Larry Bird’s Biggest Impact on the NBA Came in the Rulebook, Not on the Court

When examining the size of Larry Bird’s footprint on the NBA, one might best look from inside the International Space Station. He was a Hall of Fame player, a successful coach, and a long-tenured executive. There’s not a lot that Bird didn’t accomplish in the NBA.

But for all of the impact Bird had as a player, coach, and exec, the most enduring part of his legacy may be in the NBA rules themselves. He was personally responsible for two major policy shifts during his playing career.

He had nothing to do with the policy decisions, but he was the impetus behind at least one change that still has repercussions in today’s NBA.

Yes, Larry Bird is why the free-agency exception is called ‘Bird rights’

The NBA and the players association agreed to the league’s first salary cap for the 1983–84 season. However, contrary to popular belief, the Boston Celtics were not the first team afforded relief by what came to be known as the Larry Bird exception. That provision allows teams to exceed the salary cap to retain their free agents.

Bird signed a seven-year contract before the 1983–84 season, so he was already accounted for on the cap sheet. However, Celtics president Red Auerbach used the new loophole to secure several other pieces of the 1980s powerhouse in Boston.

The Celtics did use their Bird rights to retain Bird on an extension in 1988.

Bird also has a fingerprint on the NBA Draft process

Larry Bird after he signed with the Boston Celtics in 1979
Larry Bird of Indiana State is all smiles with general manager Red Auerbach, after signing with the Boston Celtics. | Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics took advantage of a seldom-used draft rule in 1978 to secure negotiating rights to Indiana State star Larry Bird. He had already decided to return to school for his senior season in 1978–79, and Auerbach’s Celtics won just 32 games the previous season, giving Boston the sixth overall pick. So rather than taking a player to sign for the present, Auerbach went a different direction.

He selected Bird under a provision called the junior-eligible rule. That allowed teams to draft collegiate juniors whether they had applied for the draft or not. The team would then have until the day before the following year’s draft to sign the player. Boston selected Bird as a junior-eligible. The Celtics signed him to a then-record five-year deal a little more than two weeks before the 1979 draft.

That rule was eliminated in May 1979 and took effect for the 1980 NBA draft. A Chicago Bulls owner at the time said it was directly because of the Larry Bird situation, according to the Chicago Sun-Times (via The Draft Review).

“This way, there will be no pressure on a kid from a pro team while he’s still playing college ball. There’s an NCAA rule against a kid having an agent while he still has eligibility, so a guy like Bird had to deal with things completely on his own.”

Chicago Bulls majority partner Jonathan Kovler

Despite that hardship, Bird turned out OK.

Larry Bird and the stacks of hardware

In 1983–84, Larry Bird won the first of his three NBA MVP trophies. He later joined a rare group to win three years in a row. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain are the only other members of that particular club. Bird was also the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1979–80, was a two-time NBA Finals MVP, and for good measure took home an All-Star Game MVP as well. Then there’s the whole Dream Team thing.

Later, Bird was named Coach of the Year in his first season leading the Indiana Pacers. His Pacers won 19 more games than the previous season. They later took Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Bird led Indiana back to the conference finals in 1999, where they were upset by the New York Knicks. The Pacers made their only NBA Finals appearance in 2000, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers. When he took the job, Bird said he would coach for three years. He was true to his word, resigning after the Finals.

In 2003, he moved into Indiana’s front office, where he was their personnel decision-maker for nine seasons. In 2011–12, Bird was named the NBA’s Executive of the Year. Yes, he’s the only man in history with MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year trophies.

Larry Bird was a game-changer on the court, on the sidelines, and in the front office. But his impact spread from there into the very rules of the game, as well.

Statistics and biographical information courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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