"Remember kid, there's heroes and there's legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die." The Ghost of Babe Ruth, The Sandlot
This week marks the 20th anniversary of Larry Birds retirement, and my editor asked me to write something to commemorate the occasion. Something about what it was like growing up during the Bird Years and watching one of the greatest and most unique careers in NBA history unfold before my eyes.
My response horrified him:
I'm a little nervous about doing like that," I said. "I think I was too young.
It's sad, but true.
I was still in the womb when Larry made his Celtics debut (101279, 14 points in a home win against the Rockets). I was six when he won his last title and MVP. I was 12 when he hung up his sneakers after Barcelona. And honestly, even though there's nothing I can do about, that's something that'salways bothered me:
I'll never fully appreciate Larry Bird.
Of course, as a kid, I still loved him. I do remember watching him play. But sadly, I have a clearer memory of him hobbling his way to 49 points against Portland and smacking his head against the Pacers than I do anything he accomplished against the Lakers or Pistons. I remember knowing that he was special; one of the greatest and most important athletes this city has ever seen. But I never really understood why. I didn't understand basketball. I couldn't fathom what it meant to be as good as he was, or what made him so different from everyone that came before him. While a generation of Boston sports fans sat up every night, learning the subtleties of Bird's game and having their minds transformed by his transcendence, I was off having nightmares about Gumby and confusing dreams about Punky Brewster.
Larry Bird Night at the Garden happened on February 4, 1993; the day after my 13th birthday. A time when I was finally ready to start absorbing basketball immortality.
But Larry was gone.
But here's the thing about Larry Bird, and legends in general. They're never truly gone. So as a teenager growing up in Boston, I became retroactively captivated by Bird's greatness.
By this point, I'd played hours and hours of Bird vs. Dr. J on my computer and eventually hours and hours and hours of Jordan vs. Bird on Nintendo and my Tiger hand-held. I taped every Larry Bird special and watched and re-watched until the VHS gave out. The NBA Superstars collection, featuring a montage of Bird set to "Small Town", changed my life. I watched that thing every single day after school.
As I grew, so did the obsession. My number throughout middle school and high school was 33. My first e-mail address and Twitter handle had a 33 attached, as has every password I've ever used. (Note to hackers: Just kidding). These days, you can show me the first few seconds of any existing Larry Bird highlight and I can tell you what will happen next. I've seen and memorized them all.
But they're still just highlights. No matter how hard I try, I'll never have the full Larry Bird experience. I'll never entirely understand his Legend. And that will always bother me.
Fortunately, like fake Babe Ruth told Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez, legends never die. And thanks to the Internet, that's truer than ever.
So in honor of Larry Bird, on the 20th anniversary of his retirement from the NBA, here are 20 videos that help demonstrate Bird's unique personality and overwhelming greatness. Even if it's the closest that generations of sports fans will ever get, the Legend lives on.
1. Of all the stories about Birds trash talking, Xavier McDaniels is my favorite. For one, because its the X-Man he makes everything at least 10 times cooler. But even without X, this story is beyond classic:
You have to love the deadpan delivery on Larry's opening quote: I get a charge when I tell someone on the opposing team that I want to hit a last second shot, and then do it . . . Thats what its all about.
Also, you have to love this photo.
2. Sometimes late at night (in between infomercials for catheters and retractable deck umbrellas) NBA TV will slip in one of these amazing old Red Auerbach instructional videos.
In this weeks episode, Red and Larry teach us how to shoot:
First of all, can we please get Doc Rivers one of those green Celtics jump suits?
Second, if Brady and Belichick are the definitive fatherson relationship in Boston sports history, Red and Larry are grandfathergrandson. The difference being that Belichick still needed Brady in order to accomplish all he wanted to as a head coach. Meanwhile, by the time Bird came around, Red had already reached the top of the mountain. Hed already done more as a coach and executive than anyone in the history of the game. Bird was his grandchild; he was just gravy.
"Thats where its at!"
3. We spent a lot of time this summer discussing who would win an imaginary game between the original Dream Team and the gold medal squad from London. But I think this is a far more interesting question: If Tony Allen had played for the 1985-86 Pacers, how badly would he have bitten on this pump fake?
