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In 1991, Larry Bird‘s career with the Boston Celtics was rapidly nearing its end.

After years of injuries and a debilitating back issue, Bird found himself laboring to stay on the floor. He managed to play 60 games and made the All-Star team during the 1990-91 campaign. However, Larry Legend posted his lowest scoring average (19.4) and field-goal percentage (45.4%) over the course of a full season.

An aging Bird had an impossible time carrying a Celtics franchise on the brink of transition. Yet even when the Hick from French Lick looked finished during a first-round series against the Indiana Pacers, he displayed the kind of toughness that made him one of the most storied and revered figures in NBA history.

Larry Bird smacked his head in the deciding game of a first-round series between the Celtics and Pacers

Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird waits by the scorer's table during an NBA game in 1991
Celtics star Larry Bird sits at scorer’s table as he prepares to reenter a game | Bob Stowell/Getty Images

Bird’s body had already been through the wringer through the first four games of Boston’s 1991 first-round series against the Indiana Pacers.

The Celtics legend shot just 6-of-20 from the field in Game 1. But he posted a triple-double and valiantly steered Boston to a win with tremendous hustle. In fact, he exerted so much energy that his back flared up, necessitating a trip to the local hospital.

Despite the heroism, Bird struggled to find his game. He shot a combined 11-of-31 in the next two games and found his team needing a deciding contest when the Pacers won Game 4.

Things didn’t start auspiciously for Bird in Game 5.

Late in the second quarter, Larry Legend got stripped as he pulled up for a jumper at the free-throw line. He dove for the ball, subsequently slamming his head on the parquet floor. Bird lay motionless on the hardwood as the Pacers raced to the other end of the court. Eventually, he was taken to the locker room for evaluation.

Doctors questioned the Hall of Famer’s return. However, true to his unrelenting nature, Bird had not finished his closing act.

Bird defied medical recommendations and triumphantly led the Celtics to a win

Celtics team doctors believed Larry Bird may have suffered a concussion from his fall. Larry Legend said (h/t The Athletic) that they lobbied to keep Bird off the floor.

“The doctor told me I probably had a concussion and they didn’t think I should go out there with both the back and the damage I did to my brain. I rattled it a little bit.”

–Larry Bird, via The Athletic

So much for that.

The old Boston Garden erupted when Bird came out of the tunnel midway through the third quarter. Former Celtics head coach Chris Ford even called timeout so his aging star could receive the curtain call he deserved.

But while the 34-year-old surely appreciated the gesture, he still had a job to do. In classic Bird fashion, he rose to the occasion.

Bird scored 12 points to close out the third quarter and helped the Celtics open up a 14-point lead with just over eight minutes remaining in the final period. Ford sat Bird down for a breather, only for the Pacers to come roaring back. Indiana cut the lead all the way to three at the end of the game. Fortunately for the C’s and their fans, Chuck Person’s game-tying three-point attempt clanged off the rim.

So sealed an iconic performance. Bird finished with 32 points on 12-of-19 shooting, adding nine rebounds and seven assists. As strong as the numbers were, though, Bird’s steely determination symbolized his incomparable toughness.

Gutting his way through pain


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Larry Bird played through pain during his entire Celtics career. That’s not an exaggeration.

Bird suffered a hand injury before he ever played a game for Boston. He had to alter his shooting form and never had the same feel for the ball after the injury but still put together one of the greatest careers in history.

In 1982, Larry Legend took a brutal elbow to the face during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks. The same thing happened against the Cleveland Cavaliers later in his career. Before the back injuries came into play, Bird dealt with foot issues, including a bad toe and heel surgeries that forced him to miss nearly the entirety of the 1988-89 season.

Then there’s the fact that the Hick from French Lick played in the most physical era in NBA history. He wasn’t afraid to mix things up either, fighting with heated rivals such as the Philadelphia 76ers (even during preseason), Detroit Pistons, and Los Angeles Lakers. Heck, Bird even got in a bar fight during the 1985 playoffs.

Some guys simply act tough, but their track records expose fraudulence. Bird lived and breathed toughness, backing it all up with spectacular play. He did so right up until the very end of his career.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.