'Better at everything': What made Larry Bird special, and why he still would be 25 years later

Larry Bird retired on Aug. 18, 1992, a quarter-century ago today. (Yahoo Sports/Amber Matsumoto)

As he sat beside Larry Bird, then-Celtics CEO Dave Gavitt said, “God may not have granted him an all-world body, but from the shoulders to the top of his head and from his wrists to his fingertips, he played the game better than anybody’s ever played it, and he played it with a heart five times as big as anybody I ever saw.”

Save for his 6-foot-9 frame, Bird didn’t look the part of an NBA legend. The seemingly permed blonde locks. The less-than-chiseled physique. And, later, that mustache.

He was the same guy who would later throw out his back shoveling rocks from his mother’s driveway and drink Charles Barkley under the table. Yet he staged all-time battles with Magic Johnson, hung banners from the Boston Garden rafters, and helped save the NBA in the process.

[Bird retrospective: A look back at his legendary ’86 Finals performance]

There have been more gifted athletes, but no player better maximized the God-given ability Gavitt referenced than the rural Hoosier who became one of the sport’s dominant figures throughout the 1980s. The tall tales, plus an intense desire to win, all added up to “Larry Legend,” an unprecedented 13-season run that officially came to an end on Aug. 18, 1992, 25 years ago today, when Gavitt introduced Bird at a hastily called news conference to announce the Legend’s retirement.

To mark the occasion a quarter-century later, Yahoo Sports checked in with a few of Bird’s teammates to find out what made the Hall of Famer a unicorn three decades before “unicorns” became a thing.

“We’re talking about not only one of the great basketball players in history, but we’re also talking about a great performer, entertainer and artist on the floor, and he took competitiveness to a higher level of art,” Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who played alongside Bird in Boston from 1985-87, told Yahoo Sports. “He was the ultimate winner, the ultimate competitor, and in many ways he was the ultimate showman, because he played the game in a way that made the game more beautiful.”

***

Kevin McHale remembers watching Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores play Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans in the national championship game as a junior at the University of Minnesota.

“I was interested in watching Larry and thinking, ‘How good is this guy?’” McHale, now a TNT and NBA TV analyst, told Yahoo Sports.

A year later, when Boston drafted McHale with the No. 3 pick, he had a front-row seat, and a chance to find out for himself.

“You get there, and the first thing you find out is Larry is bigger than he looks playing the perimeter on television,” said McHale, who often tried to bait Bird into mistakes at practice, but rarely succeeded. “He’s a big guy and really unbelievably crafty. … His ability to read the defense was phenomenal, just a whole different level of understanding. And then, his competitive nature. You don’t know a guy until you’re with him. Larry’s mental and physical toughness was the highest level you can get in the NBA.”

Bill Walton had already won an NBA championship and Most Valuable Player honors before Bird set foot in the league. When he arrived in Boston in 1985, five years and two championships into Bird’s career, what he saw stunned him.

“A rare and different bird, like no other, with a spectacularly unique skill set, personality, level of humanity and creative imagination,” Walton told Yahoo Sports. “He was just so far ahead of everybody else. There have been other great players, but this guy Larry Bird: Oh, my God. I was there. I saw it. I knew Larry was a good player before I got there. I had no idea how good.”

Bill Walton credits Larry Bird and Red Auerbach for not just resurrecting his career, but giving “my life back.” (Getty)

In Boston, Bird found the canvas on which he would paint his masterpiece, a labor of love handcrafted through thousands of sweet-shooting brush strokes. Whether it was true or not, he made everyone feel as if hard work brought greatness within grasp.

“Thirteen years ago, he looked like a little old country bumpkin,” legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach, who followed Gavitt at Bird’s retirement news conference, told the horde of reporters in 1992. “When you looked into his eyes, you knew you weren’t talking to any dummy. He knew what he wanted in life and he knew what it would take to get there. Nobody has ever been more self-motivated. Nobody in my 42 years played hurt the way this guy did. He did it for his love of the game and, his love of the people.”

“Don’t ever buy into ‘The Hick from French Lick,'” Walton told Yahoo Sports. “Larry was smarter than everybody else.”

***

Anybody who has performed manual labor for a living can attest to the amount of ball-busting that occurs on a job site. Whether it’s merely a way to pass the time or a method to motivate yourself amid the monotony of repetition, there’s also an art to the diss. Few wielded their sharpened wit quite like Bird.

“Larry also had a superb verbal game, and it was most entertaining. There was a take-no-prisoners attitude and atmosphere around it. It was every day,” Walton said. “I’ll put it in context to Al Franken’s new book, ‘Giant of the Senate,’ which is a life-changing book. Every page, I just burst out laughing. That’s the way it was with Larry Bird. Every encounter, you just burst out laughing. ‘I cannot believe what he just said. I cannot believe what he just did.’ And there was nothing anybody could do about it.

