During their time on the hardwood, few NBA names were bigger than Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Both men were incredibly talented and had supreme confidence in their own abilities. And while the two men teamed up on a few famous occasions, MJ could still frustrate Larry Legend.
Take, for example, an encounter when Bird had retired and started coaching the Pacers. After seeing his players crumble before his eyes, the legend realized that one man was to blame: His Airness. With that in mind, the Indiana bench boss issued his player an unequivocal challenge: “Knock Michael Jordan flat on his butt.”
When it came time to execute that plan, though, no one could follow through. Jordan, it seems, was both figuratively and literally untouchable.
Larry Bird remembered how frustrating it was to coach against Michael Jordan
When he was with the Celtics, Larry Bird destroyed plenty of opposition game plans with his sheer brilliance. After swapping his jersey for a suit and tie, he came to realize just how those coaches felt.
“One of the most frustrating games of my short coaching career was when we played Chicago at the United Center during my first season,” Bird explained in his 1999 book Bird Watching. “Every guy on my team was turning down shots. They were completely out of sync. It was a difficult game for me to watch, because my guys kept hesitating. I didn’t know why they did that. I had never seen them do that before. Then I realized — it was Michael Jordan. My team was convinced they couldn’t beat the Bulls as long as Jordan was there.”
Bird wasn’t about to let his squad beat itself, so he called a team meeting. He asked his players if they ever saw anyone challenge Jordan and explained that everyone in the Association was afraid of His Airness. “If you took Michael Jordan somewhere else in the world, and took the name off the back of his jersey, and put him out there where nobody knew who he was, guys would be beating on him and banging him,” Larry Legend explained. “But here, it’s ‘Hey, isn’t he amazing?'”
With that lesson in mind, the coach had a challenge for his players: Treat Jordan like he was anyone else. In practice, though, executing that scheme was impossible for the Pacers to pull off.
I told my guys, “The next time we play Chicago, I want you to knock Michael Jordan flat on his butt if you get the chance. That’s part of the game, understand?” But they wouldn’t do it. He had them too psyched out. Michael Jordan played the mind game better than almost anyone. He really knew how to get inside people’s heads.Larry Bird, Bird Watching
Even if that’s the case, though, Bird’s Pacers held their own against the Bulls during the 1997-98 campaign. The clubs split the season series 2-2 and, during the postseason, it took Chicago all seven games to win an Eastern Conference Finals showdown.
Bird’s experience helps underscore just how dominant Michael Jordan was
At this point, it’s not exactly a hot take to argue that Michael Jordan was good at basketball. None of us, however, have ever taken the court with him in an NBA game. Through that lens, Bird’s story adds some valuable perspective to MJ’s mythos.
As fans, we’ve seen the highlights. We’ve heard the stories about trash talk, the Flu Game, and other feats of basketball heroism. From afar, though, it’s easy to write those things off as all part of the legend. Like the fish that got away, maybe Jordan is simply getting better and better each time a tall tale is retold.
Bird’s experience as a coach, however, helps place things in a context. While there’s still some room for exaggeration, the forward faced Jordan and knew exactly what his players were dealing with. Hearing his take about how no one, including his Pacers, was capable of treating His Airness like any other opponent, adds makes everything seem a bit more tangible. You can almost picture defenders giving MJ an extra half-step of space, not wanting to be the next one to end up on a poster.
That understanding can make Jordan seem even more impressive. It’s one thing to be incredibly talented, but it’s another to strike fear in the entire Association. As the cliche says, game recognizes game. If other players were that afraid of the Chicago Bulls star, he had to be all that.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference