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Larry Bird called it the most useless season of his career. In fact, he went back and said he couldn’t even call it a season. The Boston Celtics star began having problems with his heels and ankles, and those injuries finally caught up to him.

He played in eight exhibition games during the 1988-89 season and then appeared in six regular-season games before surgery wiped out his entire season.

The 1988-89 season was the beginning of the end for Larry Bird

Larry Bird was brought in to save the Boston Celtics. Mission accomplished.

Drafted by the Boston Celtics with the sixth overall pick in 1978 as a junior, Bird elected to play out his senior year at Indiana State. He guided the Sycamores to a berth in the 1979 NCAA title game and then joined the Celtics for the 1979-80 season. Bird signed the richest rookie contract ever by an NBA player, and it paid off for Boston.

He won Rookie of the Year and took a Celtics team that won 29 games to one that led the NBA with 61 wins in the 1979-80 season. The following season, aided by a trade with the Golden State Warriors that brought back Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, the Celtics won the first of their three championships of the decade.

Bird became the third player in league history to capture three straight MVPs, winning the award each year from 1984 to 1986. To this day, only he, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain remain the only three to accomplish that feat.

During the 1988-89 season, Bird’s ankle/heel problems got the best of him. He had dealt with the pain before, but he said it was during a preseason trip to Spain when he knew he was in trouble.

In our first couple of exhibition games of the 1988-89 season, the ankles felt pretty good,” Bird wrote in his book Drive: The Story of My Life. “When we went to Madrid to play against the Yugoslavians and Spaniards in the McDonald’s Open, I began to have more problems. I wasn’t able to loosen them up in our second game against Real Madrid. I knew then I was in for real trouble.”

Bird underwent surgery, and the Celtics had their worst season since 1979


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Bird tried to play through his injury, but his ankles never loosened up, and there was some swelling.

“The left was the one I had hurt originally,” he wrote, “but in time the right one became the bigger problem. Before I left Boston in 1988, I had X-rays taken of the ankles. When we took X-rays the following fall, you could see how much bigger the bone spur in the right one had grown. The difference was enormous. The final decision to have surgery came about after CAT scans were taken. That’s when doctors knew how serious the problem was.”

Bird said the original plan was for him to return in early March.

“The operation was performed on both heels on November 19, and there was talk of a March 1 return,” he wrote. “I never made March 1 — or any other date — that season. I came close. If we had made it to the second round of the playoffs, I could have played.”

Bird said he made a comeback attempt but had to put the brakes on immediately.

“I tried to come back in the beginning of March, but the right one wasn’t ready,” he said. “There was pain and swelling, and I had to back off.”

Bird played just the six regular-season games, and Boston went 42-40 in its worst season in 11 years. The Detroit Pistons swept the Celtics in the first round of the postseason. Bird played just three more years, eclipsing 60 games just once in a season.