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While salaries were a bit different during the 1980s, the top NBA talents will always command the largest salaries. During his prime, few men were more talented than Larry Bird. Thanks to that reality, the Boston Celtics forward took home just over $24 million in game checks; that couldn’t erase his childhood memories, though.

Although he eventually grew into an NBA star and multi-millionaire, Bird never forgot what it was like to grow up poor in French Lick, Indiana. In fact, his childhood “motivated” him throughout his entire career.

Larry Bird’s rise to basketball stardom

These days, basketball fans revere Larry Bird as a living basketball legend. At one point, though, he almost left the hardwood for good.

After establishing himself as a big name on the high school scene, Bird headed to the University of Indiana to play his college ball. The on-campus scene in Bloomington, however, didn’t resonate with the forward; before playing a single game, he decided to withdraw and return to French Lick.

Back at home and without college basketball to occupy his time, Bird began working as a garbage man. Indiana State University basketball coach Bill Hodges, however, didn’t give up on the forward and convinced him to join the Sycamores squad.

Once he suited up for NCAA action, Bird became a legitimate star. While he became a household name thanks to his duel with Magic Johnson in the 1979 NCAA national title game, the forward brought his A-game every night. During his three seasons at Indiana State, he averaged 30.3 points per game and claimed the 1979 National Player of the Year crown.

Becoming a star with the Boston Celtics

After Larry Bird’s impressive junior season, the Boston Celtics selected him with the sixth pick of the 1978 NBA draft. While there was some talk about him returning to college for another campaign, he ultimately signed a record-setting contract and headed to Beantown.

In the professional ranks, Bird didn’t miss a beat; during his first season, he averaged 21.3 points per game, cruising to the Rookie of the Year title. Once Robert Parish and Kevin McHale joined the club, the Celtics turned into the Eastern Conference’s dominant power.

While injuries eventually slowed Bird down, the forward still spent 13 seasons in the pros; he averaged 24.3 points, 10 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game over the course of his career. He also claimed three NBA titles, three NBA MVP awards, and, according to Spotrac’s financial data, earned just over $24 million in salary.

Despite those earnings, Larry Bird never forgot what it was like to grow up poor

While $24 million over the course of a 13-year career might not seem like a great deal by today’s standards, it was still quite a windfall for Larry Bird. Growing up in French Lick, Indiana, the forward’s family didn’t have a great deal of money.

“Young Larry knew damn well that he was poor,” Frank Deford wrote in a 1988 Sports Illustrated feature. “No, it was not oppressive. But, yes, it was there. The Birds had enough coal to stay warm, but too many nights the old furnace would break down, and the house would fill with black smoke, and they would all have to stand outside, freezing, while Joe Bird tried to fix things. By then it was morning and time to pay the bills.”

“His mother, Georgia, was employed mostly as a waitress.,” Deford continued. ”I remember, she worked a hundred hours a week and made a hundred dollars, and then went to the store and had to buy $120 worth of food,’ Larry says. ‘If there was a payment to the bank due, and we needed shoes, she’d get the shoes, and then deal with them guys at the bank. I don’t mean she wouldn’t pay the bank, but the children always came first.’ Often things were so tough, one way and another, that Larry had to move in with his grandmother, Lizzie Kerns. He adores her. But Grandma Kerns didn’t even have a telephone then.”

Understandably, Bird never forgot his experiences as a boy; “it motivates me to this day,” he explained. Based on his on-court performances and career earnings—his current net worth clocks in at approximately $55 million—it’s safe to assume that was a pretty strong motivation.

Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference and Basketball-Reference


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