Author’s Note: Larry Bird could not be reached to either confirm or deny any of the details in these stories. Therefore, their relationships with both the facts and the truth are highly questionable.
Once upon a time, Larry Bird could do everything on a basketball court. His beautiful mind saw passes that other men of his size and stature could not see. He rained jumpers from beyond golden arches. He could rebound. He could run. He had a handle on everything, and he played in front of a school of stoic basketball philosophers who nodded every night in approval. He was, for a time, the best in the game.
Now, he is 61-years-old. Place him on a court and his spry movements hesitate on rusted springs. He most likely sees those beautiful angles and algorithms, but his limbs conspire against him. The release on the jump shot is most often still there, but the lift is sometimes not. Points are just short. The man wears tennis shoes out of habit or just in case, but his rounded paunch and stiff back serve as a rack for sports coats. The revolutionary is now a sage. Some would even say a recluse.
But stories of his deeds still circulate. Even in retirement, he still leaves a trail of witnesses to his everyday miracles as a head coach, an executive, an advisory member of the Pacers front office and, simply put, as an old dude with something left to prove.
Read More: Exploring Victor Oladipo’s breakout season
“I still remember the first thing Larry said to me after the trade,” said Victor Oladipo about the call he received from Larry Bird welcoming him to the Indiana Pacers in a trade that sent Paul George to Oklahoma City. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about Paul. That’s not who you have to worry about. I’m looking at your percentages over the years: “33 percent . . . 34 percent . . . 35 percent . . . 36 percent . . . It’s like your whole career is a heat check to see how hot I am. I’m not exactly sure what that means, probably something related to hauntology, but my shooting is up this year.”
When asked about Oladipo’s recollection, Bird responded:
“A lot of you in the media think it’s about points and percentages, and it is. But my best games are the ones where I do a lot of different things. Sometimes I ask what would I do if I were still playing and the answer is clearly better than all these guys, but sometimes I have to relax a bit and not be so intense. It’s times like that when you might see me doing my taxes or figuring out a solution to government work stoppages. One time I drafted a policy for peace in the Middle East. Another time I charted a course for Mars. All sorts of things can run through a man’s head during a basketball game, but mostly I think about what players would I enjoy talking trash to in today’s game and how can I get them in our locker room. I haven’t seen ‘Nique in ages, so that’s why Damien is here.”
“Larry can be harsh,” said Darren Collison, who returned to the Pacers this season after five years of exile from the club in places as far and remote as Sacramento. “I’m the shortest guy on the team, so guess what Larry says to me — he says I’m too short to guard anyone. Can you believe that? That’s a guy from the front office molding a team in his image.”
“That’s definitely true,” said Domantas Sabonis. “He’s always getting on people about how tall they are. He tells me all the time, ‘you may be almost 7-feet, but compared to your dad, you’re below average.’”
Donnie Walsh, who has been both Bird’s boss, a man replaced by Bird, and a man to replace Bird, describes some of his favorite Bird antics:
“His style of trash talking is unique. It’s like an inner monologue turned inside out. I think a lot of people find that discomforting. He’ll say things like, ‘We’re in Indiana now,’ and you won’t be able to respond because that sums up everything. Then he’ll say something like, ‘I’m going to leave this room now and walk down the hall,’ and that’s exactly what he ends up doing. Most people don’t have that kind of control, but he does. I remember one time, while standing by the copy machine, he said, ‘Later today I’m going to make copies right here, Donnie,’ and later that day, I saw him making copies right there. His ability to predict his own actions is uncanny, and if he didn’t tell you ahead of time, you probably wouldn’t think anything of it.”
“I don’t have many stories about Larry,” said Glenn Robinson III, “but I will say this: He barks a lot. I’ll be coming around a corner in the team facilities and he’s just howling, like there’s a full moon or something. Can’t say I get it, but that’s what he does.”
Robinson is not the only one to sense Bird’s not just a regular guy. “Most guys will try to pronounce my name,” said Bojan Bogdanovic, “and when they stumble, they end up giving me some sort of nickname. Mr. Bird doesn’t do that. He just calls me number 44, and sometimes he tells me how many times he scored more than the number on his jersey when he played and that I should have picked a lower number. When he says these things, I have to make a choice: Do I become better . . . or do I cry?”
Remembering the 2000 NBA Finals, Jalen Rose once said, “I just remember him telling me that he was gonna coach part of the series left-handed before the tipoff for the first game, and I’ve watched that series so many times now and I can’t tell when he’s coaching with the left or with his right.”
“I saw him drink a cup of coffee with his left hand once,” said Donnie Walsh. “First, he said, ‘I’m going to drink this whole cup with my left hand.’ Then he lifted it to his mouth and, sure enough, he did. When he left it in the sink at the office, I walked over and looked at it and it was all gone. I can’t say it was exactly 25 years ago or nothing, but it was memorable.”
Then, as the interview stalled, Walsh looked up and in a moment of introspection and with a face like a Tommy Lee Jones character added: “You know . . . a man could use a cup of coffee now and again just to stay awake with himself.”