Skip to main content

Boston Celtics fans had their patience tested after the team selected Larry Bird with the sixth overall pick in the 1978 NBA Draft. At the time, Bird was a junior, but he elected to play out his senior year at Indiana State, meaning the Celtics held his rights until the following year’s draft.

Negotiations between Bird and the Celtics lingered. They got heated and went down to the wire. Bird said he found out about how passionate Celtics fans really were during one of his early visits to Boston while negotiations were ongoing.

The Boston Celtics made Larry Bird the highest-paid rookie in the league

The wait was well worth it for the Boston Celtics. Red Auerbach and Bob Woolf, Bird’s agent, hammered out a deal that made Celtics fans a little antsy. The deal was struck in June 1979, the month of the ’79 draft, and made Bird the highest-paid rookie in NBA history. Had a deal not been reached, Bird would have gone back into the draft, and the Celtics would have forfeited his rights.

Although those talks between Woolf and Auerbach got hot at times, Woolf once told Sports Illustrated they were “civil.” Auerbach walked out of Woolf’s office four times on deal day. The two negotiated for four hours on the day an agreement was reached.

“It was very civil,” said Woolf in October 1979. “He’d blow up, then we’d work some more. Red goes through life like hot lava.” 

Bird signed a five-year deal worth $650,000 per year, and it turned out to be quite a steal. In his first year in the NBA, Bird guided the Celtics to a 61-win season. The previous year, Boston won 29 games. Bird earned Rookie of the Year honors after averaging 21.3 points and 10.4 rebounds.

In his second season, aided by a franchise-altering trade with the Golden State Warriors, Bird and the Celtics won the first of three championships of the decade. Bird won three straight MVPs from 1984 to 1986 and helped the Celtics reach the NBA Finals each year between 1984 and 1987.

Bird said he found out how passionate Celtics fans were during an early visit to Boston


Larry Bird Winning Rookie of the Year Still Annoys Magic Johnson

Before he inked his record-setting rookie deal, Bird visited Boston to see what he’d be getting himself into. He admitted he didn’t know much about the Celtics, and he had no idea how bad they were the year before he made his debut.

“I thought people that I met on the streets would be polite and say, ‘Hope you can play for us,’ Bird recalled in his book Drive: The Story of My Life. Instead, they were saying, ‘You’ve got to come here. We’ll never make it without you.’ I mean, these people really sounded desperate.

“I had recently learned of the Celtics’ previous season record of 29-53, but I had seriously underestimated the public’s perception of me as the “savior” of the Boston Celtics franchise.

“For the first time, I realized what a tremendous following the Celtics had, and I knew that if I did come to play for Boston, I’d really be thrown into the fire. I knew that I would be stepping into something big. When I returned home, I told (wife) Dinah, ‘I didn’t know what I was getting into until I went out there. You won’t believe what it’s like.”