American basketball player
By the time he joined the Boston Celtics in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1979, Larry Bird was already a basketball hero in his home state of Indiana.
After a brief stay at Indiana University, he transferred to Indiana State University (ISU) and led the men's basketball team to thirty-three consecutive wins in his senior year. The perfect 1978-79 season for the Sycamores ended with a dramatic loss in the NCAA finals to Michigan State University, led by Earvin "Magic" Johnson . Forever linked in the annals of college sport, the two players became friendly rivals during their NBA careers and helped the league soar to new heights of popularity in the 1980s. Bird also reversed the fortunes of the Boston Celtics, a team that had gone 29-53 the year before he joined the roster. With the addition of Bird, the Celtics made the biggest turnaround in NBA history, winning sixty-one games after he joined the team. The Celtics went on to win three NBA championships with Bird, who retired in 1992. After working for the Celtics as a special assistant for five years, Bird returned to Indiana to coach the Indiana Pacers. Although he won NBA Coach of the Year honors in 1998 and took the Pacers to the NBA championship in 2000, Bird decided to retire from coaching after just three seasons. In characteristically modest fashion he told Indianapolis Monthly in March 2000, "I'm not great at coaching. I came in here really raw, and I didn't know what was going on. I thought I did, but there's a lot more to it than I thought there was."
Larry Joe Bird was born in the small, southern Indiana town of West Baden on December 7, 1956. His father, Claude, worked as a laborer, often taking jobs at the local Kimball Piano and Organ Company, while his mother, Georgia (Kerns) worked as a waitress. The Birds had three children before the arrival of Larry—sons Mike and Mark and daughter Linda—and two more sons afterwards—sons Jeff and Eddie. His parents struggled throughout Bird's childhood to make ends meet, and Bird and his brothers were often sent to live with his grandmother, Lizzie Kerns, while the family shuffled between West Baden and the adjacent town of French Lick. "I just never realized how poor we were," Bird wrote in his 1989 memoir Drive: The Story of My Life, "Nobody in French Lick is wealthy. Everyone makes basically the same amount of money and everyone has basically the same values. It's the kind of small town where everyone stands up for his rights." Remembering his small-town roots, Bird would later jokingly refer to himself as "the hick from French Lick" when he first arrived in Boston as an NBA player, and the phrase became his nickname.
With little in the way of financial resources, the Bird children amused themselves with intra-family sporting events, especially basketball. Bird later recalled that his older brothers were fearsome competitors against their younger brother, which spurred him on to practice his skills in order to beat them. Bird was also profoundly shaped by his community's love of sports. "Sports are big, always have been," he recalled in his autobiography, "Especially basketball—giving rise to the term 'Hoosier Hysteria' to describe Indiana's fascination and support of basketball. Everyone knows what's going on in sports and everyone who plays sports is extremely competitive." Upon entering Springs Valley High School in 1971, Bird played football, baseball, and basketball. A broken ankle curtailed his activity in his sophomore year, but Bird returned to the basketball team as a six-foot, four-inch junior (he would eventually top out at six-feet, nine inches) and helped his team go to the sectional finals. The Spring Valley team made it to the regional finals in Bird's sennior year, but the squad's lack of confidence betrayed it. Even with the loss, Bird learned to keep practicing his basic skills, including his free throws and passes, that would later make him one of the most consistent players in the NBA.
Standout Player at Indiana State
In 1974 Bird headed to Indiana University, where he intended to play for legendary coach Bobby Knight . Before the season began, however, Bird felt so intimidated by the school's large size that he decided to drop out. After working for a year on the city's road crew in French Lick, Bird enrolled at nearby Indiana State University (ISU) in Terre Haute. On November 8, 1975 he entered into a brief marriage with Janet Condra, whom he had known since childhood. The couple divorced in 1976 but had a daughter, Corrie, born during a brief reconciliation in 1977. Bird's personal life was also marked by the suicide of his father in 1975. Now divorced, Claude Bird was depressed about his inability to make child support payments to his family and took his life in the hope that they would benefit from the Social Security payments available after his death.
