Game 6 of the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals…
Isiah Thomas and company finally figured out how to put a stop to the Boston Celtics reign over the Eastern Conference in the 1980s. The Silverdome crowd had stormed the court before time had clicked off the game clock.
As the teams reset for free throws, Larry Bird and company were escorted back to the locker room for security purposes with disappointment painted on their faces.
Statically, Larry Bird had just finished his most productive season (29.9 ppg, 52 FG%, 92 FT%, 9 rpg, 6 apg) in the NBA. However, something was noticeably wrong with Larry during the playoffs. Bird, though never a fast player, always displayed quickness while being light on his toes. During this post season Larry’s feet looked very heavy. He often looked distracted and out of the flow of the offense. On many occasions, Bird rushed his shot and, dare I say, even forced more then a few bad shots.
Uncharacteristically his points, rebounds and field goal percentage drastically dropped in the postseason.
Many heralded the Detroit defense for holding Larry to 10 ppg in the conference finals. What many didn’t know was that Larry Bird was hampered by painful bones spurs in both feet.
For the first time in 4 seasons, Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics would not advance to the NBA Finals.
As the 1989 season began the Boston Celtics kept their starting five intact but with little bench help added it looked as if Bird would be, once again, forced to play extended minutes. After just 6 games, Larry elected to have surgery on his feet that would sideline him for the rest of the season.
As a Celtics fan, it was humbling to watch my team only qualify as the 8th seed for the playoffs. It was even more humbling to see, the normally larger then life, Larry Bird in foot casts on the bench for those playoff games.
The Detroit Pistons swept Boston 3-0.
As the 89-90 season began excitement was mounting in the Boston area as Bird was returning to the active duty list with two new feet. Many questions surrounded Bird’s return. Would he still have his deadly jump shot? Could he still play the extended minutes? Would he be able to lead his Celtics to one more championship run?
In 1989 the Boston Celtics were an aging roster. Management had shipped the youngest member of the starting five, Danny Ainge, off to Sacramento in a feeble attempt to gather some youth and length on their bench.
In the first half of the season, Jim Paxon was added to the starting lineup by 2nd year coach Jimmy Rogers. The addition of Paxon only aided in making the team older. The usually unshakable Boston team began to form cracks in it’s chemistry.
Paxon publicly complained about Bird’s shot selection and commented that Bird was “hogging the ball”. Such accusations were viewed as sinful to Celtics fans whether it was true or not.
Truth be told, Larry was forcing poor shots as a result of the team’s lack of offensive chemistry. Roger’s was pushing an uptempo style of play with a 35 year old point guard. As a result, and to Bird’s discord, Dennis Johnson was forced to the bench being replaced by an over weight play maker named John Bagley.
Though after the all-star break Bird showed signs of his old self, his quickness and ability to create his own shots, displayed prior to 1988, never returned. Larry Bird averaged a respectable 24 ppg but he shot, a career low, 47% from the field.
As the playoffs began Boston blew out the Knicks in the first two games at Boston Garden leading people to believe that one more championship run may be possible. Fans enthusiasm was only turned back as the Celtics blew the next two games in New York. Game 5 was set up on a Sunday afternoon in Boston. Everyone expected the Celtics to win the series clinching game in their usual dramatic fashion.
The stars were not aligned in 1989 as the Knicks eliminated the Celtics from the playoffs on their home court. Bird recounted this loss as one of his worst.
The humiliating defeat prompted the organization to make some major changes
. Red Auerbach brought in Dave Gavit as director of basketball operation. In his first move, Jim Paxon was released and Jimmy Rogers was replaced by long time assistant coach and player, Chris Ford.
In a controversial move that was described as Boston’s “fresh start”, Gavit released Dennis Johnson
and forced Brian Shaw to return from Italy and fulfill his contract obligations as the Celtics point guard.
Johnson’s release prompted Larry Bird to publicly comment that with DJ exiting he would be forced to play full time “point forward” and he had no interest in that role. It seemed that the controversy surrounding the 89-90 season was starting to bleed into the “fresh start” season of 90-91.
As the season began, Chris Ford preached an uptempo style that would highlight the youthful additions of Brian Shaw and rookie Dee Brown. Reggie Lewis was also emerging as a bright young star. Bird’s doubt continued to be clear as he told the media that “uptempo is our motto at the start of every season” implying that the Celtics would fall back into their methodical half court style of play.
Ford, unlike Rogers before him, had the guts to stand up to Bird and recanted Larry’s claims by stating that his team will play uptempo regardless of Bird’s doubts.
