Happy Birthday to Larry Bird! The legend turns 66 years old today, December 7, and could probably still beat everyone reading this in a shooting contest.
I can’t pretend that I remember Larry Bird’s first game with the Boston Celtics. It was on October 12, 1979. I was just over a year old when Bird dropped 14, 10 and five on the Houston Rockets in an eight-point Celtics win.
I can tell you that I saw the game. I know this because my dad and uncles would remind me of it quite often.
I was similarly too young to really understand when Bird and Boston won the title in 1981. I just remember how joyous my family was. But by the time they won again in 1984, I was all in.
That season, I remember watching as many games as I was allowed. I have vivid memories of falling asleep at many a halftime, only to wake up while being carried to bed to ask if the Celtics won. More often than not, they did.
Those finals were against the Los Angeles Lakers. The hated Lakers. To this day, I can’t really stomach the colors purple and yellow in a combination together. And, yes, it’s purple and yellow. Miss me with these allegations of “forum blue” and “gold”.
Seven agonizing games of Celtics against Lakers got me fully steeped in the rivalry that my older relatives had grown up on. My parents taped all of those games on our VCR and I wore out the tapes because I watched them so often. That was my “first” championship and it cemented a lifelong love affair with the Boston Celtics.
But Larry Bird was the one who made me fall in love with the game itself. To this day, I don’t know if anyone has ever played a more aesthetically pleasing style of basketball.
Bird was nothing special as an athlete…until he was. Every few games, especially if some precocious younger player started jawing at him, Bird would blow by him on a drive and throw one down. It was like he was reminding guys he could do it.
But there was so much more. The passing vision and the audacity to attempt some of the things Bird did. Because instant replay was so much slower, and we didn’t have the ability to rewind games live, you were left wondering “Did that really just happen?” so many times during a Bird game.
I also grew up feeling that whenever the game was close, the Celtics would win because Bird would make the shot. I remember watching this moment live:
That’s just one example, and my favorite, but there are a million others. This is a compilation of over nine minutes of Bird making clutch plays. Nine minutes of just clutch plays!
For me, watching Bird was instrumental in my love of the game. He talked often about how basketball was a solitary practice at times. If you had a hoop and a ball, you could work on your game. That’s what I did for hours at a time in our driveway.
Countless kids who grew up in New England have the same story I do. We’d see Bird do something, run out, shovel off the driveway and spend the afternoon into the early evening trying to recreate whatever magic our hero cooked up. Those hours from day to night would just hazily drift by, lost in the simple joy of a hoop and a ball.
It all ended too soon. Injuries and his all-out, give-everything style ran Bird down after 13 years. But we got to see him play with the greatest team basketball has ever seen:
That summer, my friends and I found out Bird was retiring while at Village Uniform. (If you don’t remember/know Village Uniform, it was a shop in malls around the Northeast. They sold a weird mix of work uniforms and sports gear. For a teenage boy obsessed with NBA jerseys, their collection was unmatched. A lot of money I made from raking leaves, shoveling snow and cutting grass was spent at Village Uniform.) The guy who worked the counter would always talk sports with us, usually whatever the ever-present radio he had tuned to WEEI was talking about. That day I had on a Dream Team shirt where the players had cartoonishly large heads. I’ll never forget the counter guy pointing to my shirt and saying, “Radio just said Bird is announcing his official retirement tomorrow.”
It hit me like a ton of bricks. We all knew it was coming. There were a million signs, both direct and indirect, that the 1992 Olympics would be it for Bird. But it still sucked.
There’s no doubt that Bird was before his time. In today’s five-out style of play, he would have dominated. Think Luka Doncic, but bigger and better. With today’s liberal resting of players and improved medical care, maybe Bird squeezes a few extra years out of his career.
That baker’s dozen worth of years weren’t enough. We all wanted more. But Bird had nothing left to give us. He had given us everything he could.
In the end, it was more than enough. A lifetime’s worth of highlights and memories. And, for this guy who loves basketball so much that I made it my career, Bird was a big part of giving me that love.
I could never hope to give Larry Bird anything approaching the gift he gave me. So, I’ll just say thanks and hope that he has the best day doing whatever he wants.
Happy Birthday Larry Legend. Here’s to hoping you have many, many more to come!