When you think of Larry Bird, it’s almost impossible to think of him wearing anything other than a Boston Celtics uniform. Yes, the forward did burst onto the scene with the Indiana State Sycamores and, after retiring, headed to the sidelines to coach the Indiana Pacers, but he made his name wearing kelly green and white.
But did you know that things could have turned out quite a bit differently?
Yes, you read that correctly. If not for some financial misfortune, the Pacers could have selected Larry Legend ahead of the Celtics during the 1978 NBA draft. Even if it’s impossible to know how things would have panned out, it’s safe to assume that pivot point changed the course of NBA history.
Financial fears kept the Pacers from drafting Larry Bird
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems incredible that Larry Bird was the sixth overall pick of the 1978 NBA draft. If things had gone a bit differently in Indiana, however, the Pacers could have changed that.
As Dana Hunsinger Benbow explained in an Indianapolis Star story, Nancy Leonard, former Pacers assistant general manager and wife of then Pacers coach and general manager Bobby “Slick” Leonard, had her eyes set on Bird.
“It was a disaster,” Nancy explained. “I will never forget one second of that draft, and this is something I haven’t really talked publicly about.”
As the story goes, the Leonards had done their due diligence ahead of the draft and realized that Bird could be a franchise-changing talent. When it came time for Nancy to make her case to the team’s board, though, they weren’t sold.
“They said, ‘Well, we can’t do that,'” Nancy recalls. “I said, ‘Why?’
“We’ll never be able to get the money, and we’ll lose him,” the board told her. At the time, the Pacers were in financial straits.Dana Hunsinger Benbow writing for the Indianapolis Star
The finances were so bad that the year prior, Slick Leonard had to mastermind a telethon in order to keep the franchise afloat (h/t the Indianapolis Star). That experience had left the club’s brass a bit gun-shy and, despite Nancy’s explanation that Bird would either boost ticket sales or be a tradable asset, they were unmoved.
“I couldn’t make them see how valuable he was,” she recalled. “We could have had a wonderful gold coin in the palm of our hands. … They were panicked.”
Instead, the Pacers drafted Rick Robey; one board member’s daughter went to Kentucky and apparently claimed that he was as good as Bird. Needless to say, she was not correct, and the Pacers learned that the hard way.
Without getting too far down the rabbit hole, it’s safe to say that decision changed NBA history
Since a different draft pick would have set off an entire chain reaction, it’s impossible to know exactly what would have happened had Indiana had the nerve to draft Larry Bird. It’s safe to assume, however, that both the Pacers and the Celtics would have found themselves in much different places.
During the 1980-81 season, the Pacers reached the postseason but lost in the first round. They wouldn’t return to the playoffs until 1986-87, when they lost in the first round again before beginning another drought. While Bird probably wouldn’t have been able to raise those squads to a championship level, his presence would have made things a bit easier; perhaps you’d see some seasons closer to .500 and a few more playoff cameos. If nothing else, the club could have traded their young star, as Nancy Leonard noted.
On the Celtics side of things, the hypotheticals get a bit more complicated. While the club did possess some talented players, Bird immediately elevated the group. Let’s take the 1980-81 squad that won the championship as an example. Four players beyond Bird (Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell, Nate Archibald, and Kevin McHale) averaged double-digit points per outing, so Boston wouldn’t have completely fallen off the map, but it’s possible they would have failed to reach the NBA summit without Larry Legend’s 21.2 points and 10.9 rebounds per night.
Beyond that, the ripples of the butterfly effect keep going. If the Celtics don’t win those championships, do the Los Angeles Lakers claim a few more titles? Or would someone else have emerged from the power vacuum of the east? Perhaps Bird himself spends a few unhappy years in Indy before being dealt to another franchise. There, maybe he’d have elevated them to championship status.
At this point, though, there’s no way to know what would have happened. For better or worse, Bird played for the Celtics, then returned to the midwest to work for the Pacers.