Saturday, February 11, 2012

Larry Bird

Larry Joe Bird (born December 7, 1956) is a former American NBA basketball player and coach. Drafted into the NBA sixth overall by the Boston Celtics in 1978, Bird started at small forward and power forward for thirteen seasons, spearheading one of the NBA's most formidable frontcourts that included center Robert Parish and forward Kevin McHale. Due to chronic back problems, he retired as a player 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 holds.

Bird received a basketball scholarship to Indiana University in 1974. However, he was overwhelmed by the size of the campus and number of students and was not mentally ready for this stage of life; according to Bird, "it didn't take long to realize that I was out of my cocoon." Bird was also treated poorly by an established IU star, Kent Benson; as Bird recalled, the other upperclassmen of the team treated him well. He dropped out of Indiana after 24 days, disappointing his mother. Bird returned home to French Lick where he enrolled in the nearby Northwood Institute before dropping out and getting a job with the Street Department (the department picked up garbage, repaired roads, removed snow, mowed lawns, etc.) for a year. He played AAU basketball for Hancock Construction and, after that year, decided to enroll at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, where he was coached by Bob King.

Before Bird, the Sycamores had never been to the Division I NCAA tournament; he led the team to the NCAA championship game in 1979, his senior season, only to lose to the Michigan State University Spartans, who were led by his future NBA rival, Earvin "Magic" Johnson. The Sycamores finished the season 33–1. That year, Bird won the USBWA College Player of the Year, Naismith and Wooden Awards, given to the year's top male college basketball player. After his three seasons at Indiana State, he left as the fifth-highest scorer in NCAA history. Bird finished his collegiate career with an average of 30.3 points per game. In 2007, he was voted as one of the Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball 50 greatest players.

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.

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 three games by two, two, and one 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.

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 five 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. His past glory would be briefly rekindled, however, in a game that season in which he scored 49 points in a double-overtime victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. During the 1992 Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Bird missed four of the seven games in the series due to those recurring 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.

In 1989, Bird published his autobiography, Drive: The Story of My Life with Bob Ryan. The book chronicles his life and career up to the 1989 NBA season.

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