“Nobody could stop him, and he would not hold his tongue. It was fantastic. He just destroyed other teams and other individuals. He crushed their spirits. One of the things about elite players is their level of confidence, and Larry would embarrass them. He would tease them, and he would taunt them, with his game and with his tongue, and he was right — there was nothing they could do about it.”

There was the time he walked into the 3-Point Contest and asked his fellow competitors, “Which one of you guys is finishing second?” The time he told Xavier McDaniel exactly where he would shoot a game-winner, and then did it, right in the X-Man’s mug.

The time he mocked Julius Erving so bad about outscoring him 38-6 that Dr. J took to fighting. The time Dennis Rodman was draped all over him and he demanded, “I’m open! Hurry up before they notice nobody is guarding me!” The time he told Chuck Person he had a present for him, drilled a three and wished him a “merry f***ing Christmas.”

The time he took his franchise scoring record back mere days after McHale had broken it. And, of course, the time he played an entire game left-handed against the Portland Trail Blazers, just for fun.

“Larry was one of those guys who had no problem looking at a player and saying, ‘I hope you feel good tonight, because I feel good, and I’m going to kick your ass,’” said McHale. “It was just a constant dialogue of stuff that was going on with Larry. Depending on who it was and who he was with, he was actually really, really funny. I’d just start laughing. He just talked some trash, got it going. There were times when it brought intensity to the game, and it was fun. It made everything amp up. Sometimes in the regular season, you need something to get you going, and that was kind of Larry’s thing.”

***

When asked on the day of his retirement if any of his 1,061 career NBA games stood out, Bird cited three off the top of his head: 1) an outing during his rookie season, the NBA’s first with a 3-point arc, when he made back-to-back triples to put the Houston Rockets away late; 2) Game 4 of the 1984 NBA Finals, when he hit an overtime game-winner over Magic to tie the series at two games apiece; and 3) Game 6 of the 1986 Finals.

“I never quite had a feel like that before in my life,” Bird later said of that game on June 8, 1986. “I was so pumped up that I think I hit my max right there, because I never was fired up for a game like that. I get fired up for every game, and I didn’t play that well, but I know one thing: I came to play that day, and I’ll never forget that.

“Walking off that court, my heart was pounding so hard, I thought I was having a heart attack. I’ve never reached that milestone again. I loved it, but I never got there again.”

It says a lot about Bird that he believed his peak came not when he was at his best, but when he played his hardest. The reward was in the work.

That he believes he “didn’t play that well” says even more; he finished with 29 points on 17 shots to go along with 12 assists, 11 rebounds and three steals in a 17-point title-clinching victory. Such is the plight of a craftsman in pursuit of perfection.

“Larry was one of those special players who — even if you did not like him, even if he wasn’t playing for your team — at the end of the day, you just felt better about life,” said Walton, a Hall of Famer who served as a presenter during Bird’s induction in 1998. “He’s like Southwest Airlines in that he gets the job done, and nobody ever complains about Southwest Airlines, because as a consumer, you feel like they’re doing everything they can to get the job done. And that’s the same story with Larry Bird.”

***

Bird’s body of work speaks for itself. He entered the league at age 23, leading the Celtics to the NBA’s best record as a rookie, a 32-game improvement from a second-to-last-place finish the year before. No other player in history matched his career averages: 24.3 points (49.6 field-goal percentage, 37.6 3-point percentage and 88.6 free-throw percentage), 10 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game.

“He was so quick, and his decision-making was just so sharp. He was a combination of the brilliance that went before him, whether it was Kareem, Russell and Wilt, and Oscar and Rick Barry, and Jerry West and Walt Frazier — the true, true legends,” said Walton. “You have to be careful when you use the word ‘great,’ because where do you go up from there?

“Larry is in the smallest handful of the best. He’s right there with the best of the best, and not a lot of people are in that group. There are other good players. There are other players who do a nice job. There are other players who are nice guys, and there are other players who do good work. But there’s only one Larry Bird. And we had Larry Bird on our team, and nobody else did.”

Over his first nine seasons, before bone spurs in both heels and chronic back problems plagued his final four campaigns, Bird averaged 25 points, 10.2 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 2.6 combined blocks and steals. He earned nine First Team All-NBA selections, eight straight top-three Most Valuable finishes, including three MVP trophies, and a trio of titles — remarkably similar production to the stretch LeBron James enjoyed from 2007-16 at the same ages.

