Larry Joe Bird (born December 7, 1956) is a retired American NBA basketball player, widely considered one of the best players of all time and one of the top clutch performers in the history of sports. Drafted into the NBA sixth overall by the Boston Celtics in 1978, Bird started at small forward and power forward for thirteen seasons, teaming with legendary center Robert Parish and forward Kevin McHale. Due to back problems, he retired as a player from the NBA in 1992. Bird was voted to the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996 and inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998. He served as head coach of the Indiana Pacers from 1997 to 2000. In 2003, he assumed the role of president of basketball operations for the Pacers, which he currently still holds.
The Boston Celtics selected the 6'9", 220-pound Bird 6th overall in the 1978 NBA Draft, even though they were uncertain whether he would enter the NBA or remain at Indiana State to play his senior season. Bird ultimately decided to play his final college season, but the Celtics retained their exclusive right to sign him until the 1979 NBA Draft, because of the NBA's "junior eligible" rule that existed at that time (allowing a collegiate player to be drafted when the player's original "entering" class was graduating and giving them one calendar year to sign them, even if they went back to college). Shortly before that deadline, Bird agreed to sign with the Celtics for a US $650,000 a year contract, making him at the time the highest-paid rookie in the history of the NBA. Shortly afterwards, the NBA draft eligibility rules were changed to prevent teams from drafting players before they were ready to sign. The rule is called the Bird Collegiate Rule.
Larry Bird's impact on the Celtics was immediate. The Celtics were 29–53 during the 1978–79 season, but with Bird the team improved to 61–21 in the 1979–80 season, posting the league's best regular season record. Bird's collegiate rival, Magic Johnson, also had entered the NBA in 1979, joining the Los Angeles Lakers. In 1980, despite a strong rookie season from Johnson, Bird was named the league's Rookie of the Year and was voted onto the Eastern Conference All-Star team (an honor he would receive for each of his 12 full seasons in the NBA). For the 1980 season, Bird led the Celtics in scoring (21.3 points/game), rebounding (10.4 rebounds/game), steals (143), and minutes played (2,955) and was second in assists (4.5 assists/game) and three-pointers (58). Though Boston was beaten by the more athletic Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference finals that year, Bird's addition to the team had renewed the promise of Celtic glory.
Following Bird's first season, the Celtics acquired center Robert Parish and the 3rd pick in the 1980 NBA Draft via a trade with the Golden State Warriors (in exchange for the 1st and 13th picks in the draft). After the Warriors took Joe Barry Carroll with the 1st pick and the Utah Jazz chose Darrell Griffith second, the Celtics selected University of Minnesota power forward Kevin McHale. With Bird at small forward, the additions of Parish and McHale gave Boston one of the most formidable frontcourts in the history of the NBA. The three would anchor the Celtics throughout Bird's career.
In his second season, Bird led the Celtics into the playoffs, where they faced off for a second consecutive year with Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers. Bird helped the Celtics overcome a 3–1 deficit by winning the last 3 games by 2, 2, and 1 point margins, propelling them into the NBA Finals, where they defeated the Houston Rockets in six games with Bird averaging 15.3 points on .419 shooting, 15.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game. It would be the first of three championships in Bird's career, as well as the first of his five Finals appearances.
1982–1987: MVPs, championships and the rivalry
The additions of Bird and Johnson rejuvenated the NBA, which had suffered from low attendance and minimal television interest through much of the 1970s. Immediately upon their entry into the league, the two players became repeating presences in the NBA Finals. Johnson's Lakers won the championship in 1980, Bird's Celtics captured the NBA title in 1981, and Johnson's Lakers wrested it back in 1982. Bird and Johnson first dueled in the 1979 NCAA title game; as professional basketball players, they would face off numerous times during the 1980s, including the NBA Finals of 1984, 1985 and 1987. Lakers versus Celtics, and specifically Bird versus Magic, quickly became one of the greatest rivalries in the history of professional sports.
In 1984, the Celtics defeated the Lakers in a seven-game Finals, winning game seven 111–102. Bird averaged 27.4 points on .484 shooting and 14 rebounds a game during the series, earning the award of Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP). Bird was also named the league regular season MVP for that year. In 1985, however, the Lakers avenged the loss, defeating the Celtics in game 6 of the Finals in the Boston Garden. In a losing effort against Los Angeles, Bird averaged 23.8 points on .449 shooting, 8.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. That year, the NBA again named Bird the league MVP.
Boston would have another great season the next year, with help from another Hall of Famer, Bill Walton. Walton had been refused by the Lakers, and as a last chance, called Celtics president and general manager Red Auerbach. Auerbach was initially unwilling to take a risk on Walton, who had been plagued for years by foot injuries. But Bird, who happened to be in Auerbach's office at the time of Walton's call, urged him to sign Walton, saying that if Walton felt he was healthy enough to play, it was all Bird needed to hear.
