Although Bird succumbed to injuries and chronic back pain — caused partly by his determination to build his mother a new driveway — at the end of his career, head coach Chris Ford helped steer the team to the playoffs. But Larry Legend’s retirement ushered in a less successful era. It also led to confusion about the state of the franchise, and Bird ripped the front office for giving up on Ford immediately after handing him a contract extension.
Larry Bird played for Chris Ford in the final two seasons of his Celtics career
Larry Bird played for several coaches during his Celtics career, but Chris Ford had the privilege of overseeing Larry Legend’s NBA farewell.
Ford coached Bird in the final two seasons of his career. Boston had quite a bit of success in those years, too, winning 56 games during the 1990-91 campaign and 51 more the following season.
It’s a testament to Ford that the Celtics managed to win despite nagging injuries to Bird and Kevin McHale. He established a sense of cohesiveness between the veterans and young players like Reggie Lewis, who initially appeared primed to take the torch from Bird.
Indeed, while Boston never made it past the conference semifinals in Bird’s final two seasons, the Celtics still won 48 games after the Hick from French Lick retired in 1992. However, things quickly took a turn for the worst.
The wins stopped rolling in, and an organizational shakeup resulted in Bird taking shots at the front office.
Bird chastised the Celtics when they fired Ford only one season after extending his contract
The Celtics won 32 games and missed the playoffs during the 1993-94 campaign, but Ford had done enough in past seasons for Boston to offer him a contract extension. Just one season later, the two sides parted ways.
Although the C’s made it back to the playoffs in 1995, M.L. Carr decided he’d seen enough. Boston fired Ford after the season, with Carr taking over as head coach. The move irked Bird, who indicated (h/t Chicago Tribune) the rest of the NBA no longer held the Celtics organization in high esteem.
“I think people look in and see there’s not a lot of stability. they signed Chris to a new contract last summer, and now Chris is gone. I don’t think people look at this as a great situation. It looks to them like the Celtics are stuck right now. It looks like they’re not going to be able to be contenders for a few years.”–Larry Bird (1995), via the Chicago Tribune
Bird’s assessment of Boston not being contenders for “a few years” became a massive understatement.
The Celtics won 33 games during the 1995-96 campaign. They bottomed out the following season, winning all of 15 games. Draft selections such as Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce slowly helped make Boston more relevant again, but the Celtics failed to achieve championship glory until 2008.
Larry Legend’s comments about instability felt all the more pertinent as the 1990s came to a close. However, it should be said the Celtics were dealt a bit of a bad hand.
Multiple tragedies prevented the Celtics from sustained success in the post-Larry Bird era
Larry Bird and the Celtics won the NBA title in 1986 and immediately had the chance to bring a new franchise cornerstone into the fold.
Boston had the No. 2 pick in the 1986 NBA Draft, selecting former Maryland star Len Bias. The Terrapins star who drew comparisons to Michael Jordan could have helped usher in a new era. But Bias died of cocaine intoxication just two days after being drafted by the Celtics. Tragedy struck again just seven years later.
As previously mentioned, Reggie Lewis helped the Celtics stay competitive in the early 1990s as the careers of Bird, McHale, and Robert Parish came to a close. Lewis actually led the team in win shares (9.1) in 1991-92, when he also made his first All-Star team. However, Lewis sadly suffered a cardiac death during a scrimmage in the summer of 1993.
A team with Bias and Lews might have given the Celtics a championship contender even after Bird retired. Instead, basketball fans in Boston entered the doldrums and watched an empire crumble to the ground.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.