NBA: Why an Artist Put Tattoos on Larry Bird, and Why He Hated It

Back in the 1980s, when you saw basketball players running down the court, you probably didn’t notice their tattoos as much as today. That’s because they didn’t have them like the players of today. Big hair was popular, mustaches were popular, but not tattoos. So, when an artist decided it was time for NBA and Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird to have a few, well, he wasn’t happy.

Back home in Indiana

Indiana State and Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird was not pleased when a mural artist added tattoos to his image.
Larry Bird made a name for himself at Indiana State before doing the same with the Boston Celtics. | Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Larry Bird was born in West Baden Springs, Indiana, and raised in neighboring French Lick. He played ball for Springs Valley High before moving on to Indiana State. He is a legend in Indiana, where they continue to honor him, such as in Terre Haute, home to Indiana State, where they are building a museum in his honor. In Indianapolis, a property-owner wanted a mural of Bird painted on the side of a building. That is where he got his tattoos.

The mural artist, Jules Muck, rendered a Sports Illustrated cover photo of Bird dressed in his baby blue uniform from Indiana State. But, Muck thought the mural was missing something. Ah, tattoos. So, she chose to paint a cardinal on his cheek, fornicating bunnies on his arm, and “Hoosier” surrounding his collar bone, to name a few.

Bird was not happy and called his attorney.

“Larry’s position is he has elevated himself from where he began to where he is now through a lot of hard work,” Bird’s lawyer, Gary Sallee, said. “He has developed a brand that is marketable, and he needs to protect that brand. The mural, as originally painted, was a departure from that brand.”

Larry Bird elevates himself

Celtics legend Larry Bird was not pleased when a mural artist added tattoos to his image.
Larry Bird worked hard to become a legend.| Christopher Evans/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

Bird grew up poor. He has said that drove him to work harder. Every morning, before school, Bird would take 200 practice shots at the hoop, according to Listverse. He lost his father to suicide when he was 18, before entering Indiana University. Some accounts say Bird was unhappy with the enormity of that school’s environment. Others say he returned home due to a lack of funding. At any rate, he left the school quickly.

But, Indiana State’s head coach, Bill Hodges, pursued Bird to enroll there, and he did. He led his college team to a 33-0 record. And, it was through that college team that he met Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who was playing for Michigan State. While Michigan and Johnson won the 1979 NCAA championship between the budding rivals, Bird had earned the USBWA College Player of the Year Award, the Naismith Award, and the Wooden Award his senior year.

Making NBA history

Prior to that senior year, Boston took Bird sixth overall in the NBA draft, but he elected to stay in school and graduate. The Celtics patiently waited. The 6-foot-9 forward finally made his debut with the Boston team later that year. Nearly 22,000 points, 21,791 to be exact, 8,974 rebounds, 5,695 assists, and 13 seasons later, his professional playing days ended.

Bird attended the 1992 Barcelona summer Olympics and played on the U.S. Men’s Dream Team alongside Johnson, Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, and others. The team won the Gold that year. Then Bird announced his retirement.

Following the Olympics, Bird had his second back surgery. He had undergone heel surgery on each foot early in his career. And, in a 1993 home game, the Celtics retired Bird’s No. 33 jersey.

Larry Bird’s life after playing in the NBA

Bird coached the Indiana Pacers from 1997-2000. In 1998, he won NBA Coach of the Year. Following coaching, Bird served as president for basketball operations with the team, from which he resigned in 2012. He returned a year later, for an additional four years through 2017.

In June 2019, 40 years after they met on that NCAA championship court, Bird and Johnson were honored as co-recipients of the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award during the 2019 NBA Awards. Teammates from that 1992 Dream Team and each a three-time NBA Most Valuable Player during their careers, Bird and Johnson have a long-held rivalry and friendship, which will likely never be matched.

Bird is also the only person in history to be named NBA MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year.

Oh, about those tattoos

The artist, Muck, said it was not her intent to disrespect Bird. She was just taking her usual whimsical approach to her work. Nor was it her job to develop a mural of prestige in tribute to his career.

“This is another human being that is obviously not liking it,” Muck said, as reported by UPI. “If he was happy and thought it was funny, that’s a different story. … It’s nothing personal against Larry. I actually think it’s funnier to put tattoos on people who don’t have them.

“Larry deserves some sort of prestigious mural. That’s not my calling. That’s not what I’m here to do. I just wanted to have a little fun.”

In the end, Muck agreed to remove all of her painted tattoos, except for the one on his left arm, which states the name of his home state, “Indiana.” Larry Bird is happy with that.