|1956||Born December 7 in West Baden, Indiana to Claude Joseph and Georgia (Kerns) Bird|
|1971||Begins playing basketball at Springs Valley High School in French Lick, Indiana|
|1974||Enters Indiana University, but departs before school begins|
|1975||Enters Indiana State University in Terre Haute|
|1975||Marries Janet Condra on November 8|
|1979||Receives John Wooden Award as Collegiate Player of the Year from the Los Angeles Athletic Association|
|1979||Completes B.S. degree in physical education|
|1979||Signs contract with Boston Celtics|
|1980||Named NBA Rookie of the Year|
|1984-86||Named NBA Player of the Year|
|1989||Marries Dinah Mattingly on September 30|
|1992||Retires as professional athlete|
|1997||Becomes coach of Indiana Pacers|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1979||John Wooden Award as Collegiate Player of the Year, Los Angeles Athletic Association|
|1980||Named NBA Rookie of the Year|
|1981, 1984, 1986||NBA championship (with Boston Celtics)|
|1984-85||NBA Most Valuable Player in Playoffs|
|1984-86||Named NBA Player of the Year|
|1985||Man of the Year, Sporting News|
|1985||Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year|
|1992||Olympic Gold Medal (U.S. men's basketball team)|
|1998||Inducted into Basketball Hall of Fame|
|1998||Named NBA Coach of the Year|
NCAA rules forced Bird to refrain from playing for ISU during his first year there. When he joined the team for the 1976-77 season, he helped the Sycamores to a 25-3 record and created phenomenal interest in ISU's basketball team, with home games selling out as soon as tickets became available. Although he was drafted by the Boston Celtics when he was a junior at ISU, Bird insisted on completing his senior year. The Sycamores ended up winning thirty-three straight games and would have had an undefeated season had it not been for the 75-64 loss to Michigan State University (MSU) in the 1979 NCAA finals. The game received some of the highest-ever ratings for a college sporting event and made media stars out of Bird and his MSU rival, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who dropped out of college to play for the Los Angeles Lakers. Bird finished his B.S. degree in physical education at ISU in 1979 and also received the John Wooden Award as Collegiate Player of the Year from the Los Angeles Athletic Association. When he completed his college athletic career, Bird ranked fifth on the NCAA list of all-time scorers. Before leaving ISU, Bird also began dating Dinah Mattingly. The couple would marry on September 30, 1989 and have two children, Connor and Mariah.
Signs with Boston Celtics
Bird signed a $3.25 million, five-year contract with the Celtics in 1979. With an abysmal record of 29-53 the prior year, Bird joined a team at the bottom of the NBA. Along with Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale, Bird turned the team around in dramatic fashion. The Celtics went 61-21 in Bird's first season in Boston, an accomplishment that helped him win NBA Rookie of the Year honors in 1980. The following year the Celtics beat the Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers on their way to the NBA finals, where they faced the Houston Rockets. The Celtics took the series, the first of its three NBA championships in the 1980s.
Along with Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers, Bird's Celtics were the dominant team in the NBA in the 1980s. The two stars greatly increased the popularity of professional basketball during the decade, with Johnson epitomizing the glamour of a sports superstar and Bird demonstrating the value of hard work and endless practicing. Although the two players were a study in contrasts, they maintained a friendly relationship off the court and a sportsmanlike rivalry on the court. Between 1983 and 1988, either the Celtics or Lakers emerged as NBA champions. When the two teams met up in the finals in 1984, the Celtics came out on top with four games in the seven-game series. The following year the Lakers won the championship in six games over the Celtics and in 1986 Boston won the finals for a third time with Bird. It was the last championship Bird claimed; in 1987 the Lakers beat the Celtics again in six games.
In addition to his three NBA championships with the Celtics, Bird also earned Most Valuable Player awards for the playoffs in 1984 and 1985 and was named the NBA's Player of the Year three consecutive times, from 1984-86. In 1985 he also picked up Man of the Year honors from the Sporting News and was named Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. Bird's humble nature, his emphasis on teamwork, and his sportsmanlike conduct also made him a favorite with basketball fans, who routinely made Celtics home games a sold-out event.
Coaches Indiana Pacers
In February 1982 Bird suffered a broken zygomatic arch in his face; it was the first of numerous injuries that plagued him in his NBA career. In 1988 he underwent surgery to remove bone spurs on his feet and he played the following season with severe back pain. In 1991 he had back surgery during the off season and returned to the Celtics lineup for only half of the 1991-92 season. After playing for the U.S men's basketball team at the Barcelona Summer Olympic Games in 1992, where the "Dream Team" won the Gold Medal, Bird announced his retirement as a professional basketball player. For the next five years, he remained on the staff of the Celtics as a special assistant.
In 1997 Bird received an offer to join the Indiana Pacers as the team's head coach. Based on Magic Johnson's experience as the coach of the Lakers after his retirement, some observers predicted that Bird would find the role of a coach to be unsatisfying. Bird proved them wrong by taking the Pacers to their best-ever season with fifty-eight wins. At the end of the season Bird claimed NBA Coach of the Year honors. In 1998 he was also inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
|BC: Boston Celtics.|
Retires from Basketball in 2000
As he had in Boston, Bird raised the profile of the Pacers as he made the team into title contenders. In
2000 the Pacers faced the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals, a series that the Lakers took in six games. Despite the success of the team, however, Bird decided that he did not have enough experience to continue on as the Pacers' coach and announced his retirement. The owner of a car dealership in Martinsville, Indiana and a hotel and restaurant in Terre Haute, Bird also retained an endorsement deal with Heinz foods that kept him in the public spotlight. Along with their two children, Bird and his wife Dinah divided their time at homes in Indiana and Florida.
