Even After Smashing His Face Against the Pacers, Larry Bird Doesn’t Get Enough Credit for His Toughness
Larry Bird gets plenty of credit for his performance on the basketball court. He’s recognized as one of the best passing forwards ever, a clutch performer, and one of the best players in NBA history — possibly top five of all time.
What often gets overlooked about the Boston Celtics legend is his toughness. While Bird was never considered the most gifted athlete, he was under-the-radar tough. That was evident during a do-or-die meeting with the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of the first round of the 1991 playoffs.
Larry Bird was as tough as they come
Forget the three straight MVPs. Ignore his Rookie of the Year honor and how he turned a 29-win team into one that won 61 games in his first NBA season. Put aside the fact that Bird averaged a triple-double for his career. Larry Bird was more than just a great NBA player.
In his book Drive: The Story of My Life, Bird said his regular-season goal was “to play 82 consistently good basketball games a year.” For the first two seasons, he did just that. There was no load management. He never took a day off.
In his third season, Milwaukee Bucks forward Harvey Catchings leveled Bird with an inadvertent elbow to the face. He remained in the game but needed surgery and missed the first five games of his career. Doctors advised Bird to remain out of action until the stitches were removed, but he returned to the floor, coming off the bench for the remainder of the regular season.
Bird injured his back during the summer of 1985 and played much of the season in pain. Still, he managed to play all 82 games. He also won his third straight MVP after putting up 25.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game and guiding the Celtics to an NBA-best 67 wins. Boston defeated the Houston Rockets in the 1986 NBA Finals for their third title of the decade.
Despite back, elbow, and facial injuries, Bird missed a total of 13 games in his first seven years in the league. He had surgery on both heels during the 1988-89 season and was limited to six games.
Bird’s toughess hit a peak during the 1991 playoffs
Bird had been through it all. Injuries took their toll during his Hall of Fame career, and he played in pain for much of the second half of his 13-year NBA life. Bird’s toughness became evident during a matchup with the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of the 1991 playoffs.
It was the rubber match of the best-of-five series that saw a tough Pacers team that included Reggie Miller, Detlef Schrempf, and Chuck Person square off against an aging Celtics team. Game 5 took place in Boston, with the series tied at two games apiece.
With 4:30 remaining in the second quarter and the Celtics leading 48-46, Bird dove for a loose ball and smacked his right cheek against the parquet floor. He remained cheek to the floor as play continued. Bird finally got up during a stoppage in play and gingerly made his way to the locker room. He had 15 points at the time.
He stayed out the remainder of the half and did not come out for the start of the second. With 6:46 left in the third quarter and the Celtics leading 73-71, Bird emerged from the locker room to a rousing ovation from the sold-out Garden crowd. While Boston fans wondered if their player would return, Bird knew he’d be back.
“They were pumped up, and I wasn’t going to let them down,” Bird said of the fans after the game, per United Press International. “I was coming back no matter what.”
Bird scored 12 points in the third quarter and finished with 32. He added nine rebounds and seven assists in Boston’s 124-121 victory.