TERRE HAUTE —
Serving double duty as a baseball infielder for the American League’s Toronto Blue Jays and basketball guard for Brigham Young University, 20-year-old Danny Ainge found time in March 1979 to drive from Provo, Utah, to Salt Lake City to catch an in-person view of the legendary Michigan State vs. Indiana State clash for the NCAA championship.
For those who weren’t born yet and didn’t take College Basketball 101 in school, the final score was Michigan State 75, Indiana State 64.
To Ainge and countless fans across the country, this matchup was intriguing because of each team’s unique best player — Larry Bird for Indiana State and Magic Johnson for Michigan State.
After concluding his BYU basketball career in 1981, Ainge decided to shift his athletic attention to the NBA, specifically to join the Boston Celtics.
He did so for one reason — an opportunity to play on the same team with Bird.
“Had I not been drafted to play with Larry Bird or Magic Johnson, I probably would have stayed in baseball,” Ainge told the Tribune-Star in a recent phone interview. “The opportunity to play with someone of that magnitude, it was too good to pass up.”
Retired as an NBA player in 1995, Ainge remains active in the league as president of basketball operations for the Celtics, so he’s unable to attend Terre Haute’s tribute to Bird this weekend.
But as busy as he is, he couldn’t pass on a chance to talk up one of his favorite former teammates leading up to the dedication of the Larry Bird statue.
“I can’t think of anybody from Terre Haute more deserving of a statue,” he said with a chuckle. “He put Indiana State on the map. It was incredible what he did.”
For this story, Ainge and others close to Bird during his 13-year NBA playing career were asked to describe Larry Legend’s most iconic moment or moments with the Celtics.
Memories, Celtics style
Not surprisingly, Ainge wasn’t the only one who found it difficult to stay on subject because of Bird’s overall basketball greatness.
“Everybody knows the great play he made against Detroit [a pivotal steal and pass to teammate Dennis Johnson in the final seconds of Game 5 in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals] and all the game-winning shots he made,” Ainge said. “Those have all been well-documented. But when I think of Larry Bird, I just think of a guy who did it the right way day in and day out as a great player.”
Jackie MacMullan, who can be seen almost daily on ESPN’s “Around the Horn,” wasn’t always a television personality. Back in the 1980s, she helped cover the Celtics for the Boston Globe newspaper and got to know Bird well. She’s even co-authored two books with him.
“It’s hard to pick one [iconic moment],” said MacMullan, who will serve as moderator at the Bird tribute dinner Friday in Hulman Center. “The whole [NBA Finals] series in 1984 [against the Magic Johnson-led Los Angeles Lakers] was just amazing. Larry put it all on [his teammates] by saying they were ‘a bunch of sissies’ after they lost Game 3 to the Lakers. …
“You say that and you’d better be able to back it up. Some of them were mad. They didn’t like it. And the next game was when [Boston teammate] Kevin McHale clotheslined [Lakers forward Kurt] Rambis, which kind of turned the series around.”
The Celtics, coached by K.C. Jones, eventually won that series, four games to three, and Bird was named the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player. During the Game 7 locker-room celebration, Bird admitted to CBS announcer Brent Musberger that he “won this one for Terre Haute,” as sort of a make-up for his Indiana State team losing to Michigan State and Johnson five years earlier.
‘Larry Bird ... true giant’
Longtime UCLA and NBA center Bill Walton played only two seasons with Bird and the Celtics (1985-87), but they were memorable. The oft-injured Walton stayed healthy long enough to help Bird capture his third NBA title in 1986, earning the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award on the way to Boston’s 4-2 decision over the Houston Rockets in the finals.
To say that Walton, himself an NBA MVP with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1978 and a true legend in the sport, thinks highly of Bird, a three-time NBA MVP, is an understatement.
“It’s impossible to identify one moment,” insisted Walton, who also plans to attend Terre Haute’s tribute weekend for Bird. “Larry Bird is like John Wooden, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Neil Young — the greatest of the greats in that it’s the totality of their lives and the quality of their spirit and soul that makes them so unique, so incredible and so worthy of a statue.”
Walton described Bird as “brilliant” on and off the court.
“He likes to portray himself as the ‘Hick from French Lick,’ but nothing could be further from the truth,” the 6-foot-11 man known as the Big Red Head continued.