Bird's consistency—most evident in his career free-throw average of 88.6 percent—and commitment to team work made the Boston Celtics into perennial championship contenders in the 1980s. Bird himself emerged as one of the league's most popular players in an era often dominated by the flashy style of superstars such as Magic Johnson. As a standout collegiate and professional player, then, Larry Bird helped to make basketball into one of the most popular mass-spectator sports in North America and abroad. Despite his fame, Bird remained resolutely down-to-earth about his accomplishments. "Basketball has been my life," he wrote in Indianapolis Monthly in 2000, "Everything I got has been through basketball. Our family never owned our own home. We never had a car…. Every material thing I have is through basketball. Every piece of clothes I have is through basketball. That's the way it's been."
SELECTED WRITINGS BY BIRD:
(With Bob Ryan) Drive: The Story of My Life, Doubleday, 1989.
Where Is He Now?
After stepping down as the Pacers' head coach in 2000, Bird divided his time between his homes in French Lick, Indiana and Naples, Florida. Bird and his wife, Dinah, had two children. Still a sports legend and immensely popular figure to his fellow Hoosiers, Bird owned two businesses, a hotel and restaurant in Terre Haute and a car dealership in Martinsville, Indiana. Bird also retained an endorsement deal with the Heinz Corporation to advertise its Boston Market restaurant chain and line of frozen pot pies.
"I don't know what I'll do next," Bird wrote in an essay for Indianapolis Monthly upon his retirement from basketball in March 2000, adding, "I've been in this business twenty years. That's a long time. If I'm in something, I want to be active. [The owners of the Pacers] want me to stay here. I was always intrigued by putting a team together—not negotiating the contracts, but going out and really scouting and finding people that you trust and know, and putting it together. I'd like to scout, draft players, trade players, and stuff like that, but I don't know if I'll have an opportunity to do that."
(With Jackie MacMullan) Bird Watching: On Playing and Coaching the Game I Love, Warner Books, 1999.
Bird, Larry, with Bob Ryan. Drive: The Story of My Life. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
Bird, Larry with Jackie MacMullan. Bird Watching: On Playing and Coaching the Game I Love. New York: Warner Books, 1999.
Hubbard, Jan, ed. The Official NBA Encyclopedia. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
Bird, Larry, and Dan Shaughnessy. "Why I Love This Game." Indianapolis Monthly (March 2000).
Looney, Douglas S. "Larry Bird: Doer and Teacher." Christian Science Monitor (May 22, 1998).
MacMullan, Jackie. "Bird Meets Magic for the NCAA Title" Sports Illustrated (November 29, 1999).
McGraw, Dan. "The Ghost of Larry Bird." U.S. News and World Report (October 12, 1998).
Reyes, Sonia. "Heinz Drafts Bird Again to Score Points as Boston Market Rolls Out Pot Pies." Brandweek (September 9, 2002).
Taylor, Phil. "It's a Wrap." Sports Illustrated (June 26, 2000).
Wahl, Grant et al. "Paternity Ward." Time (May 18, 1998).
"Larry Bird." Celtic Stats Web site. http://www.celticstats.com/player/larrybird.html (December 4, 2002).
"Larry Bird." NBA Web site. http://www.nba.com/history/bird_bio.html (December 2, 2002).
Sketch by Timothy Borden
No player has left a mark on 1980s professional basketball comparable to that of Larry Bird (born 1956), the renowned forward for the Boston Celtics.
Bird took the NBA by storm as a rookie in 1979 and dominated the league almost without a break throughout his career as a professional basket ball player. He transformed the lackluster Celtics into a basketball superpower, leading the team to three national championships in five attempts. Every sort of honor and superlative has been lavished on the blond Indiana native. Sports Illustrated contributor Frank Deford has called him "the greatest basketball player in the history of humankind," and few observers would argue the point. "Each Bird game is a rich tapestry of fundamentals," writes Mike Lupica in the New York Daily News. "He keeps the ball alive, he is the middleman on the fast break, he boxes out, he posts his man every chance he gets. He moves to the right place on defense, he blocks shots, he picks, he rolls. He dives after loose balls and makes perfect outlet passes. And four or five times down the court, he makes one of those plays that take your breath away."