“It’s just such a big ask to try to say that somebody was approaching that level,” said Carlisle, who won a title with Bird and coached the Mavs to another against James in 2011. “Larry was the first guy that came along at 6-foot-9 playing small forward that could make plays the way he made plays. He saw things before they happened, he had the ability to thread the needle for a wide-open jump shot, layup or dunk, and he just had an impeccable sense of timing for when to strike with the 3-point dagger, when to draw two defenders and drop it off in the post or get wide-open shots for our guards. There have been a number of great players since Larry retired, but there has never been another Larry Bird.”

Rick Carlisle does not suffer fools when it comes to Larry Bird in today’s NBA. (AP)

Likewise, the 3-point shot was considered a novelty when Bird entered the league, and over the course of his career he made it en vogue. He finished the 1985-86 season 82-for-194 from 3-point range (42.3 percent). Taking into account league averages from downtown that season (28.6 percent on 35 attempts), that’s essentially the equivalent of a more efficient version of Curry’s single-season record 402 3-pointers in 2015-16.

“He was one of the first guys to use the three with any frequency, and so in today’s game, with the spacing dynamics, he’d be taking more — no question,” said Carlisle. “With the game sized down, if you bumped him up to the four or five, he’d be getting more open threes, and he’d be knocking them in. This is a guy who won the first two 3-point contests in routs. I mean, they weren’t even close.”

In 31 Finals games during his career, Bird averaged 23.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, six assists and two steals a night — numbers matched in a single-season of the playoffs only once, by Russell Westbrook in a five-game first-round exit this past season. And the reigning MVP’s efficiency was far worse than Bird’s 55.6 true shooting percentage in a series with a title on the line.

“Larry could play in this era very, very easily,” said McHale, who has worked in the NBA as a talent evaluator, coach or broadcaster since his own retirement in 1993. “Picture a Draymond Green who’s a much better shooter at 6-foot-9 instead of 6-foot-6. He’s a better rebounder, better shooter, better passer — a better player. Better at everything.”

Or, if you’d like, McHale has another modern-day comparison.

“’He’s just a not-as-athletic but better-shooting LeBron James’ is probably the best way to describe him to today’s kids who never saw Larry play.”

***

Given the game’s evolution over the past two and a half decades, it may take some work to convince those skeptical that a guy who looked like that — short shorts, high socks, blonde bouffant and cop ‘stache — could walk the same path in today’s NBA. Especially for a generation that only knows Bird from grainy YouTube videos and a meme of the 60-year-old Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations shaking his head as James laid waste to his team in the playoffs.

But those who played with Bird and still make a living in the modern game don’t even hesitate at the thought.

“There’s no doubt he would be one of the top players in today’s game, as he was in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” said Carlisle, downright disgusted at the notion of anybody suggesting otherwise. “If you watched him, you would know.”

“Larry would be fine,” added Walton. “Larry would be fine anywhere, anytime, against anybody.”

“He rebounded the ball at a high level,” said McHale. “He was 6-foot-9, 245 — he’s a big guy — he had phenomenal hands, his passing ability was really just second to none. He had great vision, shot the ball with range, could post up, could put the ball on the floor, beat you off the dribble, make plays for others, draw two, kick it out. There’s not a lot of guys like him in the league.”

“There are many things that make Larry Bird’s career ultra-exceptional,” said Carlisle. “I have no doubt that in today’s NBA game he could play any of three positions — small forward, power forward and center. In the ‘80s, he was a top scorer and rebounder at the small forward position. That would certainly translate to today’s power forward and center positions, and it was virtually impossible to guard him as a three-man during the ‘80s and ‘90s. I would feel very sorry for someone in today’s NBA who had to guard him as a power forward or center.”

“No matter how great you think Larry was as a player or as a person, no matter how highly esteemed with which you hold Larry Bird in every aspect of his life, you don’t come close to how great he really is and really was. He was the best,” said Walton. “When you’re that one guy, when you’re the guy who can win every game, that cannot be said about too many players. It can be said about Russell and Wilt, Oscar, Kareem, Larry, Magic, Michael. And then there are some current guys who are really, really, really good. But to join that other list you better be as good as those guys, and there’s only one Larry Bird. That guy was just fantastic.”

***

Kevin McHale delivers the goods on Larry Bird. (AP)

As more and more ex-players insisted teams of old would have “swept” or “run through” the 2016-17 Warriors — of which Bird was not one — Golden State coach Steve Kerr joked, “They’re all right. They would all kill us. The game gets worse as time goes on. Players are less talented than they used to be. The guys in the ‘50s would’ve destroyed everybody. It’s weird how human evolution goes in reverse in sports. Players get weaker, smaller, less skilled. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”

But there’s a flip-side to that coin. Bird averaged 38.4 minutes per game for his career, including 38 over his final four seasons, despite a pair of surgeries that cost him 142 games. No player in the NBA this past season averaged more than 37.8 per game. For Bird, there was no other gear but fifth.