“And I never saw a player — any player ever — be able to inspire the home crowd the way that Larry Bird did. It’s just fantastic that he is going to have this statue. … This is a fantastic chance for us to come and say ‘thank you.’”
If you think Walton couldn’t possibly come up with more superlatives for Bird, you’re wrong.
“John Wooden would always tell us that it’s not how big you are, it’s how big you play,” Walton said. “In that regard, Larry Bird is a true giant. What makes him so special is his brain, his heart, his compassionate soul, even though he is a tough guy in terms of getting the job done. But Larry Bird is as fine of a human being as I’ve ever known and he was the best player I ever played with. He was the smartest player I ever played with. Playing basketball with Larry Bird was like playing music with Garcia, Dylan and Mozart. It was like having a discussion about science technology with Isaac Newton, Galileo, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.
“It was just awe-inspiring to be in his presence.”
‘He should have got 60’
Quinn Buckner, a Celtics guard for three seasons (1982-85) and a member of their ’84 NBA championship team, didn’t go as far as Walton in making Bird sound like he walks on water. But Buckner had no problem with praising Bird’s court skills.
“What stands out about Larry Bird is how easy he made the game look,” the former Indiana University star said. “By the time I got to the Celtics, I had played [in the NBA] for six years. So I was familiar with how hard the game was. What amazed me was when there were difficult plays to be made, Larry made them consistently and he made them look easy. For a game that’s predicated on ‘how quickly can you get there?’ and ‘how high can you jump when you get there?’ — not seeing that [from Bird] and then seeing the end result of what he brought to the table — it was fantastic. Not exceptional, but exceptionally fantastic. It was unbelievable.”
Buckner, who will join MacMullan and Walton for the statue dedication in Terre Haute, admitted that he’s stating the obvious when rattling off Bird’s basketball talents.
“He was a dead-eye shooter, a terrific passer, a terrific team defensive player,” Buckner noted. “But what he had the ability to do was make everybody better and that’s rare. That’s rare not just for Terre Haute, but anywhere you go. I don’t care what business you’re in. That’s just rare.”
Back to that Bird/iconic-moment subject, Buckner eventually mentioned one that came to mind.
To set up his story, keep in mind that McHale set a Celtics single-game scoring record by burning the Detroit Pistons for 56 points March 3, 1985. Then on March 12, just nine days later, Bird broke McHale’s record by pumping in 60 points against the Atlanta Hawks.
“I remember after Kevin scored his 56 points, someone asked Larry what he thought of Kevin getting 56 and he said, ‘He should have got 60,’” Buckner recalled. “Then Larry goes out and gets that number a few days later. It was one of those things where you just had to kinda laugh, knowing Larry.”
Beating Isiah, Ewing & ’Nique
Of all the people interviewed for this story, MacMullan was the one who consistently followed the intended theme and listed several specific iconic on-the-court moments.
In addition to her 1984 NBA Finals memories of Bird, here are a few more from an award-winning journalist:
One occurred in Game 5 of the 1987 NBA Eastern Conference finals against the “bad boy” Pistons, a play that Ainge touched on earlier in this story.
Trailing 107-106 with five seconds left and the Celtics threatening to fall behind 3-2 in the series, Bird stole an inbounds pass from Detroit’s Isiah Thomas and dished it off to Dennis Johnson for the winning layup. Although the Pistons battled back to win Game 6, Boston captured the hard-fought series 4-3.
“The Pistons looked like they were finally going to win and they were finally going to beat the Celtics after years of trying,” MacMullan said. “At that point, because the Celtics were so beat up physically — McHale, Bird, [Robert] Parish, they were all beat up physically — Detroit was probably the better team. But Bird jumped in front of Isiah’s pass to [Bill] Laimbeer and won that game for them.
“The great thing about that particular play was — well, the pass [to Johnson] was beautiful — Larry pretending he was running upcourt. He used to do that all the time. He’d turn to run upcourt like he wasn’t paying attention and jump back in and jump in front of the pass. So that in itself was a great play. But then D.J. was streaking to the basket — and Larry told me and many others years later that he had no idea who it was — and he laid the perfect pass on D.J.’s hands to go in for the layup to win that game.”
MacMullan couldn’t stop there when reminiscing about Bird’s most iconic moments.
