Larry Bird: Greatest Basketball Human of All Time?
In the pantheon of NBA lore, there is an acknowledged Holy Trinity. Or, to employ a non-religious metaphor, if basketball was a kingdom, Jordan, Magic and Bird would be the definitive Triumvirate. They are kings above kings, legends above legends, other superlatives above lesser superlatives.
Looking back on these three titans, here is what we can unquestionably say of their legacies:
- Michael Jordan is the greatest player of all time. You know it, I know it, and deep down in their adorable little souls, all of those silly Lebron and Kobe devotees know it. No more needs to be said.
- Magic Johnson is the greatest ambassador in NBA (and possibly sports) history. Signature smile. Transcendent personality. Business mogul who brought jobs to the inner city. No more needs to be said here either. (Nonetheless, I’ll go ahead and add that he’s the only man who can even remotely challenge Jordan for the throne. Five rings, unbelievable stats, and there’s also that thing where he–as a point guard–replaced the greatest center of all time in the deciding game of the Finals in his rookie season and put up 42 points, 15 boards and 7 assists. Oh, and he played every other position on the court in that game, too. Just throwing that in there.)
- Larry bird is… um… hmmmm….
Bird’s legacy is–or was– a bit amorphous. He’s the third-greatest basketball player ever, which is pretty damn awesome in and of itself, and you can’t really say that the man didn’t have a definitive legacy. But while Mike and Magic left behind signature, masterpiece portraits, Bird left us with a brilliant mural that, until recently, was actually unfinished, although nobody knew it. It was secretly missing the epic epicenter comparable to God and Adam dapping it up in the Sistine Chapel.
A cold-blooded marksman, he still couldn’t be known as the Master Assassin because of that damn Jordan guy. In head-to-head competition for titles, college and pro, Magic beat Bird 3-to-1. In a just world, he’d be the Undisputed Best Shooter in History, (first player in NBA history to shoot 50% or better on field goals, 40% on three-pointers, and 90% on free-throws in a single NBA season while achieving the league minimum for makes in each category–visual evidence here) but names like Ray Allen, Reggie Miller and Nowitzki keep coming up in that conversation these days. So what other title can we give him? “Savviest Player Ever”? “Most Instinctive”? That’s like giving him a People’s Choice Award. The man deserves better.
And so he’s claimed better. This week, Larry Bird was awarded the NBA Executive of the Year Award, making him the only man to ever win MVP, Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year in a single lifetime (as opposed to multiple lifetimes). That’s kind of the biggest deal since the Manhattan purchase. Let’s take a look at that accomplishment in comparison to the only men Bird can be compared to. Jordan’s tenure as an NBA exec in Charlotte has become legendary for all the wrong reasons, as his Bobcats snagged the league’s worst all time winning percentage this past season. Magic Johnson once coached the Lakers, going 1-5 before resigning; the shortest, lamest coaching run since that Marathon for Broken-Legged Dwarf Coaches that really happened that one time, I assure you.
Now, I’m on record as saying that Coach of the Year in the NBA is a bit of a nebulous honor. Byron Scott won it once and two years later he was working for ESPN, which is to coaches what Vegas is to past-their-prime singers. The problem with the award is that it’s too frequently handed out to “The Guy Whose Team Surprisingly Didn’t Underachieve This Year,” as opposed to the actual best coaches in the business (which is why Popovich and Phil Jackson only have three such awards combined instead of all of them since the turn of the century). But Bird’s numbers as a coach do not lie, nor do they fib or even just kind of omit a few facts here and there. .687 winning percentage in the regular season, and .615 in the playoffs. You read those figures and your mouth waters with the taste of abundant victory. In three years he made it to two Eastern Conference Finals and one NBA Finals with a Pacers team that won less than 40 games the year before his arrival.
"Yeah, I know what I'm doing."
The year after he left, another 80’s hoops legend, Isiah Thomas, took over the coaching job. His tenure with the team was exactly as unsuccessful as you’re thinking it was.
He stepped in as the Pacers President of Basketball Operations in 2003, and his only significant gaffe in that time was having Metta World Breaker and Stephen Jackson on the same roster, the most volatile combination since gunpowder and Lindsay Lohan’s nostrils. This year he cemented his legacy as a basketball genius, assembling a roster full of understated, underrated ballers who are making the star-studded Miami Heat sweat out the Eastern Semi-Finals.
There’s only one other legendary-player-turned-coach-then-exec who is in Bird’s stratosphere. The oft-overlooked king, the literal icon, The Logo, Jerry West. Looking at the body of West’s amazing career versus Bird’s, however, it’s not at all difficult to give Bird the edge. Both of them attained an insane amount of accolades in their playing days, but Bird holds the edge there, with twice as many Finals MVPs, thrice as many Championships, and three NBA MVPs to West’s surprising none. They both coached for three years, making the playoffs each year, but West did it with a certain greatest center of all time and Bird did with a skinny, shit-talking shooter named Miller.
Jerry did win a few titles as the Lakers executive, but in fairness, Larry is trying to recruit guys to play and stay in freaking Indiana while West was trying to “convince” guys to play and stay in L.A. Make no mistake, West is a certifiable basketball guru, but if the sales pitch to entice millionaire, megastar athletes come to Los Angeles got any easier its grandmother would give up and buy it a box full of birth control pills. “So let’s see, uh… here are our gorgeous, endless beaches full of fit, nubile, bikini-clad women. Have I mentioned that it’s sunny everyday here? Nietzsche saw this shit and shouted, ‘God lives,’ then he cried himself to climax in a California King bed beneath a pyramid of gorgeous models and I see that you’re signing the contract already. Fantastic.”
Meanwhile, Bird is convincing young rich guys to come to Indiana, which is as hard as convincing young rich guys to come to Indiana. No offense to Indiana, but damn, you are Indiana, are you not? You’re a pretty tough sell to a star ball-player with a ton of money in his pockets and even the slightest inkling to live somewhere with a vibrant local scene. I’m sure some obscure, aspiring underground rapper from Indianapolis might read this and rebut, “Nah man, you don’t even know how we get down in the Nap. Shit’s poppin’ out here, man. We got… motherf***in’ malls, know what I’m sayin’? Got two or three Olive Gardens. We gettin’ it in out here.” But he’d just be proving my point.
In summary, West won titles with Phil Jackson, while Bird’s team is getting wins with a coach who looks and sounds like the unlucky patsy who got hired to murder some businessman’s wife and/or mistress on every other episode of Law & Order. I can’t quite say it’s a push, but considering the mitigating factors, West’s edge in this category isn’t enough to make up for Bird’s edge as a coach and a player.
So this brings us, at last, to the final (yet still in progress) legacy of Larry Legend. Virtuoso player. Great coach. Stellar executive. No other man can boast of such a complete and comprehensive NBA résumé. Mr. Bird, I salute you as The Greatest Basketball Human of All Time. By all means, carry on.