While Michael Jordan is often credited with bringing the popularity of the NBA to new heights in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, on the front end of this era was the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The rivalry was built on respect, but also fierce competition, as it wasn’t just the two individuals who polarized the fan bases. Their teams, Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers, are also historic combatants.
No player was more dominant in the early to mid 80’s than Bird, save maybe Magic of course. His Celtics won the championship in 1981, 1984 & 1986. Bird was named Finals MVP in ’84 and ’86, and he won league MVP for three consecutive seasons from ’84-’86.
A player of Bird’s caliber and flair always garners many nicknames. “Larry Legend” was made popular by east coast sportswriter Peter Vecsey, and Bird called himself a “Hick from French Lick,” a reference to his hometown. Perhaps the most fitting nickname, “Kodak”, was delivered by his first coach NBA coach, Bill Fitch. Fitch, and many other coaches, thought Bird had a mind like a camera, based on his ability to see the entire floor and all 10 players on it. It was like he had a mental image of the entire floor at all times – hence the name “Kodak.”
One of the reasons the rivalry between Bird and Magic was so special was it started before the two even arrived in the NBA. With Bird a star at Indiana State and Magic leading the way at Michigan State, the two battled for the NCAA championship in 1979. Bird’s team went undefeated during the regular season at 33-0, but Michigan State prevailed in the title game 75-64, in what was then the highest rated college basketball game of all time. Despite the loss, Bird, who averaged over 30 points per game while in college, was named Naismith College Player of the Year.
Let the Bird Soar
Bird was drafted by the Boston Celtics with the 6th overall pick in the 1978 draft. Due to different rules than we have now, Bird was allowed to finish out his college career before joining the team. There was a bit of tense negotiation before Bird finally signed a 5 year deal for 3.25 million dollars after he finished at Iowa State, as this was the richest ever for a rookie at the time.
His agent had been threatening to allow his Celtics rights expire and enter the 1979 draft if the team did not give him a fair offer. He certainly gave the Celtics bang for their buck, as he averaged 21.3 points per game in his rookie season and helped improve the team’s record by 32 wins over the previous year. He was named rookie of the year, made the All Star team, and helped the Celtics make the Eastern Conference Finals, where they were defeated by the Philadelphia 76ers.
The league had concurrent dynasties going on at the same time through the 1980’s, as the Celtics won 3 titles between 1981 and 1986, while the Lakers won 5 times between 1980 and 1988. Bird was the centerpiece of those Celtics squads, which also featured Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, and Dennis Johnson. Bird’s three consecutive MVP awards ran from ’84 to ’86, with the ’86 team often being mentioned among the greatest teams in NBA history. That team went 40-1 at home that season, and rolled to a title over a strong Houston Rockets team in 6 games.
In his retirement, Bird has remained close to the game. The Celtics hired him as a special assistant from 1992 to 1997, and he parlayed that experience into an offer to become the head coach of his hometown Indiana Pacers, where he succeeded immediately. In his rookie season, Bird led the Pacers to 58 wins and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Bird vowed to only coach for 3 years at the time of his hiring, because he said that players often tune their coaches out after three years. He stayed true to that promise and stepped down after 3 seasons, but his run as a part of the Pacers organization was far from over. Bird was hired as President of Basketball Operations in 2003 and named NBA Executive of the Year in 2012. He would step down from the role a few months later, only to take the job again the following year. He served in that capacity until 2017, when he transitioned to a more hands-off advisory role within the organization.