Born on December 7th 1956, Larry Bird is considered one of the finest and most inspirational basketball players the NBA has ever seen. During his career with the Boston Celtics, Larry Bird was named MVP (most valued player) three years in a row and the NBA finals’ MVP twice. He also played in the famous USA Dream Team basketball squad at the 1992 Olympic Games and took home a gold medal.
In ten years of pro NBA basketball, Larry Bird scored more than 20,000 points and made over 5,000 assists. His competitive spirit also led to plenty of trash talking but the manner in which he made threats to rival players and then carried them out is the stuff of basketball legend. This determination to win and unquestionable technical ability continues to make Larry Bird a sporting icon among basketball fans worldwide.
The Hick from French Lick
Larry Bird came from humble origins in the small town of French Lick, Indiana. In the NBA this earned him the nickname, ‘the hick from French Lick’. Bird himself states that his family were plagued by financial difficulty for the majority of his childhood and he was frequently sent to live with his grandmother as a result. Nevertheless, he cites his mother’s dedication to her children in times of difficulty. Sadly, his father Joe Bird’s alcohol problems resulted in Larry’s parents filing for divorce and his father’s later suicide in 1975. Despite his family troubles, the young Larry Bird was dedicated to basketball and focused on his training. Bird’s reputation as a flawless 3 point shooter in later years originates from his school days when he used to shoot 200 baskets before going to school every day.
Unsurprisingly, Bird’s high-school career was remarkable and he left as the school’s all-time highest scoring player. His celebrity was such that, in a small town of less than 3,000 residents, more than half that number would frequently turn out to watch high school basketball. At Bird’s final game, the attendance was around 4,000 and the street where the school is located was later renamed Larry Bird Boulevard.
Upon graduating high school, Bird enrolled at Indiana University in 1984. Although it was running one of the best basketball programs in the US at the time, the small town kid was overwhelmed by the big city college atmosphere. He went home to try his hand at a few dead-end occupations before coming to his senses and returning to University, this time attending Indiana State.
Again, Bird led his team to fame and victory. With him on side, attendance tripled and the Sycamores were unbeaten, reaching the number one spot by Larry’s final year. Only the Michigan State University team managed to defeat them, led by a phenomenal young basketball player who was to become Bird’s career long rival – Magic Johnson.
Johnson and Larry Bird’s on court rivalry popularised basketball in a way that hadn’t been seen since its heyday. It was a sport writer’s dream and the competition sparked between their opposing personalities and playing styles is believed by many to have rescued the NBA from collapse. Despite their perceived differences, Bird and Johnson eventually became close. Upon Bird’s retirement, Magic Johnson attended his farewell party to deliver a moving speech attesting to their mutual respect and deep friendship.
In his graduating year, Larry Bird was awarded the title of NCAA College player of the year 1978-79 and left Indiana State University as the fifth highest scoring player of all time.
Bird in the NBA
The Boston Celtics were so desperate to sign the young NCAA champion that they contracted Larry Bird a year before he actually graduated. When he finally went pro, Bird was awarded a salary of $650,000, making him the highest paid rookie in NBA history.
The Celtics were in a bad way but Bird’s appearance immediately turned the team’s performance around, doing for them what he had done for every team he had ever played in. In the 1979-80 season, when Bird joined the team, the Celtics broke their previous league record and their star player was awarded yet another coveted title – NBA Rookie of the Year. No doubt rankled by losing two national titles to his rival in two years running, Magic Johnson led the Lakers to NBA victory in his first season. A year later in 1981 Bird retaliated and this time it was the Celtics who took home the NBA trophy. Bird’s style wowed not only fans but his own teammates too. Passes came from nowhere – over the shoulder without looking, or through an opponent’s legs. He didn’t even have to catch the ball to make a winning play, he was expert at flicking or tapping it into the hands of a teammate in scoring position – even if the said teammate didn’t know it at the time!
In addition to these fast passes and assists, Bird was a legendary sharp shooter. He would regularly sink 3 pointers on the move and could get the basketball in the basket even when surrounded by the defence. This earned him the title of one of the best clinch players ever, with notable moments including game 7 of the 1981 Eastern Conference finals against the Philadelphia 76ers (where Bird scored the winning points) and a 1991 encounter with the Chicago Bulls which went into double overtime (Bird scoring 9 points at the death to win the match).
As a team player, he is cited as an inspiration to everyone. His dedication on court galvanised other players into action. He tirelessly went after the ball and if his performance was good in one game he strove to beat it in the next. His uncanny ability to read plays earned him the nickname of Kodak, because it seemed as if his intelligence was somehow photographic. Nevertheless, it was Bird’s own stellar performance that packed out basketball stadiums time and time again, from high school days right up to the NBA.
A hero retires
In 1992, after a 12 year NBA career that saw him crowned MVP of the year three times and his team win the NBA three times, Larry Bird could no longer ignore his worsening back problems and was forced to retire from basketball. After working in the offices of his old team for five years, Bird took the role of coach to the Indian Pacers in 1997. Although he had no previous coaching experience, Bird coached the Pacers to the finals of the Eastern Conference in 3 consecutive years (1998 and 1999) and they won the title in the third (2000). As a result of his tenure, he added another national basketball achievement to his list – NBA Coach of the Year 1998.
Today, Larry Bird lives with his second wife Dinha Mattingly and their two adopted children, Connor and Mariah. Having retired from coaching, he is now the President of Basketball Operations at the Indiana Pacers.