“I always loved the ’86 All-Star Weekend when he walked into the locker room and said, ‘Which one of y’all is going to finish second?’ for the 3-point shooting contest,” she said. “That was pretty cool. Then you’ve got to go out and win it, which he did, of course.”
There’s also a humorous gem involving Bird and former New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing from a year that MacMullan couldn’t pinpoint, although she thinks it’s from the 1980s.
“He and Patrick Ewing didn’t particularly like one another, although they ended up becoming great friends on the  Dream Team and they remained great friends,” she said. “But back then, they were competitiors in the same division. One time in Madison Square Garden, Ewing had come down the floor and hit a shot and said something like ‘Face.’ So Larry said, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do to you next time: I’m going to up-fake you. I’m going to spin you to the left. I’m going to come to the right. I’m going to up-and-under. I’m going to score.’ And then he went down and did exactly that. He used to tell guys that all the time, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do to you…’ And then he’d go do it. They just couldn’t stop him.”
And if you’re old enough, who could forget Bird’s duel with Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference finals?
MacMullan certainly hasn’t.
“Larry was 9 of 10 from the floor and had 20 points in the fourth quarter,” she recalled accurately. “’Nique was great that night, too, scoring a lot of points . But you always knew that at the end of the game, if he needed to, Larry could draw a crowd and make the pass to an open teammate. ’Nique was a scorer and Larry was an all-around player. That was the difference.”
For the record, Boston emerged victorious 118-116.
Ainge, who played for the Celtics in that game, hasn’t forgotten it either.
“Larry wasn’t feeling great at that time in his career,” Ainge pointed out. “His back and his Achilles tendons were bothering him.
“Larry used to make a living off what we referred to as ‘a step-back jumpshot.’ He would dribble the ball toward the basket, then jump backward and shoot a fadeaway. It was a patented move of Larry’s that he was able to do consistently [before his injuries]. But that became a little more challenging for him to do because his Achilles tendons were sore and he didn’t have the same lift and balance on his shot.
“So I remember Larry working on a new shot [in early 1988], like a jump hook from about 12 or 15 feet. He was working on it before that game, then he implemented it in that game. I always found that fascinating. Here’s a guy — he wasn’t able to do what he normally does — who finds another way to do something else and be equally effective. Larry was far from 100 percent physically for that game. So for him to still do what he did was incredible.”
Ainge said he wasn’t surprised that this epic showdown happened the way it did.
“They were two of the greatest offensive players in the NBA at that time,” he emphasized. “Dominique did everything he could that night.”
Bird: ‘brilliant,’ ‘very kind’
Walton said Bird lived for moments such as the one against Atlanta in 1988 — on and off the court.
“Larry, in life, is just like how he was on the court — very serious about getting the job done but always wanting to have fun along the way,” Walton explained. “As a player, Larry was always 20 moves ahead of everybody else. He was like a brilliant chess player. He was [Garry] Kasparov. He was [Bobby] Fischer. … Larry had that [mental element to his game]. But it was not just in basketball; it was in life as well. He had a sense of anticipation, a sense of always knowing what was going to happen before anybody else did.”
Bird retired as a player after the 1991-92 season, but he’s told MacMullan more than once that he should have retired three or four years earlier because of the injuries Ainge mentioned.
Regarding the upcoming Bird tribute dinner and statue dedication in Terre Haute, MacMullan said she didn’t hesitate to say yes when Bird’s longtime representative, Jill Leone, asked her to play a role in the festivities.
“I’m honored,” MacMullan said. “Larry’s been great to me. I can’t even tell you how great he’s been to me and to my family. He’s just a wonderful, wonderful person. All this gruff exterior, it’s all a bunch of nonsense. He’s really a soft-hearted, very kind person. He’s certainly my most favorite person that I’ve ever covered.
“He’s just been a joy to be around. I love his competition. I love arguing with him, which we still do occasionally about basketball. I don’t always agree with everything he says, but I’ve just got a great deal of respect for him. So I’m thrilled to get to be there.”
The kind words for Bird didn’t stop there.
Enter the Big Red Head, who happens to be a fan of late-1800s and early-1900s union leader and Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs.
“There’s nobody like Larry Bird,” Walton stressed, oozing with admiration. “He is such a great friend and he is such a great man. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I got to play with Larry Bird. I know Larry Bird and now I get to come and rub the foot of his statue in Terre Haute, Indiana, the home of Eugene Debs, another great American.”