,” joked Celtic rookie head coach K.C. Jones to CBS announcer Brent Musburger amid the pandemonium of the Boston locker room after his team had beaten the Lakers 4-3 in the 1984 Finals.
Also in the same post-game celebration, Brent Musburger asked Larry the burning question. “Larry, does this get you even with Magic for what happened between Michigan State and Indiana State all those many years ago (in the 1979 NCAA Finals)?”
A spent Bird ran his left hand through his blonde mane, wet with sweat and champagne. “I don’t worry about that, we’re professionals now,” he answered in his southern Indiana accent, unwilling to betray his closely-held emotions.
“But I won this one for Terre Haute,” he admitted.
Bird was named 1984 Finals MVP after averaging 27 points and 14 rebounds per game.
Hours later, deep into the championship-clinching night, the reticent Bird finally turned to teammate Quinn Buckner and confided in him. Buckner and Bird had briefly been teammates at Indiana University in 1974 before a homesick Larry dropped out and hitch-hiked back to French Lick.
“I finally got him,” Larry said, referring to Johnson, as payback for the stinging 1979 NCAA championship loss.
“It was the purest form of basketball you ever saw,” said Kevin McHale. He was referring to the mano a mano shootout in the fourth quarter in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern semifinals, won by Boston 118-116.
Larry Legend had guaranteed a Game 7 win at Boston Garden after the Celtics dodged a last-second bullet to beat the Hawks by a basket in Game 6 before a raucous crowd at Atlanta, tying the series 3-3.
“You’ve just got to tip your hat to this Boston Celtic team; they looked death in the face and dodged the bullet for now - with Game 7 in Boston Sunday,” said WTBS announcer Skip Caray.
Bird tipped the defensive rebound of a missed potential-tying drive by Cliff Levingston to DJ, who dribbled out the final seconds of a gutsy 102-100 win.
In Game 7, Bird started out slowly, but then cocky Kevin Willis made the colossal mistake of telling Wilkins, “He can’t guard you,” referring to Bird within Larry’s earshot midway through the second half. Bird’s eyes got wide and that made him angry.
The rest is history.
As loquacious Blazer/Laker big man Mychal Thompson once said, “There are three rules in life - death, having to pay taxes and whatever you do on the basketball court, don’t make Larry Bird mad.”
Kevin Willis foolishly invoked the wrath of Bird, who had a legendary Viking mean streak.
Larry drilled nine of 10 shots in the fourth period, including a back-breaking triple late in the game, to overcome a 47-point outing from Wilkins with 20 of his own in the decisive quarter.
Highlighting his 9-of-10 shooting were a stumbling left-handed toss high off the glass for a three-point play; a 13-foot southpaw shot in the lane; a left wing three-pointer in front of the Hawk bench that made it 112-105 and all but clinched the outcome; and a driving left-handed floater over seven-footer Kevin Willis to finish it off in the final minute.
“You are watching what greatness is all about,” said CBS play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger as Bird strode proudly to the bench after making the last shot.
The other four Celtic starters, in a photo for the ages, walked appropriately and respectfully behind Larry to the Boston bench after he had carried them to the series-clinching victory.
It bothers me that Musburger’s quote about Bird is often misused to describe or voice-over other events in sports history as TV sports take artistic liberties/play fast and loose with reality, often misrepresenting what happened in revisionist highlight films. NFL Films is often guilty of doing this, or re-running the same highlight from different angles to fit their narrative.
If you ever Google that epic fourth period or watch it on YouTube, you will hear Brent say it clearly at the end about Bird’s incredible fourth quarter following his last basket.
“If I had to start a team today, the one player I would choose would be Larry Bird,” said Red Auerbach, speaking at a 1986 banquet to great applause when asked who was the greatest all-around player in NBA history.
“I knew he was a good shooter, but I did not know how great. I knew he was a great rebounder and passer but I did not how great before he got here.
“And I did not know how much he would play hurt. Larry is the most self-motivated player I ever saw.”
In 1986, the NBA held its first-ever three-point shootout at the annual All-Star Game in Dallas. Bird psyched out his assembled opposition by entering the locker room and asking, “who in here is finishing second?”
Celtic teammates Scott Wedman and Danny Ainge had motivated Bird by teasing him that they were better deep shooters than him. Larry buckled down and practiced on the racks, not taking his eye off the rim when he went to grab the balls.
Bird escaped a near first-round elimination against Sleepy Floyd, then beat Knick Trent Tucker to reach the finals against tiring guard Craig Hodges. Larry missed his first shot, then nailed 11 treys in a row to win going away, 24-12.
“I am the new three-point king,” Bird crowed after winning. “My teammates pumped me up, they didn’t think I could do it.”
“That check has had my name on it for a week,” he said in the winner’s circle. He then caught himself and admitted, “really, I got lucky.”
But the best line came from Kevin McHale, who foresaw Bird winning. “Once I heard that Larry could win 10 grand just for shooting three-pointers all afternoon, I knew it was over.”
These quotes said during the course of his playing career come from a 2015 retrospective Sports Illustrated article on Bird by Jack McCallum.
- Don Nelson: “He’s the best player ever to play the game.”
- “I’ve always considered Oscar Robertson to be the best player in the game,” said fellow Hoosier legend John Wooden. “Now, I’m not so sure that Larry Bird isn’t.”
- Laker all-time great Jerry West, who refuses to compare players from different eras, said this of Bird. “He is as nearly perfect as you can get in almost every phase of basketball.”
- When asked a few years ago who the greatest player he ever played against was, former Laker rival Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did not say Oscar Robertson, Wilt, Michael Jordan or Dr. J. “Larry Bird may have been the best I played against - he could do anything. This muscle here (he pointed to his brain) was his greatest. Shooting, rebounds, assists, steals - he was always positioned at the right place at the right time. And he was a great competitor, I have much respect for him,” said Jabbar.
- “There will never, ever, ever be another Larry Bird.” - Earvin Johnson at the 1993 retirement ceremony for Bird in Boston Garden.
And a few favorite quotes by Bird:
- In the Celtic locker room after a big late 1980’s playoff win, Bill Russell was interviewing Bird for WTBS television while Red Auerbach stood between the 6’9” superstars who spanned Celtic dynasties from 1956-92 as all-time NBA greats.
Red: “Me, I never scored a point.”
Russell: “But you kinda brought the guys here who scored all the points.”
Bird: “So you’re overpaid.”
All three broke into laughter, led by Russell’s infamous cackle.
- During a mid-1980’s game vs. Utah when Bird was torching the Jazz, Larry looked over at rotund Utah head coach Frank Layden, a legendarily funny guy and an underrated coach.
“Hey, Frank. Don’t you have anyone on this team who can guard me?,” Bird asked Layden during a deadball situation along the sideline.
Layden looked out at the court, then up and down his bench forlornly. He then turned his gaze to Bird and succinctly said, “nope.”
- Late in his career, Bird admitted the bumps and bruises he had incurred playing recklessly had caught up with him. “Artis Gilmore told me early on I better quit mopping the floor with my body if I wanted to last in this league,” Bird recalled. “I thought, ‘well he’s crazy, that is how you play this game.’ Now that I am older and feeling it, I know what he meant. But I wouldn’t change the way I played.”
To email article author Cort Reynolds, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.