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What-If Larry Bird Retired In 1988?

Written By: Vinny @sailboatstudios

 

It’s difficult to understand how great someone from the past really was, especially when you’ve never experienced them firsthand. This probably explains why so many people think LeBron is the greatest player ever. All under twenty-five-year olds have of Michael Jordan is YouTube clips, full games the lack the sense of mystery because the viewer knows how it ends. The cold hard numbers help the narrative that even Kobe Bryant is superior; the numbers don’t tell you Jordan took a sabbatical and missed 99 games. All I’m left with of Larry Joe Bird is the statistics, stories and grainy old footage. We label the 1980s as an overrated era of slow, rugby style basketball that couldn’t possibly work today. The past epic duels between Bird and Dominique, Dr. J, M.J, and Magic are forgotten. By the late-1980s Bird’s status grew to the popularity of where Tom Brady is right now. If there was a stat to describe how many times an athlete came through in the clutch, when fans knew they would, Bird would lead the league.

While the era of Brady lives on, Bird it hung up prematurely at the age of thirty-one. 31. Thirty-one. Reminiscent  of Red Auerbach did before the 1965-66 season Bird announced he was giving the rest of the league “one more” shot at knocking him down. Except Auerbach himself did everything short of getting on his knees to beg Larry not to keep true to his word. Camping out of Bird’s estate in French Lick, Indiana, it wasn’t until September when Red saw Bird laying down gravel in his mother’s driveway did he come to grips with the reality: Bird’s back been giving him trouble since 1985, and it would only get worse from here.

It’s alright, Larry.” He told him. “At Least we still have Lenny.”

And just like that the face of the franchise changed from this skinny gent “The Hick from French Lick” to a physical specimen from Maryland that rivaled Jordan in ego and competitive drive. “If it wasn’t for Bias, I wouldn’t have retired after ‘88.” Bird said in an interview with columnist Bill Simmons.

“What?” He didn’t believe it.

“We’ve just won the title, I finished second in the MVP vote to Jordan… I still felt like I had some good years left in the tank. But I knew the Celtics were in good hands. Lenny was someone I liked the moment I first saw him.

The change was drastic and threw fans into a loop. Fans were expected to toss away their black Converse sneaks in favor of a sleek black, white stripe shoes. Outside of New England the transition was easy; within the area they didn’t know how to feel. The sad era of fans thinking the NBA was “too black” wasn’t a distant memory. When Bird became the coach in 1990, fans chanted “Larry Larry Larry” after every win, Bird could’ve personally told them to stop and they wouldn’t.

Bias eventually won the younger generation over in the early 1990s, out-dueling M.J in the 1990 Semi-Final. Bias was Kawhi Leonard before Kawhi was a twinkle in his father’s eye. Locking up the scoring champ in Game 7, holding him down to sixteen points, five turnovers. “It was the worse game i’ve ever played.” Jordan would confess. Behind the lockdown perimeter defense of Bias and outside shooting of UConn shooting guard Reggie Lewis, the Celtics snuck into the NBA Finals, where they would bow out to the Portland Trailblazers. The team labeled “too old” and simultaneously “too young” the Celtics surprised many, Bias proved his worth as a successor to the legacy of Bird.

How could you not sympathize with the Danny White of the NBA? No matter how well Bias did, he was a mere mortal compared to Bird’s Staubach. Maybe a championship would’ve helped him escape the shadow of The Legend. But basketball is a team sport. The fossilizing of Kevin McHale; Auerbach’s inability to replace the greatest post player in NBA history, passing on Shawn Kemp for Michael Smith in the crucial 1989 NBA Draft set Bias up for failure. Coach Larry Bird tried to get around the aging Kevin’s mcHale by experimenting with the 6’5 Kevin Gamble at the power forward spot, but when playoff time rolled around he went back to the traditional lineup that couldn’t keep up with the speed of the Bulls.

It wasn’t until the death of Reggie Lewis in June of 1993 did fans learn to appreciate the talent before them, realizing how good they got it. Bravely the twenty-nine-year old Bias lead the Celtics through the despair, leading the undermanned Celtics passed the Hornets and heavily favored Knicks en route to a gallant defeat at the hands of Jordan. And thus, the book closed on the Bias era in Boston, fans didn’t know it then.

Three Eastern Conference appearance, two-time runner-up, five Atlantic division titles, getting the best of the GOAT twice(!) in the playoffs. It wasn’t enough. He was Superboy taking over for Superman. Any other team Bias would’ve been revered. But not here, where all that matters is bringing home the Larry O’Brien trophy every year.

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