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.