Larry Bird, along with “Magic” Johnson and Michael Jordan, is one of the most recognized names in the history of basketball. The “Hick from French Lick” was known not only for his impressive basketball skills but his hard work ethic and grueling style of play. Though he played throughout the 1980s and into the early-1990s, his exploits and victories in the world of basketball are still spoken of and praised by fans of the sport. Here are some facts about the man they called “Larry Legend.”
Featured image credit: Rant Sports
10He Grew Up In Poverty
Larry Bird was born in West Baden, a small town next to French Lick, Indiana (itself a small farming town with a population of 2,000). He was the fourth of six children born to Joe and Georgia Bird. His father mainly worked construction between long stints of unemployment, and his mother worked in a diner to make ends meet. The family’s small house was situated beside railroad tracks and only had a coal furnace for warmth—one that would often break down, leaving the family in harsh conditions during some winter nights.
His father was also an alcoholic who sometimes spent his earnings at the local bar instead of bringing them home to his family (although this did not happen often). Due to financial difficulties, Larry would often be sent to live with his grandmother, but whether in West Baden or French Lick, he received no relief from the desperate conditions which surrounded him. Larry always said his desire to escape from a life of poverty was one of the biggest motivators behind his success. Perhaps this was why—all through his childhood—Larry would take 200 practice shots every morning before going to school.
9His Father Shot Himself
When Larry Bird was just 18 years old, his father shot himself right after making a phone call to Larry’s mother. The couple were divorced at that point, with Joe’s alcoholism being the main reason for their separation. Support payments were due and work was nonexistent, which led Joe to the decision that the family would be better served through insurance money. Just before he was to be picked up by the police for failing to make his payments, Joe called his wife and told her she didn’t need to worry anymore about the situation. He then hung up and fired one shot into his head, killing himself instantly.
Growing up, Larry was best friends with his father. The two spent almost all their time together, so Joe’s death affected Larry deeply. Being a very private person, Larry never publicly showed it. Although he felt betrayed by his father’s act, Larry did manage to learn more than one lesson from him that he would carry for the rest of his life: His father did work, and he was a hard worker. Joe once spent a weekend nursing what looked like a broken foot. Larry recalled helping his father get into his boot, despite his foot being almost completely black and swollen. After an immense struggle, Larry managed to help his dad get ready, and off Joe limped to another construction job, despite the pain. Many fans marveled at Larry’s ability to play basketball through all types of injuries, though few knew where he got his work ethic from.
8He Dropped Out Of College And Worked As A Garbageman
Recruited by Bobby Knight of the legendary Indiana Hoosiers into Indiana University straight from high school, Larry Bird would last only a few weeks before he left—due to not only the strangeness of his new environment but a severe lack of funds. Larry returned home to French Lick, where he also dropped out of junior college. He took a job with the city as a garbageman out of necessity. In the meantime, he also found himself newly married and with a child.
Larry said of the job, “I loved that job. It was outdoors, you were around your friends. Picking up brush, cleaning it up. I felt like I was really accomplishing something. How many times are you riding around your town and you say to yourself, ‘Why don’t they fix that? Why don’t they clean the streets up?’ And here I had the chance to do that. I had the chance to make my community look better.”
Things probably would have stayed this way—and the world would have never heard of Larry Bird—if it were not for Bill Hodges, who fought hard to get Larry to come to the smaller Indiana State University and play ball there. In his senior year, Larry would lead his college team to a 33-0 record and a chance to face his future rival, Magic Johnson, for the 1979 NCAA championship. It was this game that would mark the beginning of one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports history.
7His Rivalry With Magic Johnson Was Made Into A Documentary And A Broadway Play
Long after the two had retired from the NBA, their legends remained fresh in the minds of older and younger fans alike. This led HBO Sports to make the 2010 documentary Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals. Later on, the documentary was turned into a Broadway play. It was this rivalry that would mark the turning point for the NBA as an organization and would become probably the single biggest sports story of the 1980s. Also, it would lead to a very close friendship between the two rival basketball stars, one that started out as anything but.
Larry lost to Magic in the 1979 NCAA championship. It would take him five long years to best his rival in the 1984 NBA championship. Until that time, the two actually hated each other. It was only shortly after that, when the two filmed a television commercial together, that a friendship would develop between them—though a very unusual one. To this day, they remain very close but never have the day-to-day contact that most friends have. Instead, knowing their lives will be forever linked, the two only meet at times required by their careers. The relationship has been described as kind of a “private club” between the two, one that both of them must “pay their dues” to from time to time. It seems this friendship and the way it plays out is just fine for both men and will continue until their final days.
The amount of accomplishments Larry Bird had in the basketball world is simply mind-blowing. They include being a three-time NBA champion, three-time MVP, two-time Finals MVP, 12-time All-Star, All-Star Game MVP, NBA Rookie of the Year, three-time Three-Point Shootout Champion, and a two-time member of the “50–40–90″ club (having a season scoring average of at least 50 percent in field goals, 40 percent in three-point shots, and 90 percent in free throws). Add to that his accomplishments as a coach for the Indiana Pacers and later as an executive (he has won awards for both), and one can see that no one knows basketball quite like Larry. Furthermore, his college career was outstanding as well. Here, he averaged 30.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game, and led his team to an 81–13 record during his three years of play.
