Larry Bird and Kevin McHale conducted an hourlong conversation for NBA TV’s “Players Only” series. It’s a must-watch. Here are eight things I liked.
Bird could’ve been better. He jammed his right index finger playing baseball in the summer of ’79. You can still tell from looking at his knuckle.
Bird: “The short hop got me. It was unfortunate. It happened right in the summer before I went to the Celtics. I wasn’t overly concerned. I just had to change some things with my shot. I never did have the same feel as I did before the injury happened, but I shot the ball pretty decent in the pros. But it always felt a lot better in my hands in college.”
Bird could’ve been worse. He grew from 6-foot-4 as a Springs Valley High School junior to 6-foot-7 as a prep senior and Indiana State recruit to …
Bird: “Going from 6-6 to 6-9 changed my whole game. I would have never been in the league at 6-6, but at 6-9 I was bigger and able to do things that most players can’t do at 6-6, because I could see the court better. I could see over the defender. I never worried about the defender at all when I had the ball. My thing was to make a move or make a pass or make a cut to always keep them off balance.”
The moment Bird knew. Bird bought into the criticism about his high school and college competition, until one fateful day on the South Shore.
Bird: “My story is growing up in a small town, playing at a small high school, I scored all these points. ‘Well, he don’t play against anybody.’ Then, when I got to college, ‘Well, he’s playing at Indiana State. He’s not playing at IU. We’ll see how he is when he gets to the pros.’
“So, in my mind, I go, Well, we’ll find out when I get there. I don’t know.
“I still didn’t know if I was able to play against some of the best players in the world, but we went to training camp down in Marshfield, and we had some of the veterans down there, and I thought, Well, they’re going to try me. They’re not in great shape and all that, but I did pretty good. But after the fourth day, I thought, I’ll be all right in this league.”
Danny Ainge was an innovator. Bird, like the rest of the NBA, viewed the 3-point shot as a novelty. Then came 1986, when Bird led the league in 3’s.
Bird: “We never even really worked on it. We wouldn’t even guard guys beyond the 3-point line. We’d stay way underneath, going under every pick. Right in the corner there — we used to call it the nipple. It was a long shot, and you couldn’t decide whether to bank it or shoot it straight in. The corner shots and the shot at the top of the key are the shots I liked to take, because they’re dead on. I was always a corner shooter. I like them, but we didn’t really use it until later on a little bit. Nothing like they do now.
“I can remember Danny talking about using it back then. He thought you could shoot 35, 36 percent from the field from 3’s and do better than if you shot 50 percent from the 2’s.”
Bird was a ball of nerves. Until he stepped on the court.
Bird: “I was so nervous before them games. I couldn’t wait until they started, but once I stepped on the court to go shoot layups, everything just calmed down. I was very fortunate that that happened. There are games out there — I tell people, but they don’t believe me — we’d be playing really well, and the press would always say, ‘What were you thinking when you made it?’ I wasn’t thinking.
“I was thinking about my grandmother, wondering what she’s doing today. I was totally out of that arena. I was just playing by feel and flow. My mind was so far away from basketball. When that happens, it’s just unreal. It don’t make a lot of sense, but it’s the truth.”
Bird will take your money. Just ask former Knicks trainer Mike Sanders.
Bird: “I considered him a good guy. I didn’t know him that well, but he was talking a little junk before the game. I bet him $5 that during the game I’d bank a 3-pointer in, and it just so happened as the game was going on, I was right there in front of him, and that angle, that 3-point shot was there. I took it, and it went in. And he paid me.”
The team that eats together, beats together. A roster-building lesson.
Bird: “We were together a lot. I can remember saying, ‘When we retire, I hope I never see you guys again,’ because I lived with you for 12 years. Back in the day, you take somebody out to dinner, that was a big deal. Now, there’s food everywhere. Guys come in, grab it, and then leave. They don’t spend enough time together, other than on the court.
“And now guys don’t stay with one team for a long time. We were fortunate. We had you, Robert, myself, Danny was there about six or seven years, M.L. was there four or five, D.J. came in ’84, so we had a group of guys who were together five or six years in the league. You don’t see a lot of that anymore, and it’s hard to get to know your teammate, especially on the court.”
Those were the days. We thought they’d never end.
McHale: “The year after you retired, the first year I played without you, it was a different vibe not having you there — just even your presence, all the shenanigans you were always pulling and all the messing around. There was just a different vibe around there, and about the middle of the year, I remember driving to practice. I had to go to an hour of therapy before I even got out on the floor to try to loosen up to see if I could practice.
“I pulled the car over to the side of the road and went, What am I doing? For the first time in my life, I didn’t look forward to playing basketball, and that was really it for me. It kind of hit me on that car ride. I didn’t tell anybody, but that was when I started thinking, This is my last year. I’m not going to be able to play anymore.”
Bird: “It’s sad, because we’ve done it our whole life, and we’ve put so much into it, but sometimes your body tells you. I had two years left on my contract, but I just couldn’t do it anymore. So, when I called Dave [Gavitt] up and said, ‘Look, I just can’t do it,’ it was tough.”
If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy my conversation with Bird’s 1986 teammates McHale, Bill Walton and Rick Carlisle for the 25th anniversary of Larry Legend’s retirement this past summer: ‘Better at everything’: What made Larry Bird special, and why he still would be 25 years later.