Although he gained a noticeable measure of poise during his years with the Celtics, Bird is a product of his rural upbringing in French Lick, Indiana. He is a modest man who avoids media exposure (to the extent that it is possible to do so), and his name has never been linked to scandal or sensation. Deford notes: "Among those who know Bird well, the same catalog of qualities is cited again and again—honest, loyal, steadfast, dependable—his existence shaped by the contradictory, almost mystical ability to be the [center of attention], yet always to contribute to those around him." New Yorker correspondent Herbert Warren Wind concludes that Bird is the kind of man who derives one pleasure from life: "pride in playing good, sound, imaginative basketball. He hates to see his team lose if it can possibly win. He has almost unlimited determination…. A man has to love a game deeply to work so hard to play it well day after day and night after night."
Larry Bird was born on Pearl Harbor Day in 1956, the fourth of six children of Joe and Georgia Bird. His birthplace, West Baden, Indiana, is a small village just outside the slightly larger town of French Lick. Once a famous resort community with highly-prized mineral springs, French Lick had fallen upon hard times by the years of Bird's youth. His father managed to find factory work in the town, but the Bird family always struggled to make ends meet. According to Deford, Larry "knew damn well that he was poor. No, it was not oppressive. But, yes, it was there. The Birds had enough coal to stay warm, but too many nights the old furnace would break down, and the house would fill with black smoke, and they would all have to stand outside, freezing, while Joe Bird tried to fix things." Bird and his brothers were all avid ball players, and as the next-to-youngest brother, he always competed valiantly to keep up with his older, bigger siblings. Wind writes: "Striving to be as good as Mark, who was three years older, made Larry a much better basketball player than he might otherwise have been, and a more competitive one, too."
Bird told the New Yorker: "Basketball wasn't really my only love. We played lots of baseball, softball, rubber ball— we played ball all the time. When we were growing up, before we got a real basketball hoop, we used a coffee can and tried to shoot one of those small sponge-rubber balls through it." In fact, Bird did not settle on basketball as his primary sport until he was well into high school, even though he played the sport on an organized level as young as ten. When it finally seemed apparent that he might excel in the sport, he began to practice—hard—day and night. "I played when I was cold and my body was aching and I was so tired," he told Sports Illustrated. "I don't know why, I just kept playing and playing…. I guess I always wanted to make the most out of it. I just never knew."
Bird honed his talents in one of the most rigorous basketball arenas, the celebrated Hoosier region where the sport reigns supreme. At Springs Valley High School in French Lick he played guard during his sophomore and junior years. He showed no spectacular ability at the time, and at six-foot-three he was not especially tall. Then fate— or rather, biology—intervened. By his senior year Bird had grown four inches. Almost overnight he had become an impressive physical specimen while retaining his agility and hustle. His senior year he averaged 30.6 points and 20 rebounds per game, and college scouts from all over the East flocked to see him play. He was actively pursued by a number of universities, but he decided to stay in state, entering Indiana University (of Bobby Knight fame) in the fall of 1974.
Bird lasted only twenty-four days at Indiana University. He was overwhelmed by the size and impersonality of the school, so he quickly returned to French Lick and entered junior college there. Within two months he had dropped out of that college as well and had entered into a brief and unhappy marriage. In order to support himself and his daughter, born after the marriage had dissolved, Bird took a job with the City Department of French Lick. He drove a garbage truck and helped to maintain parks and roads in the district. Such work may have seemed a low point to some people, but Bird told Sports Illustrated that he actually enjoyed it. "I loved that job," he said. "It was outdoors, you were around your friends. Picking up brush, cleaning it up. I felt like I was really accomplishing something. How many times are you riding around your town and you say to yourself, Why don't they fix that? Why don't they clean the streets up? And here I had the chance to do that. I had the chance to make my community look better."
Bird faced further tragedy during the same period when his father committed suicide. Shortly after that unfortunate event, Bird decided to return to college, this time at Indiana State. He had little confidence in his scholastic abilities, but felt that he could help the struggling Sycamores win some respect. By that time he had added two more inches in height and was weighing in at 220 pounds; to quote Wind, he was "an altogether different commodity—a comparatively big man who could challenge the seven-footers at rebounding and in other phases of the game, because he was well built, had exceptional coordination for a man his size, and knew how to utilize the advantages his height gave him." Bird had to sit out his first season at Indiana State, and without him the Sycamores went 13-12. In 1976-77, his first year on the team, the same Sycamores earned a 25-3 record—their best in almost thirty years. The following summer Bird played for the United States team that won the basketball gold medal at the World University Games in Sophia, Bulgaria.
During his Indiana State years, Bird became "the most publicized college player in the country," to quote Wind. Even then Bird showed his penchant for team play and for sharing the glory both on and off the field. Still, he averaged thirty points per game through his junior year and led the Sycamores to the quarterfinals in the 1978 National Invitational Tournament. He was drafted by the Celtics in 1978. At that point he had the option of playing professional ball right away, but instead he chose to stay in school, finish his degree, and be a Sycamore one more season. In his senior year the Sycamores won thirty-three straight games—a collegiate record for a single season—and advanced to the NCAA championships against a formidable Michigan State team led by Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Michigan State won the game which marked the first of many encounters between Bird and Johnson, but Bird walked away with player of the year trophies from the Associated Press, United Press International, and the National Association of Coaches.
