As team president, Larry Legend had a ‘Birds’-eye view of James’ rapid ascension to superstardom. He also witnessed the transition of power in the East shift from his own Pacers to LeBron’s Cavs.
Bird, who’s now nine years removed from his tenure as president, has endless respect for LeBron. But that wasn’t enough for him to believe that anyone associated with the King was worth going after.
Larry Bird has a great fondness for LeBron James
During his playing days with the Boston Celtics, the 6-foot-9 Bird was a gifted scorer, playmaker, and rebounder. Basically, the three-time MVP was someone with great all-around ability and an even greater basketball IQ.
Over his 19 seasons, the 37-year-old James has exuded many of the same qualities that made Bird one of the greatest players of all time. Not only is LeBron one of the game’s all-time leaders in points, but he’s the only member of the 10K club in points, assists, and rebounds. Bird could have been the first to reach that benchmark had it not been for injuries that kept his career from extending beyond 13 seasons.
In 2012, Bird appeared on The B.S. Report with Bill Simmons and knew even then that James was the best player currently going.
“LeBron James is by far our best player in this league,” Bird told Simmons. “I don’t think there’s really anyone next to him. I think he’s there [in the top spot], then you go down the list.”
Bird refused to acquire any of LeBron’s teammates
With LBJ leading the way, the Cavaliers went from zero to hero. LeBron joined a 17-win Cavaliers team in ’03 and had them in the NBA Finals four years later. By his fifth season, Cleveland was winning 60+ games and sitting atop the Eastern Conference.
Much of Cleveland’s success in the mid-2000s came at the expense of Bird’s Pacers. Out of 20 regular-season matchups between the 2005-06 and 2009-10 seasons, Cleveland won 16 times over Indiana. Of course, LeBron was the main driving force for those Cavs. But he was surrounded by a collection of solid role players like Mo Williams, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, and Larry Hughes.
All were respected veterans, but none were guys Bird the executive sought to acquire.
On a 2018 episode of The Lowe Post podcast, host Zach Lowe read an excerpt from Ian Thomsen’s book The Soul of Basketball that detailed why Bird didn’t want anyone not named LeBron James from the title-contending Cavs.
“[Former Pacers GM David] Morway was trying to get me to trade for them [J.J. Hickson and a selection of other teammates of James], but I ain’t takin’ any of them f****** guys up there. I said ‘You don’t understand son. Them guys playing with LeBron James look a whole lot better than what they really are.'”Larry Bird
Thomsen, who was on with Lowe, also shared how Larry Legend held no ill-will toward James after the King left his sub-par teammates in Cleveland to sign with the Miami Heat in 2010.
“He was like ‘LeBron should do whatever he wants. He’s as good as any player I’ve ever seen,'” Thomsen said. “He said, ‘In fact, when he comes up here to play I just watch him the whole time.’”
Bird proved to be right about LeBron’s supporting cast
Do you want proof that the Cavaliers’ success from the 2000s can be attributed to James? Look no further than Cleveland’s 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons.
In 09-10, the King and his Cavs went 61-21, finishing with the best record in the East. After James’ controversial “Decision”, key veterans like Williams, Anderson Varejao, and Antawn Jamison stuck around for at least one more year in Cleveland.
The end result? An Eastern-Conference-worst 19-63 record.
To this day, Cleveland’s 42-game dropoff is the largest year-over-year decline in NBA history. Even worse than the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls, who finished 13-37 after Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen left town.
While some in Cleveland may have believed the Cavs had real talent surrounding James, Bird felt otherwise. And it took no time at all for the Hall of Famer’s opinion to immediately become validated.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.