By the way, I totally understand why the pump fake was such a devastating move for Bird. Big men must have licked their chops anytime he came into the paint. After all, he couldnt jump. The paint was the great equalizer; their chance to finally get the best of the great Larry Bird.
Or look dumber than ever.
4. This video only features a quick cameo from Larry, but sometimes Doc Rivers throws an 85-foot baseball pass off an unsuspecting cameramans head and you dont need much else:
First off, Tommy point for Tommys work on the telestrator. Also, Birds reaction is great as hes walking off the court. Most players would have shown at least a little bit of concern for a guy taking a Hail Mary off the squash, but Larry was completely unaffected. You can almost hear him thinking: "What an idiot. How did he now catch that ball?"
5. We all know that Larry didnt mind getting physical, but Id never seen this clothesline on Bernard King until now:
On second thought, I dont think this play was quite as dirty as it looked at full speed. There was at least a hint of accidental contact, right? Not to mention, if Larry was REALLY trying to hurt King here, would he have bothered to extend the least genuine helping hand in NBA history? I mean, he held it out there for at least three-quarters of a second . . . what more can you ask for?
Either way, lets just be glad this didnt happen in todays NBA. Larry would have been suspended for five games and sentenced to 500 hours of hard labor around David Sterns apartment.
6. As Larry started dominating the NBA and got more comfortable in the limelight, the sponsorships and commercials came rolling in. Heres one from later in Birds career, co-starring My Giants Billy Crystal:
Is there any chance that Bird finds Billy Crystal funny in real life? Like, if you sat Bird down and made him watch both City Slickers movies, how many times would he laugh? How long before he said: "Aww, this is stupid. I'm going out to play some ball."
Im not sure, but I bet his favorite character would have been Curly.
Or maybe Duke.
7. Theres nothing funnier or more fitting than the fact that a video entitled Larry Birds Greatest Dunks is only 21 seconds long:
8. However, whoever made that last video forgot a huge dunk from the Bird catalogue
The one from the end of this fantastic 80s 7up commercial.
I have to honest with you, Im not sure thats the real Larry Bird.
Have you ever seen him so goofy?
Did 7-Up spike his bottle with vodka?
9. The rapping Converse ad is one of the best in NBA history . . .
. . . although it would have been infinitely better if Larry clotheslined King at the end.
10. Back to serious Bird . . . ANGRY Bird. The strangle-off with Dr. J is probably the most famous altercation of his career, but I've always loved his fight with Laimbeer in Game 4 of the 1987 Conference Finals.
Credit to Jerry Sichting for his role in this one. In a matter of two seconds, the 6-1, 170-pound guard runs in, steps on Laimbeer's face, turns around and stiff arms Dennis Rodman's head into the hardwood. Bing bang Tommy Point!
Also, not to keep bringing this up, but how long would Bird and Laimbeer have been suspended if this happened in today's NBA? I say at least a game, probably two. But back in '87, they were both on the court for Game 5.
11. And it's no surprise that Bird snubbed Laimbeer before tip-off.
12. These days, its not uncommon for NBA stars to have their names dropped in rap songs. Bird settled for a post-retirement mention in "Summer Girls" by LFO.
13. Here's the aforementioned "Small Town" montage from NBA Superstars. If it helps set the mood, picture me sitting on my parents couch wearing an outrageous pair of Skidz and eating an entire box of Peanut Butter Twix.
14. Superstars 2 was nowhere near as good as the original, but if Winning It All doesn't give you chills, you have no soul.
15. Here's one I'd never seen before starting this project: The San Diego chicken tries to distract Bird at the foul line by unraveling three full length posters of girls in bikinis. (I think the one on the far right might be Kelly Kapowski, but I'm not sure).
At any rate, Larry gives it a little chuckle before draining both free throws, and eventually two more to win the game with one second left in regulation.
16. There are 24 seconds left in the second game of the 1987 season, and the Celtics trail the Bullets by three. Bird gets the ball on the wing and drains a trifecta to tie the score . . .