Negotiations began with the Celtics for Bird's professional services. Already known for his unwillingness to cooperate with the press, Bird offered no comment as his agent demanded a record salary. The contract signed on June 8, 1979 gave Bird $650,000 per year for five years, a total of $3,250,000. This sum was unheard of for an untested rookie in any sport, and the Boston fans made no secrets of their expectations for their new headliner. Bird did not disappoint. He made the NBA All-Star team his first year, played in every regular season Celtics game, and led the team to a first place finish in its league. Even though the Celtics lost the Eastern Conference finals to the Philadelphia 76ers, Bird was named Rookie of the Year and finished third in the Most Valuable Player balloting.
Bird Soars with Celtics
Those who had predicted that Bird could never turn the dismal Boston franchise around had to eat their words. After Bird's debut, the team became a regular championship contender with wins in 1981, 1984, and 1986. "There hasn't been a Celtics game at the Boston Garden in years that hasn't been sold out," writes Wind. "Most observers attribute this long run of sold-out games to Bird's astonishing virtuosity and the leading role he has played in making the Celtics once again a spirited, exciting team, which has been in contention for the championship just about every year." The excitement of Bird's play has only been enhanced by his long-standing rivalry with Magic Johnson, the mainstay of the Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, Johnson's Lakers are the only team that have bumped the Celtics from the championship, beating them in 1985 and 1987. Time magazine contributor Tom Callahan concludes that even when the Celtics were bested by the Lakers, "somehow they [were] able to retrieve their preeminence in the next instant."
Few would list Larry Bird among the flashiest or most spectacular individual players in the NBA. He is not particularly fast on the court, nor is he a remarkable jumper. Bird has achieved greatness the old-fashioned way: by being consistent, by contributing not as a grand-standing superstar but as a team player, and by attacking every game with every ounce of effort. "The hours that Bird devotes to his job are astonishing," Deford notes. "From himself on the court he seeks only consistency and considers that the true mark of excellence." Years and years of practice and play have made Bird an expert on the shifting patterns of the game and even on the behavior of the ball when it hits the backboard. As Wind puts it, "he just knows where he should go, he beats other players to that spot, and his timing in going up for the ball is exceptional." Indeed, when "spectacular" is used to describe Bird's play, it is often in reference to passing and to diving for out-of-bounds balls. Wind concludes that Bird has showed "how imaginative and enthralling a well-played basketball game can be."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Bird has been dogged over the years by suggestions that he has been singled out for praise more because he is white than because he is good—that his superstardom is predicated on the general scarcity of great white players in the NBA. Deford is one of many who has sought to dispel this myth. "Larry Bird is not a Great White Hope," Deford claims. "Anybody who thinks that misses the point of Larry Bird. Little white boys today would much prefer to grow up to be Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins, for however clever and hardworking, they're also truly spectacular players. They can fly. But when kids imitate Larry Bird, mostly what they do, so humdrum, is reach down and rub their hands on the bottom of their sneakers…. He seems merely the sum of little bits—a bit more clever than you and me, a bit more dedicated, a bit better on his shooting touch…. In Bird's case, he probably has worked as hard as anyone in the ever has in sport, and he does possess an incredible sixth sense, but that has no more to do with his race than it does with his Social Security number." Wind too suggests that Bird's race has little to do with his stardom. "I do not believe that it is the underlying reason Bird and the Celtics have set attendance records at home and on the road," the critic writes. "As I see it, the explanation is that Bird's arresting over-all concept of basketball and his sturdy execution of it have made the Celtics game tremendously exciting to watch."
Always somewhat injury-prone, Bird missed much of the 1988-89 season after major surgery on both heels. He continued to battle back problems and other injuries throughout the next few seasons, but retired from the Celtics after an illustrious 13-year career. He played his last game of basketball as a member of the U.S. Olympic Dream Team at the 1992 games in Barcelona.
After retiring as a player, Bird worked for the Celtics Front Office as a Special Assistant. Many thought he would replace M.L. Carr as coach, but the position was awarded to Rick Pitino. As a result, Bird returned to his home state to succeed Larry Brown as coach of the Indiana Pacers for the 1997-1998 season.
Heinsohn, Tommy, Give 'em the Hook, Prentice Hall, 1989.
Levine, Lee Daniel, Bird: The Making of an American Sports Legend, McGraw-Hill, 1989.