The drama that began the season had formulated into an uptempo 29-5 start putting Boston at the top of the Eastern Conference. The youth of Reggie, Dee and Brian seemed to rejuvenate Bird, Parish and McHale.
Though Bird’s offensive efficiency was not consistent, he had developed into (and embraced) the role of power forward that would run the offense. Bird became less of a scorer, diverting that role to mainly Lewis and McHale, and more of a play maker.
In mid December as basketball critic were hailing the Celtics as the favorites to win the championship, they embarked on a road game to Madison Square Garden. In the pre-game press conference it was announced that Larry Bird would not play due to a sore back. At that moment, no one knew that this would be the injury that would ultimately end Larry’s career.
Bird would miss twenty two of the next forty eight games leading up to the playoffs. In the games he did play in, Bird had people scratching their heads in disbelief at Larry’s lack of mobility and inability to shoot efficiently. Bird would finish the season with a career low 45% field goal percentage.
Though Larry’s scoring abilities had been challenged, his leadership abilities had never been more evident. His team relied on him more then ever to run the offense. It seemed when Bird went to the bench, the Celtics would lose leads or fall further behind.
Bird’s ability to morph his game from the team’s primary scorer to the teams primary rebounder/distributor has gone unnoticed as the years have gone by.
The 1991 NBA playoffs began as Bird was visibly in discomfort. The media and all spectators marveled at Larry-Legend’s ability to play in severe pain.
Bird’s ability to step up to challenging opponents helped to coin his legendary nickname. 1991 was no different. The upstart Indiana Pacers and Chuck Person presented his most formidable and brazen opponent in some time. Person had publicly stated that he had no great respect or fear for Larry Bird. That Bird was in the twilight of his career and posed no threat for Person to defend him.
The severely injured Bird responded with a triple double in Boston’s game one victory and then spent the night in traction at the hospital.
On the day he was released from the hospital, Larry suited up and played in game 2. Boston lost that game at home.
Splitting the next two games in Indiana, Bird was in unfamiliar territory as his home town crowd booed him every time he touched the ball.
Returning to Boston for game 5 and still tasting the loss to New York one year earlier, Bird guaranteed a Celtics victory. Boston built a fourteen point first half lead when disaster struck.
Chasing a loose ball, Bird was knocked to the ground slamming his face off the parquet floor. After gathering himself on the court, Bird walked back to the locker room. It was uncertain if Bird would return.
While sidelined with a broken cheek bone, Bird watched his team squander their lead. As the third quarter wore on, it looked as if the Pacers were gaining momentum and the Celtics were bewildered without their legendary floor leader.
At the midway point of the third quarter Larry Bird re-entered the game. To the delight of the Garden crowd, Bird scored 14 points in the remaining minutes of the quarter. Bird, in customary fashion, created the spark to carry Boston to victory while proving that he can still take over games even while in severe back pain.
Boston once again fell to the Detroit Pistons in 6 games in the conference semifinals. Bird, contemplating retirement, decided to undergo back surgery to relieve the bulging disc that plagued him all season long.
Many have regarded Bird’s game 5 heroics against the Pacers to be his final act in a 13 year drama.
The 91-92 season began as a streamlined Bird looked to be mobile, healthy and in great shape. He proclaimed that he felt better the ever only to find himself struck down by the same back issues that had forced him to have surgery several months earlier.
Forced to wear a cumbersome brace on his back while playing, he was only a shadow of his former self. The team had adjusted to the inevitable replacement of Reggie Lewis as the teams primary scorer.
The chants of “Larr-yyy, Larr-yyy” had been replaced by chants of “Regg-ie, Regg-ie” at the Garden. Though the team torch had obviously been passed, the fans always held Bird closest to their hearts.
On August 8, 1992 Larry Bird would announce his retirement from basketball. Always a man of his word, Bird promised to fulfill the remainder of his contract in the team front office. Bird would end his career with the same class and grace that he had played with throughout his thirteen years in basketball.
Larry Bird will forever be remembered as one of the greatest players of all time. It takes one to watch Bird day in and day out to truly realize the impact this man has had upon basketball. His intangibles can never be recounted with words nor highlights. His desire to compete, determination to be the best and ability to play in pain to achieve those goals cannot be recounted with words or highlights.
I am proud to say that I grew up in the Larry Bird era. I spent many spring evenings with my big brother watching Larry and Magic Johnson duke it out in the NBA Finals. I am fortunate and I am proud to have witnessed it.
It was at the end of his career, when adversity mounted, that Larry Bird showed just how much he would give to win ball games. Though his statistics had dimmed, it was during these moments that his legend grew. These moment must never be forgotten.
Thank you Larry Legend!