With Walton backing up Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, the Celtics would return to the finals in 1986, albeit not against Johnson and the Lakers, who lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Houston Rockets. The 1986 Celtic team, which finished the regular season 67–15 and defeated the Rockets in six games, is generally considered to be the best of Bird's career. Bird again was named the Finals' MVP for that year, averaging 24 points on .482 shooting, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game for the series. He also won his third consecutive league MVP award, a feat matched only by the great Celtic center Bill Russell and the dominant Wilt Chamberlain, who played for Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
In 1987, the Celtics made their last Finals appearance of Bird's career, fighting through difficult series against the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons but as they reached the NBA Finals, the Celtics, plagued by devastating injuries, lost to a dominant Lakers team which had won 65 games during the season. The Celtics ended up losing to the Lakers in six games, with Bird averaging 24.2 points on .445 shooting, 10 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game in the championship series. The Celtics would fall short in 1988 losing to the Pistons in 6 games in the Eastern Conference Finals as the Pistons made up from the heartbreak the previous season. Between them, Bird and Johnson captured eight NBA championships during the 1980s, with Magic getting five and Bird three. During the 1980s, either Boston or Los Angeles appeared in every NBA Finals.
Throughout the 1980s, contests between the Celtics and the Lakers—both during the regular season and in the Finals—attracted enormous television audiences. The first regular season game between the Celtics and the Lakers in the 1987-88 season proved to be a classic with Magic Johnson banking in an off balance shot from near the 3-point line at the buzzer for a 115-114 Lakers win at Boston Garden. The historical rift between the teams, which faced each other several times in championship series of the 1960s, fueled fan interest in the rivalry. Not since Russell squared off against Chamberlain had professional basketball enjoyed such a marquee matchup. The apparent contrast between the two players and their respective teams seemed scripted for television: Bird, the introverted small-town hero with the blue-collar work ethic, fitted perfectly with the throwback, hard-nosed style of the Celtics, while the stylish, gregarious Johnson ran the Lakers' fast-paced "Showtime" offense amidst the bright lights and celebrities of Los Angeles. A 1986 Converse commercial for its "Weapon" line of basketball shoes (endorsed by both Bird and Johnson) reflected the perceived dichotomy between the two players. In the commercial, Bird is practicing alone on a rural basketball court when Johnson pulls up in a sleek limousine and challenges him to a one-on-one match.
Despite the intensity of their rivalry, Bird and Johnson became friends off the court. Their friendship blossomed when the two players worked together to film the 1986 Converse commercial, which depicted them as archenemies. Johnson appeared at Bird's retirement ceremony on February 4, 1993 and emotionally described Bird as a "friend forever."
1988–1992: The twilight years
In 1988, Bird had the best statistical season of his career, but the Celtics failed to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in four years, losing to the Pistons in six games during the Eastern Conference Finals. Bird started the 1988–89 season with Boston, but ended his season after six games to have bone spurs surgically removed from both of his heels. He returned to the Celtics in 1989, but debilitating back problems and an aging Celtic roster prevented him from regaining his mid-1980s form. Nonetheless, through the final years of his career, Bird maintained his status as one of the premier players in the game. He averaged over 20 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists a game in his last three seasons with the Celtics, and shot better than 45% from the field in each. Bird led the Celtics to playoff appearances in each of those three seasons.
Bird's body, however, continued to break down. He had been bothered by back problems for years, and his back became progressively worse. After leading the Celtics to a 29-5 start to the 1990-91 season, he missed 22 games due to a compressed nerve root in his back, a condition that would eventually lead to his retirement. He had off-season surgery to remove a disc from his back, but his back problems continued and he missed 37 games during the 1991–92 season. During the 1992 Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers Bird missed 4 of 7 games in the series due to his back problems.
In the summer of 1992, Bird joined Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and other NBA stars to play for the United States basketball team in that year's Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. It was the first time in America's Olympic history that the country sent professional basketball players to compete. The "Dream Team" won the men's basketball gold medal.
Following his Olympic experience, on August 18, 1992, Bird announced his retirement as an NBA player. He finished his career with averages of more than 24 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists per game, while shooting 49.6% from the field, 88.6% from the free throw line and 37.6% from three-point range. Following Bird's departure, the Celtics promptly retired his jersey number "33".
"Larry, you only told me one lie. You said there will be another Larry Bird. Larry, there will never, ever be another Larry Bird." — Magic Johnson, as quoted at Bird's retirement party.
Bird's humble roots led to his most frequently used moniker, "The Hick From French Lick". Other observers called him "The Great White Hope". In 1999, Bird ranked #30 in ESPN's SportsCentury's 50 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century.
For the 2008 NBA Finals, which featured a rematch of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, Bird appeared in a split-screen advertisement with Magic Johnson (as part of the "There Can Only Be One" campaign which had played throughout the 2008 NBA Playoffs but to that point only featured players from the two teams competing in a given series) discussing the meaning of rivalries.