Larry Bird’s place in NBA history stretches from the record book to the rule book.
A Hall of Fame player later became a successful coach and team executive. Along the way, he watched free agency transform from something rarely discussed to practically a year-round conversation – with his own name one of the talking points – and the 3-point shot go from afterthought to essential.
He will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award during the NBA Awards on Monday along with Magic Johnson, his rival-turned-friend with whom he competed in some of the most important events – they were bigger than just games – in basketball history.
Their meeting in the 1979 NCAA championship game is still the highest-rated college game on television, and the 1992 U.S. Olympic team they captained to gold in Barcelona was a pivotal moment in basketball truly becoming a global game.
“We came in in 1980. Here it is 2019. Whoever thought we’d be around this long?” Bird said. “But it’s a great honor and we’ve seen a lot in this NBA over the years, and a lot of good and it continues to get better.”
It’s been a little rocky lately for Johnson, with his recent resignation as Lakers president and subsequent reports of a bad work ethic and bad working environment. Bird eventually decided to read some of the stories for himself and was dubious.
“That’s not him,” Bird said. “That don’t sound like Magic at all to me and I just hope everything works out for him because we have a good relationship.”
It grew through the 1980s, when the Lakers won five titles and the Celtics three. With the expectation of competing for the championship every year, Bird never thought about leaving Boston or even when he’d be able to consider it.
That’s not the way today’s NBA works.
“I always thought I was going to be in one place and play for Boston and I always felt like Kevin (McHale) and Robert (Parish), them guys felt the same way. I really don’t know that, but that’s what I thought because when you’re winning at a high level, why change?” Bird said.
“But free agency’s different. Everybody makes their own decisions and the thinking of the game is different. Everybody’s trying to brand themselves and have their own teams. I never thought about that. I just wanted to go out there and play and try to win that game that night.”
The salary cap was introduced in the NBA a few years into Bird’s career and one of the spending exceptions allows teams to exceed the cap to pay their own veteran free agents more with an extra year on their contract. With Bird reaching free agency when the cap arrived in 1983, the rule became known as the Larry Bird Exception, or Bird Rights.
Bird Rights are the biggest advantage an incumbent team owns in trying to retain a top player. Bird is glad the rule helps players earn closer to what he feels they’re worth, though having your name on an important piece of NBA business isn’t as cool as it sounds.
“I know a few years ago I was hoping they’d take that out of the last Collective Bargaining Agreement because you’re sitting at home sometimes and you hear your name and you’re like, ‘What are they talking about now?’ and it’s always the Bird Exception or the Bird Rule,” Bird said.
After averaging 24.3 points, 10 rebounds and 6.3 assists in his 13 seasons, the Indiana native coached the Pacers to the NBA Finals and later built an Eastern Conference contender as team president. He is the only person in league history to be voted MVP, Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year.
Bird still does some scouting for the Pacers and is a fan of today’s wide-open style of play and its heavy reliance on the 3-point shot.
“My concern 15 years ago was everybody’s going to be 6-(foot)-9 like Magic Johnson at the point guard and the little guys are going to get squeezed out. Now it’s just the opposite,” Bird said. “The big guys are getting squeezed out and the little guys are taking over, and the 3-point line has been there since 1980 and nobody utilized it until the last 15, 17 years. I can remember watching Kentucky play and Rick Pitino was shooting 3-pointers all the time and I go Jesus Christ, no way you can win like that. Now if you don’t do it, you’re not going to win.”
Bird won the first three 3-point contests at All-Star weekend and is on any list of the game’s greatest shooters, though he said rarely even practiced the shot in an era when pounding the ball inside was the preference.
“Matter of fact, when I played we never guarded guys out there,” Bird said.
Now teams have to – even when players are far behind the arc. Bird is amazed with what Golden State has done with its long-range shooting, marveling in particular at Klay Thompson’s NBA-record 37 points in the third quarter of a game on Jan. 23, 2015.
“I mean, to me, I just can’t believe that,” Bird said. “I played this game. I’ve been out there and I got hot before, but to score 37 points? I remember I scored 24 in a quarter and I go, ‘Geez, nobody will ever do that again.“’
Bird won Rookie of the Year after his first season and a gold medal after his last. In between, the game exploded in popularity and financially.
The records may be broken, but Larry Legend’s legacy will last forever.
“I’m not a guy that talks about my past because I always look to the future, but you really sit down and look at it, I’ve been involved in a lot, it’s pretty nice,” Bird said.
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