So, would the advancements in training and game preparation have prolonged Bird’s career?

“When you look back at Larry’s career and the injuries that ultimately cut his career short, those were the result of a guy going full bore every single minute of an NBA game — hitting the floor, diving through scorer’s tables,” said Carlisle. “His body took an unbelievable beating, but the fact is he knew no other way to play, and so while any player from the ‘80s would benefit from the technology a quarter-century later, I just don’t know if that question accurately translates to reality.”

In other words, even if Bird enjoyed the luxuries of today — scheduled rest, charter flights, sleep doctors and the works — perhaps he still would have driven full speed through 13 seasons, like a long-haul trucker on NoDoz, whatever it took to get the job done, and arrived at the same destination.

Still, it’s hard to imagine the same player who stayed up drinking all night after winning the 1984 title, only to head out running the following afternoon, would not have profited from the teams of doctors, trainers and personal chefs that superstars surround themselves with today.

“From a physical standpoint, we all would’ve taken care of ourselves better. They understand nutrition so much better, the lifting, the stretching,” said McHale, who believes today’s training would have led to longer careers and “bigger numbers” for players of yesteryear. “We played Tuesday, Wednesday, traveled Thursday and practiced Thursday when we got into a city. If you did that now, players would retire. We had such a demanding schedule. Today’s schedule is much different. We had a trainer, one trainer, and that’s all we had. Now they have five strength coaches and all this stuff. All of that would’ve helped.

“But it wouldn’t help in the area Larry was superior in — basketball IQ. They prep you better to have a longer career, but it won’t make you tougher, that’s for sure. Lifting weights makes you better at lifting weights. Larry played with a mental and physical toughness that set him apart.”

Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between. It’s silly to argue across generations anyway. The fact is Larry Bird showed up to work and maximized every ounce of talent he could muster, and the finished product was one of the most impressive careers the sport’s ever seen. It’s hard to ask for more than that.

“He wasn’t able to win every game, every championship, like Bill Russell. He wasn’t able to play as much as he wanted to play, as much as we wanted him to play, but he gave everything he had,” said Walton. “He played until he could no longer move. He played until his body no longer functioned, and he’s paying the price to this day. But you never hear a complaint out of him.”

***

By 1992, Bird’s best days were behind him. After battling back pain and undergoing surgery the previous year, he promised himself one more season — and felt good entering his age-35 campaign. But he re-aggravated the injury, and missed more than two months.

He could still put on a show, like a 49-point triple-double in a mid-March overtime win against Clyde Drexler’s Blazers. But his rare trips to the sidelines were spent watching from his stomach, so his back wouldn’t seize up on him.

Still, Bird helped the Celtics win 15 of their last 16 games to capture a No. 2 seed. His back cost him the first six games of the playoffs, and while he fought through pain to appear in the final four games of the Eastern Conference semifinals, two of those came off the bench in a career-low 26.8 minutes a night. His final NBA line was 12 points, five rebounds and four assists in a Game 7 loss to a Cleveland Cavaliers team that took Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to six in the conference finals.

A man who gave everything to basketball could now only give so much, and that wasn’t enough for him. He spent the next couple months contemplating retirement and entered the 1992 Barcelona Olympics with the Dream Team on a prayer: “God, if you let me get through this, I won’t play no more.”

He lumbered through all eight Olympic outings, including three starts, averaging 18 minutes and shooting better than 50 percent from the field. Bird finished scoreless in his final game, got the win and added a gold medal to a list of achievements that included three titles and countless awards. But it wasn’t the same. That legendary drive of his was finally pulling into park. His job was complete.

Ten days later, on Aug. 18, 1992, Bird announced his retirement.

***

French Lick always beckoned. It was Bird’s respite from the fame that comes with being a world-renowned artist — the only place he could be that rural Hoosier again, where folks ask him over a Budweiser at the local watering hole about fishing rather than basketball. That was where Bird was headed the day after his retirement: to play golf.

“I’m just a regular guy,” he said then of his bond with the Boston fans. “I played basketball for a living, and they liked how I played, so they supported me.”

All in a career’s work.

“I feel so good now,” Bird later admitted to The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan. “The pressure’s off. I don’t have to put up with everything anymore. I don’t have to perform the way the people want.”

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In his wake are a treasure trove of highlights, the indelible memories of a generation of fans, and the No. 33 and three championship banners hanging from the TD Garden rafters — the résumé of a garbage man from Indiana who made his way to Boston and performed a work of genius.

“Larry’s story, coming from where he came from in Terre Haute,” Walton said. “It is just a classic journey of this comet, this meteor, just searing across the universe, and bam — just so much light, so much heat, so much radiating brilliance, and it just said, ‘Larry Bird, I was there.'”

– – – – – – –

Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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