Larry Bird Pinpointed the Exact Moment He Knew He Wanted to Be ‘Center Stage’ in Crunch Time: ‘I Could Be a Hero’

Finding a basketball player as confident on the court as Larry Bird might be a challenge. It wasn’t something the Boston Celtics legend was born with. In 1985, while Bird was smack-dab in the middle of his three straight MVP honors, he spoke about the game where he realized he wanted the ball in his hands during crunch time.

Larry Bird never wanted to be in the spotlight unless it was on the basketball court

Detroit Pistons’ Phil Hubbard tries to block Boston Celtics star Larry Bird during the final seconds of a game against the Detroit Pistons at the Boston Garden in Boston on Dec. 2, 1981. Bird’s shot won the game for the Celtics. | Frank O’Brien/The Boston Globe

When Bird came into the NBA in 1979, he was tough to figure out. He played at little-known Indiana State, yet led the Sycamores to a berth in the national title game. Indiana State played Michigan State, led by Magic Johnson, and came up short. He led his team through a Cinderella season, but would he be able to play against top-notch competition on a consistent basis?

Bird quickly proved all doubters wrong as he averaged 21.3 points and 10.4 rebounds as a rookie. The following season, he guided the Celtics to the first of three NBA titles in the 1980s.

Bird went on to win his three straight MVPs from 1984-86 and added three championships along the way. He’s considered one of the most clutch shooters in NBA history. He was known for his trash-talking on the court and for knocking down big shots when the game was on the line.

Off the court, he didn’t need nor want the spotlight.

“I can never see me as Mr. Spokesman for the NBA or for this or that,” Bird told United Press International in 1985. “That’s not my job. My job is to go out and play the best I possibly can for the Boston Celtics and win basketball games. After that, it’s over, and I can go home.”

He didn’t always want the spotlight on the court, either.

Larry Bird recalled the time when he realized he wanted the ball in his hands with the game on the line

Bird developed his love for the on-court spotlight while in high school at Spring Valley High in French Lick, Indiana. As he was preparing for another run at the NBA Finals in 1985, he shared the story of that moment when he knew he wanted the ball in the crucial moments of a game.

“I had broken my ankle and came back in time to play in the sectionals tournament,” Bird told UPI. “It was late in the game and I was on the bench when the coach called my name. I thought it was my brother or someone else yelling down from the stands. The coach then says, ‘Do you want to play or not?’ I come tearing up off the bench and go into the game.

“We’re one point down with 10 seconds left when the other team fouls me and I go to the free-throw line thinking, ‘I could be a hero.’ I made both shots, and we won the game. Ever since then, I’ve always had the feeling that I liked being center stage. I liked having the ball in my hands and making things happen.

Larry Bird, 1985

“I’ve been in the situation hundreds of times now where the score is tied and I have the ball, or when I have to make the big steal at the end of the game. It’s just happened over and over and over, so I don’t worry about it now.”

Not only was Bird clutch, but he also outworked everyone on the court

Bird wasn’t the most athletically gifted player on the basketball court, but he more than made up for it with his work ethic. He was all over the place, diving for loose balls, and he was usually the first one to arrive at practice.

During that ’85 season, New Jersey Nets coach Stan Albeck praised Bird in front of his team when he saw the Celtis star shooting three hours before the game. Months later during a return trip to the Boston Garden, Albeck’s players questioned Albeck’s praise when there was no sign of Bird three hours before the game.

“They were all getting on me,’ said Albeck. “They were saying, ‘So where’s Bird? You said he was always out here.’ I pointed up into the stands. None of them had noticed Bird up there. He was running laps. He’d already finished his shooting.”

For Bird, basketball was on his mind 24 hours a day during the season. He spoke with Sixers great Julius Erving, who had the same motivation during the peak of his career.

“I told Julius I eat, drink and sleep basketball 24 hours a day,” Bird said. “He said he used to be the same way. I hope I never lose that, because in this league you have to think basketball 24 hours a day to be the best.”

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