On March 12, 1985, the defending champions the Boston Celtics arrived in New Orleans to face the Atlanta Hawks (a bizarre home game, away from home for the Hawks). Something about New Orleans must have agreed with Boston’s Larry Bird, who made scoring look like a “Big Easy” on his way to a career-high 60 points.
Bizarrely, Bird’s decimation of Atlanta drew not only the appreciation of fans during the game, but also from the Hawks bench. In the second half, as Larry continued to score in a flurry, the Atlanta subs got more and more animated in their responses to each additional bucket from number 33.
It’s a testament to Bird’s greatness that his opposition reacted like fans to his performance. The Hawks coach, Mike Fratello, didn’t share in his bench’s enthusiasm, though. Boston.com quotes Fratello as venting, “I didn’t appreciate the way they handled it, I let them know that, and we moved on. A lesson learned. Their lesson was that they got fined”.
So how was Larry such a successful scorer in the NBA? Even by 1980’s standard, Bird was not particularly quick or athletic. His weapons though were vast - an incredible basketball IQ, unbelievable passing vision, the ability to score with either hand from almost anywhere, alongside his work ethic and confidence (which at the time was only rivalled by Magic Johnson’s).
The Celtics’ great was worshiped for the number of ways he could score. He could go left, right, inside or outside with devastating effect. But his biggest threat was his jump shot.
Birds consistent ability to knock down shots saw him reach the elite 50-40-90 club (shooting percentages from the field, three-point range and free throws) in both ‘86-87 and ’87-88. He’s one of only two players ever to achieve this feat more than once.
The other is Steve Nash, though expect to add Steph Curry to that if he finishes this season on his current form.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, Bird wasn’t considered to be as good a shooter in the NBA as he was in college. The reason? A softball accident prior to his rookie season mangled his shooting hand (particularly the index finger) so badly that he hid it from the Celtics, until after he negotiated his rookie contract.
The injury is still visible to this day and resulted in Bird having to adjust his shooting form to compensate and bring his shooting arm further towards his right shoulder.
His jumper was so far distorted from what is taught to be a fundamentally sound technique (think Klay Thompson), that we will likely never see anything similar again – and even less likely to the same degree of success.
But this distortion actually benefitted Bird. The exaggeration of his lead foot streamlined his shooting arm towards the hoop. His wide guide arm created a larger viewing “window” to hone in on his target.
Whilst he still maintained a 45° angle on his shooting arm, his elbow was much higher than shoulder height meaning his release point was from behind his head – which is a much more difficult position for the defender to block and negated any lack of jumping ability.
That’s pretty impressive, to say the least. Oh, and did I mention that Bird, who shot right handed, was naturally a southpaw? He had considered switching shooting hands after his injury and would invariably set challenges for himself to use his left hand where possible. That’s how much of a basketball savant Bird was.
They say that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Larry Legend was a perfect example of how when talent works hard, it can conquer almost anything.