Daily News, March 17, 1979; January 30, 1981.
Newsweek, February 26, 1979.
New Yorker, March 24, 1986.
New York Times, February 3, 1979.
Sports Illustrated, January 23, 1978; February 5, 1979; April 2, 1979; October 15, 1979; November 9, 1981; March 21, 1988; December 11, 1989.
Time, February 26, 1979; June 9, 1986.
Washington Post, February 9, 1979. □
Bird, Larry Joe
BIRD, Larry Joe
(b. 7 December 1956 in West Baden, Indiana), college and professional basketball player whose dedication and superlative offensive and defensive skills revitalized professional basketball in the 1980s.
Bird was the fourth of six children of Claude Joseph ("Joe") Bird and Georgia Kerns Bird. His father worked at the Kimball piano factory, while his mother worked as a waitress and cook. The family moved often between West Baden Springs, Indiana, and French Lick, a mile away.
In 1971 Bird entered Springs Valley High School in French Lick, where he played football and made the "B" basketball team. The coach, Jim Jones, taught Bird the basic fundamentals of the game, including how to play left-handed. Bird did not play much basketball his freshman year but excelled in baseball as a pitcher and shortstop. Bird missed almost his entire sophomore basketball season because of a broken ankle, which he suffered going for a rebound. Although his leg was in a cast and he was on crutches, he continued to practice, turning his attention to passing, which he soon perfected. In his junior year Bird made the varsity team and began his career as a forward. At the sectionals that year, he sank two foul shots, winning the game almost single-handedly. He had improved his performance at the foul line by shooting 500 free throws every morning before school. By his senior year Bird was six feet, six inches tall and an ambidextrous ball handler. He averaged 31 points, 21 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. He was recruited by colleges from across the nation, but wanting to stay close to home, he accepted a scholarship to Indiana University in Bloomington, whose team was coached by the legendary Bobby Knight. After entering Indiana in the fall of 1974, Bird soon discovered that a school with over 33,000 students was too big for his tastes. He never made it to the official opening of practice. Without saying a word to anyone, he hitchhiked back to French Lick after only twenty-four days at Indiana.
Bird's mother had divorced his father because of his heavy drinking, and when he came back to French Lick, Bird moved in with his grandmother, Lizzie Kerns. He enrolled in Northwood Institute, a junior college in West Baden, but quit after two weeks because of a lack of competition on the basketball team. He decided to work for a year before returning to school and got a job with the French Lick street department picking up trash, mowing grass, removing snow, and fixing roads. He loved the work.
Bill Hodges, a basketball scout from Indiana State University, asked Bird to come to Terre Haute to practice. Larry liked the school and the basketball coach, Bob King, and enrolled in 1975. Although he had to sit out a year due to rules governing the transfer of athletes from one school to another, he continued to practice. On 8 November 1975, shortly after entering Indiana State, Bird married Janet Condra, a girl he had known since first grade. The marriage was an unhappy one, and the couple divorced less than a year later. A brief reconciliation produced a daughter, born in 1977. Bird's greatest personal tragedy occurred in February 1975, when his father, driven by alcoholism and despair because he could not make child support payments, committed suicide. To escape depression, Bird dedicated himself even more intensely to the game of basketball.
In his sophomore year Bird, a six-foot, nine-inch, 220-pound forward, led the Indiana State Sycamores to a 25–3 record and was named third-team All-America. He was eligible for the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft in his junior year but turned down an offer by the Indiana Pacers because he loved playing college ball. At the season's end, he was named first-team All-America. In Bird's senior year, Indiana State won thirty-three straight games and played in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament. In the championship game, the Michigan State Spartans, spearheaded by the brilliant play of Earvin ("Magic") Johnson, defeated the Sycamores 75–64 and kept Bird to just nineteen points. Bird finished his college career as College Player of the Year, winning the John Wooden Award, making first-team All-America, and earning the title of fifth all-time leading NCAA scorer. In June 1979 he received a B.S. in physical education, the first member of his family to earn a college degree.
On 8 June 1979 Bird signed a five-year, $3.25 million contract with the Boston Celtics, making him the highest paid rookie in the history of team sports. He looked forward to playing for player-coach Dave Cowans, but unfamiliar with urban settings, he kept getting lost in Boston, which resulted in his famous remark to the press, "I guess I'm still a hick from French Lick." By the end of his rookie year, the "hick" power forward, under new coach Bill Fitch, had helped the Celtics to a 61–21 record. The 32-win improvement from the year before, when the team was 29–53, was the biggest single-season turnaround in NBA history. Bird was named NBA Rookie of the Year and selected to play in the All-Star game, in which he hit the first three-pointer in the history of the game. In his second season, with the help of new teammates Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, Bird led Boston to the NBA championship, where they defeated Houston in the final.