Despite all his achievements, Larry was known as a very unselfish player (just like his rival, Magic), which is probably why he is known not only as one of the game’s best scorers but as one of its best passers as well. An example of his unselfish style of play can be found in his 1985 game against the Utah Jazz, in which he came within one steal from recording an ultra-rare quadruple-double but instead chose to leave the game for the bench early, saying he “already did enough damage.” Up until that year, only one other player, David Robinson, had ever officially recorded a quadruple-double in NBA history, and yet Larry let his other teammates have the limelight. As if all this was not enough, even the Twitter mascot is named after Larry.
5Comparison To Michael Jordan
“Air” Jordan is considered by many to be the greatest basketball player of all time—and rightly so. However, few people realize just how close to eclipsing that greatness Larry came in his career. A comparison between the two players reveals this truth. One can see that Larry matches or beats Jordan in almost every statistical category except points and steals per game. When asked, more than one player has stated that Larry was harder to guard than Jordan (see the video above).
Many have said that it wasn’t athleticism that made Larry great but his mind: He played the game like a thinker. He was known not only for his uncanny ability to read his opponents’ plays before they were even completed but for finding a way to get himself open in even the most crowded of plays. People he played with and against have said he was a “basketball genius” with an inflexible will to win. Time and time again, he proved this on the court. And—just for the record—how was Larry’s performance against Michael Jordan and the Bulls? Larry won 17 games while Michael won 11—a stat that pays testament to Larry’s true greatness.
Another legendary trait of Larry Bird was his extreme confidence, one that he was not afraid to show off on the court. He would often predict his game scores in advance, as well as tell the other team he would be getting the ball during clutch moments. He was simply never afraid once he stepped on the court, no matter the circumstances of the game. Oddly enough, he has said that he always got nervous before each game and that he hated the feeling.
Other players of his era note not only his trash talking but also his ability to fight if needed. Larry got into more than one scrape during his career. Perhaps most notable is the one he got into with Dr. J during a game in which they were both fined $7,500. Even though the fight was broken up, Larry returned for seconds, not being quite finished with his opponent.
3He Played His Last Years In The NBA Through Utter Pain
In 1985, Larry Bird decided to build the driveway of his mother’s home himself. He spent all day shoveling gravel and ended up hurting his back and causing his spine to get misaligned. Later on in his career, this injury, as well as multiple surgeries he had to remove spurs from the bones in his heels, would make every game he played a struggle. From 1987–88 onward, he would have to have his spine realigned before many of the games, just to be able to participate.
The injury was so severe that he often had to lie down for hours at a time, either between games or sometimes even during and after them. His toughness was legendary, however, as even during one playoff game against the Pacers, in which he suffered a concussion, he returned to the floor to lead his team to victory. His performance was so amazing that even the opposing Pacers team congratulated his effort after the game had ended.
2He Never Forgot His Roots
Photo credit: Diana Lambdin Meyer
Larry Bird had homes in West Baden and French Lick, Indiana, which have now been turned into fancy hotels that any adoring fan can stay in. In 2007, Larry sold his home in French Lick just for this very purpose. Anyone with a reservation can now practice on the very court where Larry’s friendship with Magic Johnson began.
In addition to that, there’s a Larry-themed restaurant in French Lick. Although Larry does not own or make any money from the restaurant, he has publicly endorsed it and donated many items of memorabilia for decoration. The town, of course, has also celebrated its biggest star and even renamed a street to “Larry Bird Boulevard.” Even today, Larry often visits his hometown for entire summers and walks down its streets and avenues as just a normal and humble Indiana hometown hero.
1He Used To Be Kind Of A Pig
For an athlete with such impressive skills and a rigorous training routine, at times Larry would simply let himself go. Early in his career, he would not only chew tobacco (much to the disgust of his teammates) but also drink heavily on more than one “victory night.” One time, he even managed to drink the giant Charles Barkley under the table, a feat few could match. Worse than that was the time when, due to an injury, he was unable to play. Within a few weeks, Larry ate 38 liters (10 gal) of ice cream and seven wedding cakes, because “you knew they was gonna be good. I mean, who would [eff] up a weddin’ cake?”
Larry also had a spiteful side, although in a good-natured sort of way. During the filming of Space Jam, he would often steal food and beverages from Jordan’s cooler, just to spite the fact that Jordan had his own special cooler that no one was allowed to touch. He didn’t only take snacks for himself, he would also toss them around the set daily, just because he could.
+He Has A Daughter He Has Rarely Spoken To
During the period in his life when he dropped out of college and returned home to work, Larry was briefly married to a girl he had known for years. Her name was Janet, and they had a daughter named Corrie. Larry, being a private person, has never spent much time with his daughter or her mother and views the relationship as a mistake. It is not the fear of fatherhood that drives him away from Corrie, as Larry has two adopted children. Larry has never really spoken of his distance from his true child.
The only real statement he has made in print is in his autobiography, in which Larry states “I can’t honestly say I’ve had that much to do with her life because of my differences with Janet. I think about Corrie all the time, but what can I really do now? I can’t go back and relive the first five or six years of her life. Corrie is a fine and beautiful young lady. Her mother has done a great job bringing her up in the best way possible. Corrie is also very athletic. She’s good at everything she does and I’m really proud of her. To tell you the truth, I’ve never really known how to handle the situation, but I love her and anytime Corrie needs anything, I will be there for her.”
Like all larger-than-life figures, Larry Bird has a human side. He’s had a life with the kinds of ups and downs we all do. No one is perfect, but “Larry Legend” sure came close, at least on the basketball court.