As a Rookie, Larry Bird Turned Around a Struggling Boston Celtics Franchise but Still Wound Up Being Severely Disappointed
The Boston Celtics gambled with Larry Bird. Red Auerbach drafted the Indiana State star with the sixth overall pick as a junior in 1978, knowing he’d likely want to play out his senior year with the Sycamores, which he did. The Celtics held Bird’s rights until the 1979 NBA Draft. If the two sides couldn’t strike a deal before then, Bird would head back into the draft.
After some heated negotiations, the Celtics made Bird the highest-paid rookie ever in the NBA. As a rookie, he took a team that won 29 games the previous season and turned it into a league-leading 61-win squad. Despite the massive turnaround, Bird was highly disappointed when the season ended.
Larry Bird showed his worth as a rookie with the Boston Celtics
In his first season with the Boston Celtics, Bird made an immediate impact. He played all 82 games, averaging 36 minutes, and put up 21.3 points and 10-4 rebounds per game. He was named Rookie of the Year.
The year before Bird came to town, the Celtics finished the season with a 29-53 record. Bird increased Boston’s win total by 32 by leading the Celtics to a 61-21 record. The Celtics finished two games ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference and had one more victory than the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Rookie of the Year was just the beginning of the numerous awards Bird achieved throughout his 13-year NBA career. He was an All-Star every year except the 1988-89 season. That year he was limited to six games before undergoing surgery on both heels.
Bird was a three-time MVP, winning the award three straight seasons (1984-1986). During that stretch, the Celtics won championships in 1984 and 1986.
Bird was All-NBA 10 times and is a member of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998.
Despite the strong turnaround, Bird was highly disappointed after the season
The Celtics were the top seed in the Eastern Conference and swept the Houston Rockets (then in the Eastern Conference) in the conference semifinals. They then squared off against the 76ers, who sent an early message by beating the Celtics in Boston. The Celtics were never able to bounce back, falling in five games.
“When we got down three games to one, the press asked, ‘What are you guys going to do?'” Bird wrote in his book Drive: The Story of My Life. “I figured, no problem. We’ll beat them at home, for sure, and then go back over there and take care of business. We had played so well the week before against Houston that I was sure we’d snap out of it. So Philly came into town and beat us again. End of season.”
Bird admitted he was worn out and disappointed after the season.
“Someone told me, ‘You look tired,'” Bird wrote. “He was right. I was tired. I was really worn out. When that series was over, it was raining in Boston, and I just stayed home and slept for three or four days. I really felt bad about getting beaten so early.”
Bird said he used that Philly series as motivation for the next season.
“I didn’t like the feeling of losing, and that served as motivation for me the following season,” he wrote. “I didn’t feel right until we won the championship that second year. It honestly took me that long to get over it because I believed we had a better team than the one that played against Philly.”
The Celtics went on to defeat the Sixers in the conference finals the following season and knocked off the Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals.