LOVERRO: Among those who faced him on the court, Bird’s legacy undeniable

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Larry Bird’s birthday was last week. He turned 66 on Dec. 7. The latest Commanders marketing campaign — “Conduct Detrimental” — got in the way, so let’s celebrate it now. 

He was one of the best players in the history of the league — a three-time Most Valuable Player, a 12-time All-Star and a three-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics from 1979 to 1992. He averaged 24.3 points per game (21,791) and 10 rebounds per game (8.974) in his career.

But among debates between fans on social media, Larry Bird’s name never comes up when arguing the all-time greats. It’s always Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry, or go back in time to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell — obviously all valid candidates.

But no Bird — at least in those circles.

You ask NBA players — those who know the game, who played against him and greats who watched his career — it’s a different debate. Bird is right there in the conversation, for some the greatest they’ve ever seen.

In a 1997 interview with sportscaster Ahmad Rashad, when asked to select the greatest players they had ever seen other than themselves, Wilt Chamberlain picked Bird. Russell selected Bird third after Magic and Jordan — not Oscar Robertson, who he played against, but Bird.

“This man is very, very talented,” Chamberlain said of Bird in another interview “I think he epitomizes what a forward is supposed to do, especially in the game he played because he was technically correct.

“He was the correct type of basketball player and most people today don’t play the game of basketball correctly. He did.”

In another interview on YouTube, Abdul-Jabbar said Bird may have been the best player he ever faced in his 20-year career. “The best guy I played against might have been Larry Bird,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “People don’t appreciate Larry Bird enough. They think he was a chubby White guy. But he would wear us down. The muscle that was between his ears was the best because he made three points, assisted, rebounded and had steals. He was always in the right place at the right time. He is, without a doubt, one of the best players I’ve ever played against.”

Remember, this is the guy Abdul-Jabbar once got into a fight with on the court in the 1984 NBA finals.

Another guy who fought with Bird on the court was also a big fan. Julius Erving, in another interview posted on YouTube, said he couldn’t stop Bird on the court. “What I noticed about Larry right away, even as a rookie, is that not only can he get his shot, he had amazing range for a big man. He may be the best shooter I’ve ever seen and he is a smart passer, able to weave the ball through inches of daylight. And he would not stop working.

“Bird and I had an interesting relationship on the court,” Erving said. “When I defended him and the Celtics drafted Kevin McHale and moved Larry to small forward, that becomes a regular matchup for me. He puts the ball down on the court and I think I have him. I can poke the ball away and maybe get a steal. Larry’s game doesn’t have any weaknesses but among his relative strengths, he is least skilled as a dribbler. Guarding me, he can’t stay with me, but I’ll be honest. I can’t really stop him either.”

Lakers Hall of Famer James Worthy said he would rather face Jordan than Bird. “I would much rather guard Michael Jordan than Larry Bird, because you had to play the game as a thinker with Larry Bird,” Worthy said. “You had to get inside his mind. Larry wasn’t quick. He couldn’t jump very high. But there were just some sleepless nights.”

Part of that was the trash talking. Take some time to look at all the stories on the web about Bird and his talking on the court — like this legendary one from Xavier McDaniel, one of the toughest players in the history of the league, when he was with the Phoenix Suns:

“It was a tie game. They had the ball and they were stalling the basketball. Larry was standing off to the side and they called a time out. He turned around and said ‘I’m going to score right here on you.’ I said, ‘I know you will. I’ll be ready’. He did and it was all net. He said, ‘I told you so.’”

Hall of Famer Dominque Wilkins, who once saw Bird go for 60 points in one of their legendary encounters, recalled the first time he faced Bird. “I went out for the opening tip,” Wilkins said. “I went to shake his hand. He just stood there and looked at me stone-faced, with his hands behind his back. I was like ‘whoa.’ Then we were getting ready for the tip and he says, ‘You don’t belong in this league, homes.’ I couldn’t believe it. It happened so fast, I didn’t know what to think.

“Then they had the ball and I was on him and he said, ‘I don’t know why they got you guarding me homes. You can’t guard me.’” Wilkins said. “Then, whap, he hit a three. Then he came down again and said, ‘They made a mistake putting you on me homes.’ And he hit another three.”

Even at the end of his career, Bird was not a player to test. Jamal Mashburn tells this story about he and the other college players who faced the 1992 NBA Olympic Dream Team in practice once. The college players had reportedly beaten the NBA players in a practice game.

“We get back to the hotel,” Mashburn said. “Rodney Rogers says to Larry. ‘Hey Larry, you ain’t hit a jumper since 1984.’ Magic heard him. The next day we came in. Magic fed Larry Bird the ball probably eight times in a row down the court.

“Larry Bird got the ball on Rodney Rogers and every time he was about to make a move, he told Rodney what he was going to do. ‘One dribble on left, pull up, off glass.’ Bucket. ‘One dribble on right, then shoot.’ Bucket. He scored eight times in a row. Then we went to lay down on the bench because he couldn’t sit down then because of his back. He said, ‘Young fella. Looks like ’84, huh.’”

In the conversations with the greats, they speak in awe of Larry Bird. Don’t take my word for it. Search for yourself.

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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