Guys my age talk about the good old days with regard to lots of topics. And in sports, when it comes to pro basketball, I go back to the days of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Those, to me, were the really good old days of the NBA. I guess I really am old-school, because Bird retired as an NBA player 20 years ago today.
He commemorated his 20th year since retirement by being named NBA Executive of the Year as president of the Indiana Pacers following the 2011-12 season. Then on June 27 he retired from the Pacers due to health problems.
What a storied career he’s had! But nothing beats his playing days.
Larry Joe Bird was born in West Baden, Ind., in 1956 and grew up both there and in nearby French Lick, thus the nickname they gave him in the NBA, “the Hick from French Lick.” He was Springs Valley High School’s all-time leading scorer.
Bird was invited to play for Bob Knight at Indiana University in 1974 and then dropped out of school after 24 days because he was overwhelmed by the size of the school and student body. After going back home and working for the local street department and going to school at Northwood Institute the rest of that year, he went to Indiana State.
His senior year in 1979 he took the Sycamores to the NCAA championship game against Michigan State and the first of many match-ups with Magic Johnson. Although Indiana State lost that game, Bird finished his three years as a Sycamore as the fifth-leading scorer in NCAA history with a 30.3 points-per-game average.
He was the sixth overall draft pick by the Boston Celtics in the NBA in 1978, but he chose to go back to finish his senior year at Indiana State. The Celtics retained their right to draft him the following year, and he changed the Boston fortunes immediately as the team went from 29-53 in the 1978-79 season to 61-21 in Bird’s first year — the best regular season record in the NBA. Of course, it helped that the Celtics acquired Robert Parish and Kevin McHale as well.
Even though Johnson started in the NBA the same year, Bird was named Rookie of the Year. He averaged 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. In his 13 seasons he averaged more than 24 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists per game. He made the all-star team 12 times (he sat out most of the 1988-89 season to have bone spurs removed from his heels).
It was watching Bird’s amazing play that made following the NBA such a treat in those days. And his matchups against Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers were made-for-TV spectacles that rivaled the days of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
“Larry Legend” joined Johnson on the United States’ gold-medal “Dream Team” in the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain in 1992. And then he retired, later to become coach of the Pacers and president of basketball operations. He’s the only person in history to be named player of the year, coach of the year and executive of the year in the NBA.