In 1983 Bill Fitch was replaced by K. C. Jones, a coach who allowed his players freedom to improvise and who organized Bird, Parish, and McHale into what was arguably the greatest frontcourt in the history of the NBA. In the 1983–1984 season the Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA championship. Bird won both the series' and the regular season's Most Valuable Player (MVP) award and led the NBA in free-throw shooting percentage. In 1984 he re-signed with the Celtics for seven years and $12.6 million, then the highest yearly contract in the NBA. The following season Bird scored sixty points in a game against the Atlanta Hawks, and although the Celtics lost the NBA championship final to the Lakers, Bird was named an NBA All-Star and received the MVP award for the second year in a row.
In 1985–1986 Bird led the league in free throws with an 89.6 percentage while suffering severe back pain. With newly acquired backup center Bill Walton, he helped the Celtics win a third NBA championship, beating Houston in the final. When Bird won the MVP award, he joined Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to ever receive the award three years in a row. The following season, still in great pain, Bird was again an All-Star and won the NBA long-distance shoot-out contest, a feat he would accomplish two more times in his career. The Celtics lost the 1987 championship to the Lakers, but it was the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit that provided Bird with the most memorable moment of his career. With five seconds left in the game, he made a miraculous steal of Isiah Thomas's inbound pass to give Boston a win in game five of the playoff series.
By 1988 Bird's body showed the wear and tear from so many years of pounding under the boards. After playing six games he had surgery for bone spurs in both feet and could not return to finish the season. Although still experiencing back pain in 1989, he achieved his 5,000th career assist on 5 November. Twenty-five days later he scored his 20,000th career point against the Washington Bullets. During the season he sank seventy-one consecutive free throws, the third best record in NBA history. In June 1991 Bird had surgery on a swollen disc but continued to have back pain. In the 1991–1992 season he played just forty-five games but showed his old form against the Portland Trail-blazers in a March contest by scoring forty-nine points, including a three-point goal in the last two seconds that tied the game and led to a Celtic win in double overtime. That summer, Bird served as cocaptain of the original "Dream Team" that won the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. He announced his retirement shortly afterward.
Between 1992 and 1997 Bird was a special assistant and consultant to the Celtics but became bored with the job. In May 1997 he was named head coach of the Indiana Pacers. In his first year Bird led the team to a franchise record of fifty-eight victories and was named the NBA Coach of the Year. The Pacers went to the Eastern Conference finals each year he was coach and in 2000 faced Los Angeles in the NBA championship final. Indiana lost in six games, and after the season ended, Bird stepped down as coach.
Bird owns a home in Naples, Florida, and one in French Lick. He lives with his wife, Dinah (Mattingly), whom he married on 30 September 1989, and their two adopted children. He owns a hotel and restaurant in Terre Haute, Larry Bird's Home Court Hotel, and a Ford dealership in Martinsville, Indiana. Bird's statistics are impressive. In his thirteen years and 897 games in the NBA, he had a total of 8,974 rebounds (10.0 average), 5,695 assists (6.3 average), 3,960 free throws (.886 percent average), 1,556 steals, and 21,791 points. He was named an NBA All-Star twelve times. His one-on-one duels with Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks, Julius ("Dr. J") Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers, and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers helped to make professional basketball a major televised attraction. Bird's concentration on fundamentals and his dedication to hard work inspired countless future players. Above all, he was devoted to the notion of team: "I've never felt the greater purpose of my playing well is to break personal records, but it is to help my team win games." Bird was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998.
Bird's autobiography with Bob Ryan, Drive: The Story of My Life (1989), contains informative items about his childhood days and family life. Lee Daniel Levine, Bird: The Making of an American Sports Legend (1988), is a somewhat adulatory but interesting summary of Bird's life and career. Peter May, The Big Three (1993), gives autobiographical and career details for Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale and describes the teamwork they established to create a Celtic dynasty.
John J. Byrne
Born: December 7, 1956
West Baden, Indiana
American basketball player and coach
Few players have left a mark on 1980s professional basketball like Larry Bird, the famous forward for the Boston Celtics.
Larry Bird was born on December 7, 1956. He was the fourth of Joe and Georgia Bird's six children. His birthplace, West Baden, Indiana, is a small village just outside the slightly larger town of French Lick, Indiana, which a had a population of two thousand. French Lick was once a famous resort community that people visited for its mineral springs (healthful waters). French Lick had fallen upon hard times by the time Bird was a youngster. His father managed to find factory work in the town, but the Bird family always struggled to make ends meet. The Birds had enough coal to stay warm, but many nights the old furnace would break down. The house would fill with black smoke, and the family would all have to stand outside, freezing, while Joe Bird tried to fix things.
