Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Larry Legend Turns 50

Today was Larry Bird’s 50th birthday. Makes me feel old just thinking about it. Larry Bird has been a part of my consciousness since before I hit puberty. I was 11 years old when Bird and Magic led their teams into the NCAA championship against each other. I grew up loving basketball, and especially grew up in the shadow of Magic Johnson. As a young boy, we lived two blocks from Foster Park in Lansing, one of the two parks where the older kids were constantly playing pickup games (the other was Elizabeth Park).

My older brothers were closer in age and they would play in those games, which featured not only Magic but at least two other future Michigan State stars and NBA players (Jay and Sam Vincent) and a transcendant athlete named Greg Lloyd that the world would never hear of (Magic has said in interviews that Lloyd was one of the most talented players he ever played against; last I heard, he was in prison). I would sit at the edge of the court and watch them play; my job was to run and get the ball when it got kicked off the court.

So when Magic and Jay Vincent went to Michigan State and turned that team into a national power, for me that wasn’t just a school I rooted for – these were the older guys from my neighborhood, guys I practically worshipped at that age. They weren’t just a team, they were my team. My parents had tickets at the old Jenison Fieldhouse where they played. I remember watching every game during their championship run.

I still have the scrapbook I put together from newspaper articles I had saved all season long. I may be the only person outside of their own families who remembers who the other two starters were on that championship team. Everyone knew Magic, Jay Vincent and Greg Kelser; I still remember Terry Donnelly and Mike Brkovich as well. More than anything, I remember that championship game. Magic vs Bird.

I had no idea at that age just how significant that game would become, how it would launch the NCAA Final Four into being the greatest sporting event there is, or how it would define the careers of two of the greatest athletes of all time. I just knew it was the most important event imaginable to me at that point in my life. The Lansing area was absolutely consumed with the game, no one more than me. I actually watched the game and kept all the stats for every player as I watched. I think I still have that stat sheet in my scrapbook.

At that point, Larry Bird was like Darth Vader to me. Magic was the good guy and Bird was the bad guy. I booed him, wanted him to fail. But who could overlook his greatness? He led a small, insignificant school to an undefeated season and into the title game in 1979. This guy averaged 30 points a game for his entire college career. And in the NBA, he became one of the 5 greatest players of all time. And he did all of this with less athletic ability than I have – which isn’t much.

Larry Bird may be the least intimidating man ever to play the game. He’s so white he’s almost translucent. He’s pigeon toed. If you timed him in the 100 yard dash, you might need to time him with a calendar. His vertical leap was so bad that, on a good day, he might be able to clear a phone book – assuming the city wasn’t too big. Yet there was nothing he couldn’t do on the court. He’s one of the best pure shooters in the history of the game, one of the most incredible passers you’ve ever seen, and one of the best rebounders as well. For his career he averaged 24 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists a game.

Bird never liked giving interviews. On TV, he came off as a shy kid from French Lick, which is what he was. But on the court, he talked. He talked a lot. Bird is one of the legendary trash talkers in the history of the game, something a lot of fans never knew. He wasn’t just good, he was better than practically everyone else who ever played the game. And he knew it. And he wasn’t afraid to tell you that, especially if you were trying to guard him. During the 1986 all star 3 point shootout, he walked into the locker room and told all the other players that they were competing for 2nd place. During a game against Seattle, he actually told Xavier McDaniel the exact spot on the court from which he would be hitting the game winning shot; and he did.

With his staggering lack of natural athletic ability, how did he become one of the all time greats? Sheer hard work. Thousands of shots taken every day for years on end. And he understood the game and saw the game in a way that few players ever did. His mind was always one step ahead of everyone else during the game. He couldn’t jump to save his life, but he had the ability to judge which way the ball was going to come off the rim and beat his opponent to the rebound. His court vision was matched only by his great rival Magic.

For both of them, they were just able to see a play developing almost in slow motion. Out of the corner of their eye they would notice that a defender was shifting his weight a certain way, and would instantly know that his teammate would therefore be able to cut the other direction and catch him wrongfooted on a cut to the basket; by the time they made their cut, the ball was already on the way. Nothing escaped their notice. They weren’t just playing their position, they were playing every position on the court at the same time. And they had worked at it for so long that the reaction to every minute bit of information was instantaneous, as if by pure instinct.

Perhaps more than anything else, Bird had a killer instinct few could match in any sport. At the game’s biggest moments, with the most on the line, players like Bird (and we’re talking about a handful in history, at best) are able to transcend the pressure, feed off it, and harness it to their advantage. Panic is what other players do, knowing that they can’t stop you from doing what it takes to win the game. It requires a cockiness and a swagger that few people are ever justified in having in any context. And Bird had it, in spades. Larry Bird truly is Larry Legend.

