Larry Bird is one of the greatest competitors the game has ever seen. From his incredible work ethic to his trash talking and pain tolerance, Bird is truly one of a kind. Wanting to win more than anything, Bird would grit his teeth through nearly everything and carry on so that he could lead his team to victory. This blog post features six stories of Bird that show just how tough he truly was.
Disclaimer: The stories of how Bird masked and fought through pain are incredible, but were not always wise decisions. This blog attempts to capture how Bird endured pain, not endorse it. Do not attempt any of this at home.
#6: The Finger
Bird was drafted by the Boston Celtics after his junior season of college. However, instead of turning pro, Bird had made a promise to his mother that he would get his degree and stay all four years at college. Red Auerbach, suspecting this, decided that Bird was worth the wait and waited for him to turn pro after his final year of college. After losing to Magic Johnson in the 1979 NCAA Championship, Bird had one thing to do before reporting to Boston. Majoring in Physical Education, Bird would become a physical education and health teacher, as well as an assistant baseball coach at West Vigo High School, located in Terre Haute, Indiana. After Bird was done teaching for the day, he would often play basketball or fill in for a missing player on the softball team. Unfortunately, one of these softball games would turn into his doom, as when playing in left field, Bird tried to catch a fly ball. He caught it successfully, but the ball smashed into his finger and bent it backwards. In his own words, “I looked down, and my finger was all the way over to the other side of my end.” After his brother nearly barfed looking at the grotesquely bent finger, Bird was rushed to the emergency room. Although given a splint, Bird kept going on with his normal day activities, until he was summoned by a doctor in Indianapolis.
At the doctor’s office, Bird was told that his right knuckle was shattered, and that he would need surgery to get it stabilized. When Bird asked the surgeon later how long it would take until it was healed, the surgeon said, “Healed? Son, I’m not sure it will.” This jeopardized Bird’s career with the Celtics, as Red Auerbach and the team thought he may be damaged goods. The Celtics’ physician, Thomas Silva, said that the knuckle would never fully heal, matching the words of the surgeon in Indianapolis. While Bird’s range of motion would forever be off, Auerbach told Bird to get on a court and start shooting. Bird buried all of his shots, and in doing so convinced Auerbach that they should keep him. Auerbach would later say, “If he was in pain, he did a pretty good job of disguising it. He was one tough kid.” Regardless, Bird would never shoot the same as he did at Indiana State. While he still made some memorable highlights (such as the 1986 three-point contest), if you really want to look for Bird’s best days, you may want to find clips of him in college. 30 years after the injury, Bird confirmed, “I never could shoot as well again.”
#5: Harvey “Catches” Bird with an Elbow
During a game in 1982, Bird went up for a rebound against the Milwaukee Bucks. Unfortunately, big man Harvey Catchings was going up for the rebound at the same time. Although they both stood at 6’9″, Catchings was a center and more accustomed to battling his way for boards. Catchings elbowed Bird on the side of the cheek (though we don’t know if it was intentional or unintentional). Bird was in an excruciating amount of pain, and this may have been because his skull was depressed by the blow! However, Bird would not allow himself to come out of the game, and played through it until the buzzer at the end of the 4th quarter. From there, Dr. Silva forced him to go to the hospital, where doctors drilled inside Bird’s head so they could “pop his zygotic arch back out,” or in normal words, pop out his skull.
#4: Larry’s Little Toe
In 1985, Bird began to feel pain in his toes. Bird being Bird ignored the pain for three weeks until it got too serious to ignore. Going to Dr. Silva, he was told that he had a very serious infection, and that he was going to have to cut it open to let the infection drain out. Dr. Silva said that he would give Bird novocain, but Bird just said, “Nah, just give me one of those beers over there.” Bird would play in the game that night, however when it was over, his sock was soaked in blood. This prompted M.L. Carr to say, “I swear to God, they carved him up like he was John Wayne. Toughest guy I’ve ever seen.”
#3: Dell Curry and the Eye
In the mid 1980s, Bird had already suffered some serious injuries, but he was still in his prime, winning championships and MVPs almost effortlessly. However, in one of those games, Dell Curry, father of Stephen Curry (two-time MVP), elbowed Bird in the eye (most likely by accident) and fractured his eye orbiter. Bird would end up with double vision, and as he would later say, “I was seeing two baskets. I had to guess which one to shoot at.” Despite the horrible injury, Bird would stay in the game, and more often than not, guess the right basket. Towards the end of the game, blood dripped from Bird’s nostril, and when he blew his nose, his eye protruded grotesquely.
#2: The Aw, Hell Game
It was the first round, Game Five of the 1991 NBA Playoffs. The Boston Celtics were matched up against the Indiana Pacers, and injuries were bothering old Larry once more. In a game where Bird wasn’t even sure he would play (it was a game time decision due to some back injuries), Bird, being the team player he was, dove for a loose ball. Unfortunately, he would bang his head on the ground and fall unconscious. Luckily, Bird regained consciousness, but he was escorted off the floor and into the trainer’s room. The team physician diagnosed him with a concussion, and it was clear to him that Bird was out for the rest of the game.
In the second half, Bird started getting antsy as the Celtics were losing the lead that he had worked so hard to gain. Bird asked the team’s new physician, Arnold Scheller, “Doc, should I go back in?” Scheller replied, “Larry, I think you’ve done enough.”
Larry’s response: “Aw, hell.” He then ran back onto the court, where the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Once Bird got into the game, they would go on a 33-14 run and win. Keep in mind, Bird was playing through a concussion!
#1: The Back
Bird’s back plagued him throughout his entire NBA career. From the early 1980s to the early 1990s, Bird’s back was one of the few things he couldn’t control on the court. While many different back issues resurfaced through his career, the ones he had towards the end of his career, particularly in 1992, were the most devastating. Bird’s back kept him from traveling to the 1992 All-Star weekend, and his back was in such bad condition that he spent a lot of time in a fiberglass body brace that extended from his upper torso to his hips. After he was in good enough condition that his doctors told him it was of no more use, Bird went into his backyard and blasted the brace with a shotgun. Although pain would later flair up in a couple of months, Bird would decide against his doctors wishes to fly to LA to speak when Magic Johnson’s number was retired at halftime in a game against (who else) the Boston Celtics.
These sorts of moments would bind Magic and Bird together, so that whenever someone would talk to one of them, one of the first things they asked was, “How’s Magic?” or, “How’s Larry?” I’m sure Kevin McHale and James Worthy were each slightly disappointed, but they understood.
Bird’s ability to play through pain was unmatched and will most likely forever be unmatched. Make sure to follow the blog if you liked this post and want more, and as always, have an awesome day!