25 years ago today, Larry Bird officially retired from the NBA. At that point, we knew it was coming. By then, his body had basically been MacGyver’d together on a daily basis just to get him onto the parquet. That he’d still managed to perform at all, never mind at a continued high level, was a testament to a stubbornness so intense it refused to quit even when his body was begging him to.
But by 1992, he had no choice. The Dream Team’s gold was a nice cherry on top of a Hall of Fame sundae, so once that was over, he said goodbye.
I love that retirement speech so much because it’s so perfectly Larry. He shows the true appreciation for the game, but also a bit of the disdain for it as well. If you didn’t live through the Larry Bird era, you might not realize how much he disliked a lot of the ancillary requirements of the job. All he cared about was winning and getting better, so microphones and cameras were often obstacles that impeded that progress.
Larry is a regular guy who did extraordinary things. His goal was to outwork you and then embarrass you as punishment for not keeping up with him. He accomplished that goal very often, which makes lists like this feel impossible to whittle down.
But I can’t pass up the chance to share these moments every chance I get, so here they are, the top five moments of Larry Bird’s career
5: The retirement ceremony
I’m cheating a little bit on this one but here’s why it’s on the list: It’s the first time we got a glimpse into what Bird and Magic Johnson really meant to one another.
These two guys basically saved the NBA. The sport was nearly destroyed by drugs and battles with the ABA in the 70’s. Finals games were shown on tape-delay. The league was going under.
But then Magic and Larry happened. Their NCAA battle was a precursor to the reignition of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. Bird and Magic put the entire league on their backs and created a product so good that marketing geniuses in the league office finally had something to sell. It was the true beginning of the “(superstar name) and the (team) take on (other superstar name) and (team)” marketing of NBA basketball. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson transcended logos and team colors. They were in their own stratosphere.
At this moment we started to realize what they meant to each other. They were the perfect Yin and Yang; a flashy kid who loved the spotlight and thrived in the fancy creativity basketball allowed versus a reticent, reclusive, middle-America Budweiser drinker. They came to need each other, and, ultimately, realize they were essentially photo-negatives of the same image.
It all crystallized in this moment. Magic became more than that blindly-hated Laker. He was Bird’s foil, and his friend. Without him, Bird may never have existed the way he did at all.
4: “You should have gone for 60”
Kevin McHale checked out of a game on March 3, 1985, ready to call it a night after scoring 56 points against Detroit. The game was over and McHale had set a career-high and team-record, so he was pretty satisfied with everything.
Bird, however, was not. He admonished McHale for not pushing that team record higher. Nine days later, Bird went into Atlanta and broke McHale’s record in a game he dominated so badly, Hawks players celebrated shots he hit in front of them on the bench.
Watch when Bird hits the and-1 from 3. Watch the players explode on Atlanta’s bench.
3: Bird breaks his face, heroically returns
We all knew Bird was nearing the end of the road by this point. The Big 3 era was coming to a close, the Pacers were about to ascend to the top half of the East, and all we could really do was hope Bird’s body would hold together and give us one more bit of magic.
This was it.
In 1991, these opening round series were five games, so this was the deciding game. The 7th-seeded pacers had firepower in Reggie Miller and the ever-so-brash Chuck “The Rifleman” Person. They had others, but these two were the big talkers, especially Person. He ranks up there in the pantheon of most-hateable Celtics opponents.
Bird and Person became a rivalry, which fueled Bird. When his face bounced off the old Garden parquet, it felt like “well, this is it, it’s all over.” We were about to watch a second seed get dropped by Chuck freakin’ Person.
The crowd roared.
Everyone knew the game was over the second Bird came out of that tunnel. He didn’t just come back, he came back and dominated. Old, falling apart Larry dropped 32, 9, and 7 on the young Pacers. Our hero and his broken face sent the Pacers home, vanquishing Person’s mouth and making all right with the world.
2: Bird calls his shot
This play is pure Bird. If you didn’t know Larry, you’d probably just think he was some tall guy walking down the street. No one know how cold-blooded he was on the court.
Think about the audacity of this play.
Step 1: Tell the opponent your plan
Professional athletes are amazingly fast. Whatever sport it is, the people who do it best do it at a nearly incomprehensible speed. That’s why coaches take great pains to give their superhumans any extra seconds to get past the superhumans in the other uniforms. Picks, fakes, decoys… it’s all done to take away any chance of anticipation.
Bird doesn’t care, though. He’s calling his shot, anticipation be damned.
Step 2: Usurp the coach
KC Jones is drawing up a play and Larry says forget your play. I’m the play. Ready? Break.
Step 3: Yank your opponent’s heart out of his chest and show it to him
Bird catches the pass where he wants it. He hits the shot exactly as he foretold, except he shot it sooner than he wanted because of an approaching double-team. But that’s ok, though, because shooting it sooner than he wanted allowed him to make this moment perfect.
“I didn’t mean to leave that much time on the clock” is the ULTIMATE trash talk. It’s more piercing than any Garnett-esque profanity because in the moment where he just destroyed you, he tells you HE screwed it up. He’s not happy with HOW he just stole your soul.
There’s no recovery from that. You can only do what X did in that video. Say “damn” and slink away.
1: “… aaaaaand THERE’S A STEAL BY BIRD!”
There really is no other choice here, is there? Let’s set the scene:
It’s Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. The series is tied at two, but Boston is down by one, with the ball, and 10 seconds left to play.
Larry Bird has it. He’s going to be the hero again… BUT… he decides to drive, he get swallowed up at the rim, and the ball goes out off Boston.
We have to pause here because to absorb all of this.
Larry Bird is laying on the floor in the front of the Celtics bench. He didn’t win the game for the Celtics. They were about to lose at home. To the Pistons. THE PISTONS!!
This was about to be a watershed moment. The Pistons, for all their battles with the Celtics, hadn’t gotten over that hump. They were on the precipice of a closeout game at home, and everyone knew it (Bill Walton wasn’t the only one holding his head in his hands in that moment).
That might be why Isiah Thomas got so antsy.
Detroit rushed to inbound the ball. They just wanted those five seconds off the clock. Bird got up off his butt and started towards the closest Piston to him, but then he saw Bill Laimbeer wide open. Isaiah saw Laimbeer too.
But he didn’t see Bird.
In a flash Bird swooped in. He spun and found Dennis Johnson who instantly recognized the play and broke to the hoop.
“Underneath to DJ and he lays it in!”
Pilots risk passing out from the g-forces in turns that go that quickly. Walton serves as avatar for all of Celtics fandom with his “I can’t quite comprehend what I just witnessed but damn I’m glad I was here for this” look.
But my favorite moment here is the hug. It gets dusty around my office when I watch DJ wave Bird over for that hug. Bird calls DJ the greatest player he’s ever played with and you can see the love they have for each other in that moment. Bird recognized the play never goes down in history without Johnson’s quick reaction. DJ recognized that he was on the back end of the greatest play in team history.
And most importantly, they beat the Pistons.
It simply gets no better than this.