Comments

  1. #1 Ahcuah
    December 8, 2006

    And don’t forget what he managed to do as the coach of the Indiana Pacers. A lot of good players never figured out how to make that transition to coach (Isiah Thomas comes to mind).

  2. #2 Erin
    December 8, 2006

    Wow, that’s a great story. I grew up in metro Detroit, as did my dad, and he would talk about Bird and Magic back in the day. Must have been crazy to be that close to it.

  3. #3 steve s
    December 8, 2006

    I remember watching an interview with McDaniel when he played for the Celtics later, and wherein he told that story. I remember being stunned. What kind of player would tell you where he was going to shoot from? It reminded me of that famous clip of Jordan switching from a dunk to a flippy layup in a playoff game against the Lakers. Rare that you see a guy so good that against the highest competition in the land, he has to add some difficulty to stay interested.

  4. #4 Rick
    December 8, 2006

    The bit about Bird’s unbelievable work ethic is something that really set him apart. Among his contemporaries, only Magic and MJ worked so hard, and both of them had more natural talent (esp. speed and leaping ability). The NBA interests me much less these days because I don’t see anybody who works half as hard. In the NFL, Jerry Rice provided a good parallel. Tom Brady makes for a good comparison because he, like Bird, doesn’t have overwhelming natural talent the way, say, Peyton Manning does.

  5. #5 fusilier
    December 8, 2006

    Bird and Magic once made a commercial for (IIRC) a certain fast-food joint. They were playing “HORSE” in some gymnasium, and callling shots like “off the third rafter, off the 16th seat in row 5 of section A, off the 1934 championship banner, nothing but net.”

    Charles Barkely appeared as the tag-a-long kid trying to get into the game.

    fusilier
    James 2:24

  6. #6 J-Dog
    December 8, 2006

    That “some gymnasium” is Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the Norhtwestern Wildcats play. A bit of trivia that I just learned recently.

  7. #7 Pieter B
    December 8, 2006

    It was Bird’s incredible awareness that has always amazed me, and I’m not a basketball fan at all. I recall seeing a clip of an interview where he was asked about a spectacular play he had made, and when asked when it was, gave the exact time on the clock. How did he know? “Listen to the clip — that’s the only time the band played that tune all night.”

    Boggle

  8. #8 AndyS
    December 8, 2006

    Ed, what a cool story! Sad part is I just realized I’m OLDER than Larry Bird. :-(

  9. #9 CCP
    December 8, 2006

    I started at MSU in 77, same as Magic. Snuck into some games by wearing a tie, carrying my trumpet case, and claining to be a last-minute sub for the pep band. Man, it was LOUD in there!

    Hey, who was that Rudy-like kid who came off the end of the bench and got nicknamed “Shoes”?

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    December 8, 2006

    CCP-

    LOL. That was Jamie “Shoes” Huffman. He was another kid from the neighborhood, was a teammate of Magic’s at Everett as well. He got the nickname because he had a habit of losing a shoe because they weren’t tied well enough. Happened more than once. The other kid I mentioned, Greg Lloyd, was also on that team but he never played. He was an absolutely spectacular athlete, 40+ inch vertical, lightning fast. But he wasn’t much for going to class and he didn’t play any defense, so Jud didn’t play him and eventually pulled his scholarship. He and Magic executed one of the greatest plays anyone has ever seen at Foster Park one day. Magic had the ball out of bounds under their basket and he and Greg (everyone called him Booby, for some reason) had a signal worked out. Booby starts running from half court and when he hit the free throw line he jumped; Magic threw the ball up over the top of the backboard and Booby caught it in mid air and dunked it.

  11. #11 Jim Babka
    December 8, 2006

    Ed, who don’t you know. That would be a shorter list.

    Great stories.

  12. #12 Ed Brayton
    December 8, 2006

    Jim-

    I wouldn’t say I know him, or at least that he knows me. I was just a little kid following my older brothers around. If he has a good memory, he might well remember me if someone mentioned the “Calamine kid” from Foster park (that was my nickname until I was about 8 or 9 because I was always getting bitten by bugs and my mom would put that pink calamine lotion on me). My older brothers were around the same age and they actually got to play with them. They were the athletes of the family, I was the debate team geek LOL.

