Bird

New Book Destroys My Hero Worship of Larry Bird

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Unexpectedly and suddenly, I feel disappointed and gullible. The one guy I’ve idolized, Larry Bird, turns out to be a less appealing and admirable person than I realized. He was a superb basketball player for sure but most of the time a mean guy.

I reach this conclusion after reading a new book by Dan Shaughnessy titled Wish It Lasted Forever: Life with the Larry Bird Celtics. The writer was a beat reporter for the Boston Globe during Bird’s greatest years in the 1980s.

The book reveals all sorts of incidences and comments Bird makes about people that show he was consistently condescending and belittling – even mean – and didn’t come across as a nice person. Most of all he was absorbed with his own basketball talents and wanted to be left alone, was not too big on signing autographs for adults and admitted he didn’t like adults, and distrusted and preferred to avoid most people.

The story in the book that changed my view of him was one I had never read in the numerous books I’ve blissfully devoured about his life. During these 1980s glory days on the court, Bird went out drinking one night and, after an argument, sucker punched a former college football player.

Soon thereafter Shaughnessy caught wind that this may have happened and asked Bird about it. “Larry there’s a story going around that you busted up your hand in a fight outside Chelsea’s on one of the off nights after Game 2. Is it true?

“No,” said Bird. “And you can tell whoever made that up to go f— themselves.”

His response turned out to be a lie. It was also classless and mean-spirited. Hitting someone in the face is never cool and shows a side of a person that I find repugnant. I’ve done plenty of embarrassing and bad things, but punching a guy in the face is not one of them. I couldn’t do that to another human being. It’s too violent and cruel and speaks to an ugly human quality. He ultimately gave an interview to another reporter:

“I really regret the whole thing because it reflects on the Boston Celtics. I’m really sorry about that. The good thing about all this is that maybe people finally understand that I’m human. I make mistakes. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I like to drink beer and go out and have a good time. I’m human. It isn’t easy being Larry Bird.”

It’s admirable he finally fessed up about the embarrassing incident. But it wasn’t cool to punch some guy in the face and then deny it and tell others to f—off.

Not heroic. Not the hero I’ve held him up to be since I first was dazzled watching him play basketball for Indiana State some 44 years ago. Not the kind of person I gushed about a few years ago in this article: Larry Bird: The Greatest Thing That Has Ever Happened in World History (ngscsports.com)

We all mistakes, like Bird. It’s understandable. And it’s probably tough being so famous that people always want to come up to you and talk and have you sign an autograph. But I don’t like the way he handled this situation.

Second sad story

There’s another story in the book I had not heard that also made me less impressed with Bird. In a game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Bird had scored 29 points in the first half and Julius Erving had made only one of nine shots. When the superstar, who was in the late stages of his career, was playing poorly, Bird kicked him. He went too far.

“You better retire if that’s all you got. Get somebody else out here to guard me. You can’t do it.”

That’s too abrasive and cocksure for my taste. No need to crush a man’s spirit when he’s already falling off a cliff.

No doubt Bird’s greatness was in some part related to his ferocious competitive fire and willingness to work on his game maniacally to win three straight NBA MVPs and also three NBA titles.

Practicing hard to be great at your craft is laudable, but you don’t have to be mean and play mind games with people while doing it. Wayne Gretzky, the best hockey player ever – more dominant in his sport than even Bird was in his — has never been mean or cocky, to the best of my knowledge. And I admire him for that. A classy guy, humble, and not compelled to lash out at people.

The book shows Larry was mostly mean or condescending or impatient or insensitive to teammates, opponents, and the press. I used to kind of admire his indifference to people, thinking it made him more cool, but this book doesn’t make him seem cool; it makes him seem angry and a mind manipulator. A guy who doesn’t feel nor show much affection for others.

Worse, he clenched to grudges and made people whom he felt wronged him suffer when he had the chance. The book reveals that when Bird was a kid he wanted the autograph of Dan Issel, an ABA star at the time, but Issel didn’t grant him one.

Bird never forgot this. Years later in an NBA game, he repeatedly fed the ball to teammate Kevin McHale who was dominating Issel so as to humiliate the opponent. In other situations, Bird would always make it a point to embarrass Issel on the court when guarded by him. It’s obvious Bird wanted to crush the spirit of the guy who had turned him away as a kid.

You may say, so what, that’s just normal professional athlete stuff, competing to beat the opponent. No, the way this comes across in the book is a guy wanting to inflict pain on another, which turns me off.

More that didn’t impress me

There’s another story in the book that made me less impressed with Bird. It’s well known that in the 1980s he won the NBA’s 3-Point Contest during All-Star Weekend. What he said afterward shows a guy crammed with arrogance and anger and antipathy towards people.

“I’m the new Three Point King. And the ones who didn’t think I could win could go to Hell.”

Stooping lower, days later he was at the hotel to collect money from several teammates who bet he wouldn’t win.

“If you don’t have your money. I’ll wait right here while you go back to your room and get it. The bus will wait for me. I’m the Three Point King.”

Larry didn’t have to be obnoxious about this while collecting on his bets. But he was. I realize many times he was a practical jokester but in this case and several others in the book, you think he’s being a jerk. It saddens me to now realize that’s who he was most of the time.

Cornbread Maxwell, who played on these teams with Bird, described the basketball savant’s relationships with teammates.

“There wasn’t anybody on the team who had a close relationship with Larry other than people who drank with him. [Rick] Robey and Quinn [Buckner] maybe. It was cultivated in that way, and I don’t think Kevin [McHale] had that relationship with him.”

Until reading this book, I thought Bird was a competitive guy who liked to trash talk on the court and had uncommon confidence in his abilities. And I admired that – and have been amazed by how great he was.

But this book has revealed a less attractive human being, a darker soul, more of a self-centered angry guy from a small town who feels he has to put people down when he talks, dig at them, play with their minds, to keep his edge, and he got away with it because he knew he could, because he had extraordinary talent.

This isn’t behavior I would want to see in my son. I wouldn’t be proud if I read a book in which my son grew up and acted the way Bird did in his book and said the things to people he said. I would be ashamed and feel I had not taught him the right way to treat people.

I’m not saying Larry Bird is a terrible human being – far from it. I am saying I learned in this book that’s he not as deserving of the high respect I’ve given to him all these years.

He’s just another guy, flawed in many ways. He was too mean in how he treated other people for my sensibilities.

He’ll never be, going forward, as big of a hero to me now that I’ve learned more about who he truly is.

Sammy Sportface

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Sammy Sportface

Sammy Sportface, a sports blogger, galvanizes, inspires, and amuses The Baby Boomer Brotherhood. And you can learn about his vision and join this group's Facebook page here: Sammy Sportface Has a Vision -- Check It Out Sammy Sportface -- The Baby Boomer Brotherhood Blog -- Facebook Page
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Sammy Sportface
Sammy Sportface
Sammy Sportface, a sports blogger, galvanizes, inspires, and amuses The Baby Boomer Brotherhood. And you can learn about his vision and join this group's Facebook page here:

Sammy Sportface Has a Vision -- Check It Out

Sammy Sportface -- The Baby Boomer Brotherhood Blog -- Facebook Page
Sammy Sportface

Sammy Sportface

Sammy Sportface, a sports blogger, galvanizes, inspires, and amuses The Baby Boomer Brotherhood. And you can learn about his vision and join this group's Facebook page here: Sammy Sportface Has a Vision -- Check It Out Sammy Sportface -- The Baby Boomer Brotherhood Blog -- Facebook Page

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