Along with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird ushered in a new era of excellence in the 1980s. While both players dazzled fans with their dynamic skills, they would ultimately be defined as the leaders of two of the greatest teams in NBA history. Every Finals of the decade featured either Bird’s Boston Celtics, Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers or both, with the two teams combining for eight NBA championships.
The Bird-Magic rivalry began on March 26, 1979, as Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans defeated Bird’s #1 ranked Indiana State Sycamores 75-64 in the highest-rated NCAA Championship Game in history. The game would be the first of many battles in a rivalry that defined the next decade.
The beginning to Bird’s college career was a rocky one. After transferring from Bobby Knight’s powerhouse Indiana Hoosiers program, the native of tiny French Lick spent a year working municipal jobs and attending Northwood Institute, a junior college. The next year Bird found his comfort zone at the largely unknown Indiana State.
In three years with the Sycamores, Bird averaged 30.3 points, 13.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists while leading Indiana State to an 81-13 record. He was named First Team All-America in both his junior and senior seasons, winning the Naismith College Player of the Year award in the latter.
The Sycamore sensation was drafted by the Celtics with the sixth pick overall after his junior year. When Bird chose to return for his senior season, Boston would have to wait another year for their franchise player.
The wait was well worth it, as the Celtics made a 32-game improvement from 29-53 in 1978-79 to 61-21 after Bird’s arrival in 79-80. Bird won Rookie of the Year over the Lakers’ Johnson, and led the Celtics in scoring, rebounding, steals and minutes, and placed second in assists and three-pointers. He also received his first of nine straight First Team All-NBA honors, and was selected to his first of 12 All-Star Games.
The next season marked a return to the NBA Finals for the Celtics, as they overcame a 3-1 deficit against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals, coming from behind in each of the last three games. Boston went on to defeat the Houston Rockets 4-2 in the NBA Finals. Bird had an outstanding all-around performance in the postseason, averaging 21.9 points, 14.0 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 2.3 steals in 17 games.
Bird and the Celtics would return to the Finals in 1984, their first of four straight appearances on the NBA’s biggest stage. They would meet the Lakers in three of them. Boston won the first meeting 4-3, as Bird was named Finals MVP. The Celtics star averaged 27.4 points, 14.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.1 blocks in the hotly-contested series. The 1983-84 season also marked the first of three consecutive NBA MVP awards for Bird. He became only the third player in history to win three straight MVPs, and the only non-center.
Already one of the league’s best shooters, Bird took his marksmanship to another level in 1984-85. He averaged 52.2 percent from the field, 42.7 percent from three-point range and 88.2 percent from the free-throw line. His scoring average improved to 28.7, and the MVP also contributed 10.5 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game. The only thing missing in 1985 was an NBA championship, as the Celtics fell to the Lakers in six games in the Finals.
The 1985-86 season was defined by a pair of trifectas. First, Bird won his third straight MVP, averaging 25.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.0 steals, while shooting 49.6 percent from the field, 42.3 percent from three, and 89.6 percent from the line. The season also brought Bird and the Celtics their third NBA title in six years. Bird was named Finals MVP for the second time, averaging 24.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, 9.5 assists and 2.7 steals in the Celtics’ 4-2 series win over the Rockets.
Bird’s domination of the league continued over the next two seasons. The future Hall of Famer averaged 28.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and 7.6 assists in 1986-87, and a career-high 29.9 points to go along with 9.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists in 87-88. The Celtics sharpshooter achieved the rare feat of shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the line in both seasons.
The 86-87 campaign also marked Bird’s last NBA Finals appearance, and his final postseason matchup against Magic and the Lakers. Los Angeles once again got the best of the Celtics, winning in six games.
As Bird entered his early thirties, he began to develop foot and back problems. He was limited to only six games in 1988-89 after having bone spurs removed from both heels. Bird bounced back in 1989-90, averaging 24.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists. He also led the league in free-throw percentage for the fourth time in his career.
Back injuries forced Bird to miss 22 games in 1990-91 and 37 in 91-92. He was still productive when on the court, and one performance from 91-92 showed what the Celtics great could still do if his body let him. On March 15, 1992, he had 49 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists in a 152-148 double overtime win over the Portland Trailblazers. He scored 16 of his 49 in the fourth quarter, including the game-tying three to send the game to overtime.
Bird announced his retirement on August 18, 1992, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1998.
His career can be measured on multiple levels. In terms of popularity, Bird was instrumental in building the NBA brand in the 1980s. Television ratings, merchandising and attendance reached new heights in the decade. His home arena, the Boston Garden sold out the last 541 games of his career.
Bird’s skill on the basketball court was undeniable. He is one of the best shooters in NBA history, one of the game’s most creative passers and an excellent rebounder. While not known as a great one-on-one defender, Bird played outstanding team defense, using his awareness and high basketball IQ to snuff out plays before they happened.
Bird’s career numbers reflect his versatility. He averaged 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.7 steals over 13 NBA seasons, while shooting 49.6 percent from the field, 37.6 percent from three and 88.6 percent from the line.
The final way to measure the impact of Bird cannot be quantified by stats. There are no analytics on chasing loose balls, diving into benches or leading by example. But ask anyone who ever played with or against him, and they will tell you the exact value of Larry Joe Bird.