Tomase: It's Larry Bird's birthday. May we never, ever forget his greatness

John Tomase
December 07, 2018 - 12:22 pm
Larry Bird

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A few years ago, an ESPN radio station asked Kobe Bryant to name the five greatest players in NBA history. Kobe didn’t hesitate: Magic, Jordan, Bird, Russell, Kareem.

Hard to argue with anyone on that list. But then he said this about Larry Bird:

“I will say as the years go on people really forget how great Larry Bird was,” Bryant said. “He was ridiculous. And I grew up in LA — just like everyone else here — hating his guts. Dude — the guy was just money.”

I wanted to scream. Forget Larry Bird? Are you bleeping kidding me?!? But Bryant was right. As time marches inexorably forward, some of us forget, while others are simply too young and never knew.

So on the Legend’s 62nd birthday, let us take a couple of minutes to appreciate – to steal a famous phrase from Brent Musburger during Bird’s legendary 1988 showdown with Dominique Wilkins – what greatness is all about.

We say this about too many athletes, but in Bird’s case, it legitimately applies: there’s never been anyone like him.

A 6-foot-9 forward with minimal speed and even less leaping ability, he nonetheless dominated the greatest athletes of his era with as complete an offensive arsenal as we’ve ever seen.

We think of Bird the bomber because of his dead-eye accuracy, but he could score from anywhere and with either hand. He pulled up for 3-pointers way before Steph and Co. made that a nightly thing. He worked smaller defenders in the post with up-and-unders and was an animal on the glass. He drained fallaways that were simply unguardable. He must’ve scored on backdoor layups from Dennis Johnson 2,000 times. He converted all manner of scoops, floaters, and banks. Back before the NBA treated the midrange game with utter contempt, he made a living from 17 feet.

He’s the only player in history to average 24 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists a game for his career, but numbers don’t begin to tell his story.

I understand how a contemporary NBA fan raised on, say, Kobe and LeBron, could watch old YouTube video of Bird and scoff at the notion that he was ever considered better than either of them. But Bird’s greatness defied the fact that he looked like someone plucked out of a time before Dolph Schayes.

Whatever connection today fans feel to Tom Brady, I swear to god, double it and that’s how we felt about Bird. A generation of New Englanders grew up rubbing the bottoms of our sneakers before stepping on a court. Forwards wanted to become passers. We practiced shooting with our left elbows out and the ball slightly over our heads.

Bird may have hailed from Indiana, but for 13 years he defined Boston. His finest traits represented the best of us: toughness, creativity, resourcefulness, confidence. Back when everyone called Boston “The Hub,” that’s where Bird put us in the basketball universe.

He was rough around the edges, though, which allowed him to remain relatable in ways that someone like the more polished Brady will never match. He celebrated one championship by announcing to City Hall that, “Moses eats (expletive),” in reference to Rockets center Moses Malone. He castigated his teammates during the 1984 Finals for “playing like a bunch of women,” which is obviously cringeworthy now, but was galvanizing then. He may have cost the Celtics a title in 1985 after getting in a barfight. His imperfections made him perfect.

And oh my God, to watch him play. Whereas today’s gunners like Curry and Klay Thompson shoot with perfectly engineered machine-cut form, Bird’s release was almost languid in its relaxed precision.

Former teammate Danny Ainge once told me that Bird’s greatest ability was making shots with defenders draped all over him, and when you watch his highlight reel, it’s astounding. His 60-point game against the Hawks in 1985 is famous for the reactions of the Atlanta bench – they start high-fiving each other in disbelief on a teardrop in the lane at the end of the first half – but watch some of the individual shots and you can’t even believe he took them.

He drills a fallaway in the corner while being smothered by Dominique Wilkins. He’s chest-to-chest with Wilkins at a 45-degree angle when he sinks one from the opposite corner a minute later. His best shot didn’t even count, a fallaway 3 into the Hawks bench while getting fouled.

Bird made anyone believe they could do anything on the court, a trait shared perhaps only by the unassuming Curry in today’s NBA, and we haven’t even gotten to his passing.

Brady once memorably remarked that he feels like he has all the answers to the test when he stands under center, and Bird embodied this preternatural confidence. He made passes that the five-second rewind button was invented to dissect. Every one of his highlight reels includes an obscene over-the-head bounce pass to Kevin McHale that he threads just beyond the reach of the nearest defender. No one alive throws that pass now.

Bird’s marksmanship forced defenders to play in his face, often with double teams. Doubling Bird meant handing someone else a layup, because his ability to feather a pass through the tiniest opening or with just the right English rivaled that of a billiards trick-shot artist. Bird turned what could be a selfishly individual sport – give the best player the ball and get out of the way – into an exercise in teamwork. It says something that a career .496 shooter who once averaged 29.9 points a game can be remembered every bit as much for his passing.

But the scoring, the playmaking, the relatability, it all took a backseat to his defining characteristic –confidence. Bird was a legendary trash talker. Xavier McDaniel tells the story of Bird pointing to the spot on the floor where he was about to make the winning shot “in your face” and then doing it. He’s renowned for walking into the locker room before the 3-point shooting contest and asking, “which one of you guys is finishing second?” When the Pacers made the mistake of guarding Bird with youngster George McCloud, Bird turned to the Indiana bench and admonished them to “find someone who at least has a prayer.”

And he backed up his braggadocio with a killer instinct that made him a menace with the game on the line. He drilled a fallaway in Magic Johnson’s face to swing the 1984 Finals in Boston’s favor. Children of the ‘80s can close their eyes and see the fallaway in the corner to beat the Blazers, or the spin-o-rama in Hartford to beat the Pistons, or the roll-of-the-dice pull-up 3 vs. the Mavericks, or the one-foot runner against the Bullets, and on and on and on.

My favorite Bird story might’ve come well after his career. At a Pacers practice in 2013, Bird ambled onto the far court. Someone in attendance told me what happened next.

Bird picked up a ball and started shooting 3-pointers. At this point he was in his late 50s, 20 years removed from his last competitive game. He made one. And then another. And another. By about 10 in a row, practice stopped. At No. 15, Bird released the ball and turned to leave the court. His back was basically to the basket as the swish ripped the net. Pacers players lost their minds.

None of them was old enough to remember Bird in his prime. He treated them to something they’ll never forget, which, when it comes to Larry Bird, is exactly how it should be.