A ‘Ticked Off’ Larry Bird Quickly Grabbed the Leadership Role After the Boston Celtics Revolted Against Bill Fitch in 1983
Something wasn’t right with the Boston Celtics during the postseason in 1983. Yes, Larry Bird missed Game 2 of the conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks because he was sick, but that’s no excuse for getting swept by Milwaukee in the four-game series.
While the Celtics took two steps back after winning the championship in 1981, there was some internal discord that played a key role in that process. The players grew tired of head coach Bill Fitch’s ways and revolted against him. That’s when Bird stepped up and became the true leader of the Celtics.
Larry Bird instantly took charge on the court with the Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics played the patience game with Bird. Red Auerbach drafted the junior from Indiana State with the sixth overall pick in the 1978 NBA Draft. Bird elected to play his senior year in college, and the Celtics had to wait until the 1979-80 season to secure his services.
It was well worth the wait, however, as Bird took a Celtics team that won 29 games and turned it into one that compiled a league-leading 61 in his first NBA season. Bird scooped up Rookie of the Year honors by averaging 21.3 points and 10.4 rebounds and guiding the Celtics to the conference finals.
The following season, Auerbach pulled off a steal of a deal with the Golden State Warriors by landing veteran center Robert Parish and rookie Kevin McHale in exchange for the No. 1 and No. 13 picks in the 1980 NBA Draft. In their first season together, Bird, McHale, and Parish helped guide the Celtics to the first of three championships in the decade.
After the ’81 title, the Celtics failed to return to the championship round for the next two seasons. In 1982, they fell to the rival Philadelphia 76ers in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. The following year, the Bucks embarrassed them with the four-game sweep in the conference semis. It was clear something wasn’t right with Boston.
While the casual Celtics fan had no idea, the team had a problem with the way Fitch ran things in Boston. Many of the Celtics players turned on their coach.
‘Our goal in 1983 wasn’t to win a championship’
Former Celtics forward M.L. Carr was blunt when speaking about the mindset of some of the players from that 1983 team. They wanted Fitch gone.
“I’ll admit it,” he said in Jackie MacMullan’s book When the Game Was Ours. “Our goal in 1983 wasn’t to win a championship. It was to get rid of Fitch.”
None of this sat well with Bird, who quickly became more than just a leader on the court.
“I was ticked off,” Bird said, per MacMullan. “After (Game 4 of the Bucks series), I told Red, ‘Hey look, we’ve got no leadership here. If you want me to lead this team, I will. But we’ve got to get back to winning championships and forget all this other crap because it’s killing us.’ And I meant it.”
After venting to Auerbach, he laid into his teammates.
“Most of what he said was unprintable,” said former Celtics guard Quinn Buckner. “And he was very pointed in his comments. Most of the guys were looking around the room as if to say, ‘He’s not talking about me.’ But they must have gotten the message because everyone came back in better shape the next season.”
The Celtics went on to reach the NBA Finals the next four seasons, winning championships in 1984 and 1986.