Bird and his brothers played all sorts of sports, including baseball and softball. In fact, Bird did not settle on basketball as his primary sport until he was in high school. When he realized he might excel in the sport, he began to practice day and night. "I played when I was cold and my body was aching and I was so tired," he told Sports Illustrated. "I don't know why, I just kept playing and playing.… I guess I always wanted to make the most out of it."
Bird sharpened his talents in one of the most demanding basketball arenas. In Indiana, the sport reigns supreme. When he was in high school in French Lick, he played guard during his sophomore and junior years. He showed no great ability at the time, and at 6 feet 3 inches (1.9 meters) he was not especially tall. By his senior year, however, Bird had grown four more inches. At 6 feet 7 inches (2 meters) he became an impressive physical specimen and retained his agility (ability to move quickly) and hustle (speed, drive). Many universities wanted him for their teams, but Bird decided to stay at home. He entered Indiana University in the fall of 1974. Bird lasted only twenty-four days at the college. He felt uncomfortable about the size and the impersonality (lack of emotion) of the school. He returned to French Lick and entered junior college there, but within two months he had dropped out of that college as well.
Bird had a short marriage that ended in divorce. In order to support himself and his daughter from that marriage, Bird took a job with the City Department of French Lick. He drove a garbage truck and helped to maintain parks and roads in the district. Such work may have seemed a low point to some people, but Bird told Sports Illustrated that he actually enjoyed it. "I loved that job," he said. "It was outdoors, you were around your friends.… I felt like I was really accomplishing something. Had the chance to make my community look better."
Bird faced personal loss during the same period when his father committed suicide. After that tragic event, Bird decided to return to college. This time he went to Indiana State. He had little confidence in his academic abilities, but felt that he could help the basketball team, the Sycamores. By that time he had grown another two inches. He was 6 feet 9 inches (2.1 meters) in height and weighed 220 pounds (99.9 kilograms).
Bird had to sit out his first season at Indiana State because of rules having to do with players moving from one school to another. That year the Sycamores went 13–12 (won thirteen games and lost twelve). When he was allowed to play in the 1976–77 season, his first year on the team, the same Sycamores earned a 25–3 record—their best in almost thirty years. When he was at Indiana State, Bird became the most talked about college player in the country. Bird always played with and for the team and always shared his fame with his fellow players both on and off the court.
The Boston Celtics drafted Bird in 1978. He had the option of playing professional basketball right away, but he chose to stay in school and finish his degree. The Celtics worked out a deal for Bird after his graduation. The contract signed on June 8, 1979, gave Bird $650,000 per year for five years, a total of $3.25 million. This sum was a record for a rookie (first-year player) in any sport. The Boston fans made no secret of their expectations for their new headliner. Bird did not disappoint them.
Bird took the National Basketball Association (NBA) by storm as a rookie in 1979, dominating the league almost without a break throughout his career. He helped the Celtics regain their position as a basketball superpower. He made the NBA All-Star team his first year, played in every regular season Celtics game, and led the team to a first place finish in its league. Bird was named Rookie of the Year and finished third in the Most Valuable Player polls.
Bird soars with Celtics
Those who had predicted that Bird could never turn Boston around had to take back their statements. After Bird's first year, the team played in the championship series again and won in 1981, 1984, and 1986. The Celtics' games at the Boston Garden (their home stadium) were sold out for years because fans wanted to watch Bird play.
Bird was never the flashiest of players in the NBA. He was not very fast on the court and was not a remarkable jumper. Bird has achieved greatness the old-fashioned way—by being consistent, by contributing not as a grandstanding superstar but as a team player, and by attacking every game with every ounce of effort. He spent hours practicing both with his team and alone. Sportswriters and fans alike have been amazed at how Bird knew the game, the basketball court, and where the ball was going to be. His timing and feel for the game was exceptional. He always seemed to know where he should go and where he should be.
Bird was always somewhat injury-prone. He missed much of the 1988–89 season after major surgery on both heels. He continued to battle back problems and other injuries throughout the next few seasons. He retired from the Celtics after a thirteen-year career. He played his last game of basketball as a member of the U.S. Olympic Dream Team (a basketball team made up of U.S. superstars) at the 1992 Summer Olympic games in Barcelona, Spain.
After retiring as a player, Bird worked for the Celtics as a consultant. In 1997, Bird returned to his home state of Indiana and became the coach of the Indiana Pacers. He led his team to the Eastern Conference finals in 1998 and 1999; in 2000, the Pacers lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals before Bird stepped down as coach.
For More Information
Bird, Larry, and Jackie MacMullan. Bird Watching. New York: Warner, 1999.
Bird, Larry, and Bob Ryan. Drive. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
Shaw, Mark. Larry Legend. Lincolnwood, IL: Masters Press, 1998.