  13. #13 leppojoove
    December 8, 2006

    >>I may be the only person outside of their own families who remembers who the other two starters were on that championship team. Everyone knew Magic, Jay Vincent and Greg Kelser; I still remember Terry Donnelly and Mike Brkovich as well. More than anything, I remember that championship game. Magic vs Bird.<<

    Sorry, but I have to say that I think you’re wrong. First, if I’m not mistaken, I think Jay Vincent missed most of the tournament with an injury, so if I was to pick nits, I’d say, technically he was not a starter on the “championship” team. But also, you forgot Ron Charles (from the U.S. Virgin Islands), who was a starting forward. So I think Brkovich only started because Vincent was injured — Brk was the sixth man most of the season, with Rob “Gonzo” Gonzalez as the only other player to come off the bench more than occasionally. (For a #1 team, we were not very deep!)

    Of course, my memory could be wrong, but I won’t admit it, dammit!

    Ron (MSU ’82 — Freshman in ’78-’79)

  14. #14 MarkP
    December 8, 2006

    I was a huge Larry Bird fan from that NCAA tournament on. I don’t think people really understand how ridiculous it was that he got that team to the finals. I don’t think Indiana State had ever made it to the tournament before, and maybe only once since. They really only had a couple of players besides Bird who were any good at all. The other downright frightening thing about Bird’s college career is that he was a confused freshman at Indiana in 1976. 1976 ring a bell with anyone? That was the Quinn Buckner, Kent Benson undefeated Indiana team. And they would have had Bird as a sophmore the next year? Boy would that have been something.

    Ed is right on about Bird’s trash talking. He, Moses Malone and Julias Erving had a major skirmish one time that was prompted by Bird, who was being guarded by Dr. J. Bird was on fire scoring something like 18 points in the first quarter, and he popped off to Dr. J. “If you don’t start guarding me, I’m going to get 100″. He also would feign disbelief and comment, when a rookie for the other team would stand next to him to guard him, “Are you sure you have the right guy?”.

    His highlight reel has to be seen to be believed. There was one play in the championship series against Houston (the Moses Malone team) in 1981 where Bird pulled up to the free throw line and shot, missed to the right, and he somehow knew that was going to happen, ran to the baseline, jumped and caught the ball, shifted it to his left hand, and layed his miss in as he flew out of bounds. When you watch the shot at regular speed he appears to be in two places at once. As Bill Russell put it, “Not only did he know he missed. He knew he knew.”

    I have the final game of the 1986 series against Houston (the Olajuwon/Sampson team) on VCR tape and still watch it every few years. In it, Bird appears to be a kid on a playground fiddling with the ball while kids 5 years younger than him chase him around.

    There will always be the debate about who was the greater player, Bird, Magic, or Jordan, but to me the debate is silly because they all played different positions (Magic was a 1, Jordan a 2, Bird a 3). So for my all time team, I’ll take all three, and you can have the next 6 picks. I’ll win.

  15. #15 Ed Brayton
    December 8, 2006

    leppojoove-

    As I recall, the lineup switched depending on matchups. Sometimes they played Vincent and Ron Charles together, sometimes Charles came off the bench. And I think you’re right that Vincent was hurt for the NCAA tournament, or at least part of it. You’re also right that it wasn’t a deep team at all. Then again, Indiana State was Larry Bird and a bunch of CYO players at best.

  16. #16 kehrsam
    December 8, 2006

    1979-80 was a weird period for college basketball, with all of the traditional powers having an off-year or two. Other than having a cool nickname, the Louisville team of 1980 was nothing special as championship teams go. So it is not that surprising that Bird could take a team of stiffs to the finals.

    ’79 certainly changed the nature of the tournament, and pretty much sealed the end of the NIT. As for Bird, the NBA numbers speak for themselves: He could shoot like no one ever born, rebound, and I am still amazed at his passes, far more so than any point guard, because he was always in the midst of the scrum while doing it. As for defense, he was superb positionally, which is more important than blocking shots. Seems like a hell of a nice guy as well, if a bit one dimensional. But very few sports heroes are renaissance men.

  17. #17 raj
    December 9, 2006

    I’m live in Boston, but I’m not particularly a basketball fan. I do recognize Bird’s skills. But–and I suppose it’s because I’m gay–I found Bird’s teammate Danny Ainge to be absolutely gorgeous.

    Too bad Ainge is a Mormon.

  18. #18 Art
    December 9, 2006

    Ah Larry Bird.

    I was in the Gahden and had an in-line angle for his bank shot in the waning moments of game 7 against the hated 76ers in ’81. You could see it banking in from the time it left his fingers. Unquestionably the loudest and delerious crowd I’ve been in. Old-timers who lived those times can explain why a Celtics game doesn’t need cheerleaders.

    Every time I’m in that spot on the floor, I bank it (or try to :-) ).

    Art