Except K.C. Jones had already called a time out.
A dejected Bird responds by Bird hitting another three to tie it up with four seconds left and a turn around at the buzzer to win the game. For good measure, he hit both shots off one leg.
17. Way back in February of 2012, one fearless reporter made the trek from Boston to French Lick to find Bird's childhood home. The rest is YouTube history.
One of my biggest regrets from that day is not knocking on the front door. Sure, my body may have ended up buried deep in some random Indiana cornfield, but it might have been worth it to catch a glimpse of Larry's bedroom.
18. Behold, seven minutes and 42 seconds of Larry Bird making sweet passes to the sweet sounds of the Alan Parson's Project. Far freaking out, man.
Now seems like a good time to extend a shout out to YouTube user MerkinMuffly who has one of the greatest and most useful Larry Bird collections on the Internet.
19. The audio on this one is terrible, but it's a special piece of history: The last ever NBA game between Bird and Magic Johnson. Sadly and anticlimactically, it happened in the 1991 pre-season, three weeks before Magic announced his retirement.
Vintage Mike Gorman at the 35 second mark: "Bird takes it . . . and MAKES it.
20. And finally, highlights from Bird's last game at the Boston Garden: May 15, 1992. Game 6 of the Celtics Eastern Conference semifinals game against the Cavaliers.
At this point, Bird's back was toast. He played only 45 games that year before shutting himself down in early April and missing all of the Celtics first round series against the Pacers. He sat out the first three games of the Cavs series too, but returned for Game 4 with Boston up 2-1. The C's lost Games 4 and 5 with Larry coming off the bench (he played 17 and 20 minutes, respectively), but with the season on the line, Chris Ford put Larry back into the starting line-up for Game 6. Watching the video, you can see how much Bird was hurting, how much every single step wore on his body. Still, in his final game at the Garden, Bird played 37 minutes and wracked up 16 points, 14 assists and six rebounds in Boston's big win.
The C's were blown out in Game 7.
You know what? I said I was only going to do 20 links, but it wouldn't be a proper Larry Bird tribute without revving this thing up to 33.
So here are 13 quick hits:
21. Say hello to my new desktop wallpaper.
22. I'll admit that Armond Lamontagne is a far more talented artist than I'll ever be, but someone needs to clear this up: Is this a portrait of Larry Bird, or the caddy from Happy Gilmore?
23. Last winter, Deadspin tracked down an interview where Bird revealed the only three times he's ever cried. Surprisingly, "the time the Celtics drafted Michael Smith over Tim Hardaway" wasn't one of them.
24. How about Bob Ryan's column on Bird after Boston won the '86 title? Yes, how about it.
25. The quintessential Larry Bird poster. Get it? It's his BACK! lolz
26. Here's Larry scrambling for a loose ball in Barcelona. Sadly, it took him until the end of the quarter just to stand up. (Make your own jokes about the guy kneeling down behind him.)
27. Rare photos of Bird from a spread in Sports Illustrated for Kids. Inside, you'll see pictures of Bird signing his first contract, having a cigar with Tommy, Hondo, Red and Couz and handing a jersey to 19-year-old Michael Phelps. Not pictured: Larry playing kissy face with the other team before a playoff game.
28. Larry's IMDB page. The four movies he's most known for?
1. Space Jam. 2. Magic & Bird (the HBO doc). 3. Blue Chips. 4. Celtic Pride.
29. Ryan's column after Isaiah's: "If he were black, he'd be just another good guy" comment."
30. Heres a shot of Bird and Paul Pierce, shortly after The Truth passed Larry on Boston's all-time leading scorer list. If you listen closely, you can hear Bird's photo whispering: "Hey, Paul. Should we remind them that it took you more than a 100 extra games to catch me?
31. Not sure why I didn't use this in the video section; maybe because there's nothing else to say about it's awesomeness. Watch it all unfold for the 5,000th spectacular time.
32. Same goes for this one.
33. Finally, get re-acquainted with Bird's biggest and dumbest fan: The guy who asked to have three years tacked on to his 30 year prison sentence.