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Larry Bird a sixth man for the Boston Celtics? After winning Rookie of the Year and then a championship in his second season, it happened.

For 19 games during the 1981-82 season, Bird came off the bench as the team’s sixth man. It happened courtesy of Milwaukee Bucks forward Harvey Catchings, and Bird had no problem with his role as a reserve.

Larry Bird helped turn around the Boston Celtics in a hurry

The year before Larry Bird made his Boston Celtics debut, the team finished with a 29-53 record. The year before that, the Celtics went 32-50. Boston was in dire need of a basketball winner, and Bird was drafted to be the savior.

He didn’t disappoint.

As a rookie during the 1979-80 season, Bird played all 82 games and averaged 21.3 points and 10.4 rebounds. He won Rookie of the Year and guided the Celtics to a 61-21 record.

The following season, the Celtics swung a franchise-altering deal with the Golden State Warriors. The Celtics held the top pick in the 1980 NBA Draft from a previous trade with the Detroit Pistons. Boston packaged that pick and the No. 13 selection in exchange for the third overall pick and veteran center Robert Parish. With that No. 3 pick, the Celtics drafted Kevin McHale.

In their first year together, Bird, McHale, and Parish won the first of three championships in the decade. The Celtics knocked off the Houston Rockets in six games in the 1981 NBA Finals. They went on to win championships in 1984 and 1986. The Celtics appeared in four straight championship rounds from 1984 to 1987.

Bird was a 12-time NBA All-Star. He won three straight MVPs from 1984 to 1986. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998.

Bird had no issues with being Boston’s sixth man in 1982

In his book Drive: The Story of My Life, Bird said his regular-season goal was “to play 82 consistently good basketball games a year.” For those first two seasons of his career, he did just that.

In February of the 1981-82 season, Milwaukee’s Catchings caught Bird with an inadvertent elbow to the face.

“I immediately knew something was wrong because my mouth didn’t work very well,” Bird wrote.

Bird returned to the game and went for X-rays the following morning after the discomfort continued. He shattered his “zygomatic arch” and needed an operation to fix it. The doctor who operated on him recommended Bird sit out until the stitches were removed. Bird played and had no complications.

Bird missed five games, and head coach Bill Fitch brought him along slowly after the operation. For 19 games, Bird played the role of the sixth man.

“I came off the bench, and it was working out well for the team, which, by this time, was really playing well,” Bird said. “Coach Fitch liked me as the sixth man so much that he just kept using me that way, long past the time when I was ready to return to the starting lineup.

“I have nothing against being a sixth man. I’m one of those people who says it doesn’t matter who starts the game as much as who finishes it. If being a sixth man was good enough for Frank Ramsay, John Havlicek, Paul Silas, and Kevin McHale, just to name a few, it was good enough for me.

“If I was going to be a sixth man all the time, I think it would’ve been a great role, but everybody knew that wasn’t going to happen.”


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