Larry Bird + 30

Larry Bird retired from the Boston Celtics 30 years ago this week, August 18, 1992. Bird was my favorite athlete when I was a kid. I’m not athletic, but I tried to emulate his work ethic in my schoolwork and other pursuits. I loved Bird’s shooting and passing ability, of course, but I also admired his self-confidence, something that I probably had too much of in my youth, and not enough of now that I’m middle-aged.

From the front page of the Providence Journal, August 19, 1992.

By the summer of 1992, it was clear that Bird’s back woes had rendered him a shadow of his former self. Most pro athletes experience a gradual decline as they age; Bird disintegrated. The sight of him lying on his stomach on the floor near the Celtics’ bench during games, struggling to keep his back loose, was heartbreaking.

During the playoffs that final season, Bird missed the Celtics’ first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers, and Boston had built a 2-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the semifinals by the time he returned. Bird came off the bench for two games, then started Games 6 and 7. The Celtics lost three of four to end their season. Their lone victory was a 122-91 thrashing of the Cavaliers in Game 6, Bird’s final game at the Boston Garden (featuring 16 points, 14 assists, and 6 rebounds in 37 minutes). Finishing up against the historically mediocre Cavaliers in Cleveland two days later was hardly a fitting end to his career, but it did provide a bit of coincidental symmetry: Bird had made his NBA debut against the Houston Rockets on October 12, 1979, then played a home-and-home series against the Cavaliers. His last official NBA road game was played in the same building as his first.

The 1992 Olympics provided a more fitting postscript. Bird was hobbled throughout, but got to receive a gold medal alongside Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and a team full of superstars who had become famous by playing basketball in a league that he had helped to save.