Friday, November 26, 2010

Defending Larry Bird

Sports message boards are usually not the best place to engage in rational debates. They're like political message boards, except the posters are even more passionate, though thankfully less obsessed with immigration. Old folks go on there and often believe there haven't been any good basketball players since 1972 while young people don't believe anyone who was born before 1980 could compete in today's game. Still, there are some interesting arguments and what fun would sports be if you couldn't debate about the best players in history?

So a few days ago, on a Lakers board, a debate broke out over Larry Bird's place in history. It's too much to expect completely unbiased opinions on a Lakers board. When people talk about the five best players in history, many people will write that it's Magic and Kareem, Kobe, West and Wilt. With Elgin Baylor as the sixth-best of all-time and maybe Jamaal Wilkes as the 10th best. Still, many people supported Bird and said he was a top 5 player. Others said top 10, at least. But others ridiculed his accomplishments and his game, with some even saying Scottie Pippen might have been better. Somewhere, an overweight Irishman sporting a ketchup-and-beer-stained No. 33 Celtics throwback jersey wept. It's absurd.

But obviously it's impossible to say for certain where any player ranks. There are no right or wrong answers, although if you say Pippen over Bird, you should lose the right to debate. I understand where the sentiment comes from. Growing up, Bird was a boogeyman in my house, like Reagan but with worse hair and a better jumper. Magic and Bird might have become friendlier when they filmed their famous Converse commercial, but nothing softened my feelings about the Hick from French Lick. Mostly it was about fear, with a dose of appreciation. Fear at how he could dismantle a team with his shooting or his passing. Fear about watching Bird operate with the Celtics tied or trailing by 1 in the closing seconds. But I always appreciated just how dominant he was on the court, even as I argued that Magic was better.

Now, 18 years after Bird's retirement, 24 years after his last MVP, it's simply about appreciation.

Some links and tidbits on a guy who was better than Scottie Pippen:
* This guy put together a list of Bird's 10-best games. Seems like a thorough list, though I'm sure other Bird groupies might have different games in different slots. I wasn't very familiar with No. 10. Against the Jazz in 1985, Bird had 30 points, 12 boards, 10 assists and nine steals -- through three quarters. He didn't play the fourth quarter of the blowout and didn't want to go in to get the steal that would have completed the quadruple-double.

* Sports Illustrated wrote several classic pieces on Bird. Here's a Frank Deford story from 1988. Jack McCallum wrote a great one in 1986. The stories speculate about whether Bird was the best player in NBA history. Yes, before Jordan claimed the mythical crown, Bird wore it for a few short years. By the end of his career, though, many people - including Bird superfan Bill Simmons - had put even Magic ahead of Bird on all-time lists, owing mostly to the fact injuries tormented the legend in his final years. Still...better than Pippen.

* Here's a seven-minute video of great Bird passes. The title calls him the greatest passer in the history of the game, which isn't true (ahem, Magic) but he was spectacular.

* People occasionally use Bird's teammates against him, saying that he excelled partly because he played with Kevin McHale and Robert Parish on the frontcourt, and had another Hall of Famer, Dennis Johnson, in the backcourt for much of his career. Occasionally, in the past, perhaps after a night of drinking or maybe after an evening spent with a Boston native, I might have made those same points. 1979 the Celtics won 29 games. The next year, Bird's rookie season, the Celtics won 61 games. The roster was basically unchanged, with the exception of Bird. McHale and Parish didn't arrive for another season. Yet Bird improved the Celtics by an astounding 32 games. Bird made everyone around him better, not just Hall of Famers.

* A few of Larry's more memorable game-winning shots:

* Thanks to his efforts in the 3-point contest, not to mention all the ones he made in real games, Bird is regarded as one of the all-time greats from behind the line. Yet the early part of his career shows how the game changed as the '80s progressed and how different it is today. Bird made 58 his rookie season, but after that made 20, 11, 22, 18 and 56 each season. But he then drilled 82 in 1986, 90 in 1987 and 98 the following season. In 2006, Ray Allen made 269 3-pointers. When the Celtics won the title in 2008, they had three guys make more than 88. Here's his famous performance in the 1988 3-point contest, when he came on strong at the end, fired the final ball, raised his finger before it went through, then walked away in triumph.

I don't know where Bird ranks all-time. Top 5? Probably. No matter where he falls on anyone's list in this completely subjective argument, he remains one of the most important players in league history and one of the most memorable. Even a Lakers fan should be able to acknowledge that.

And now, as penance, I'll watch Game 4 of the 1987 Finals.


Jerry said...

Being a diehard Lakers fan - and as much as it pains me to say this - Bird was phenomenal. If there is a top 5 I would have to include him in it and many of the players in the NBA today could learn a thing or three from him. I cringed when the game was on the line and he had the ball. And as good a shooter as he was he may have been a better passer and rebounder than shooter. One of the best all around players - ever.

Dad said...

McHale sure was the recepient of a lot of those passes. Wonder if they have the one pass he ever made on tape??