Michael Jordan Helped Set the Record Straight on Larry Bird and His Place Among the NBA Greats

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Larry Bird and Michael Jordan stand by to be filmed for a McDonald's "Nothing But Net" television commercial.

Michael Jordan and Larry Bird made a living by dominating in the NBA. The two combined for nine championships and eight MVPs in their Hall of Fame careers. They go down as two of the greatest to ever play the game.

While Jordan and Bird enjoyed plenty of success, both players were viewed differently. Jordan was the flashy, high-scoring dunker, while Bird was labeled slow and cerebral. Jordan is a given when it comes to earning a spot in the NBA’s top five players in history. Many view him as the best ever. Bird making that list isn’t always a sure thing — unless Jordan is compiling it. The former Bulls star once explained why Bird is a top-five player of all time.

Michael Jordan and Larry Bird did their part in taking the NBA to another level

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson gave the NBA a much-needed boost in the early 1980s when they entered the league for the 1979-80 season after their legendary clash in the 1979 NCAA men’s championship game.

The NBA needed a spark. The league had a drug problem in the 1970s, and Bird and Magic helped reshape the league by adding their personal rivalry into the mix. Bird took his talents to the Boston Celtics, while Magic fittingly headed to Hollywood with the Los Angeles Lakers. The duo helped rekindle a forgotten Celtics/Lakers rivalry that also propelled the league to new heights by.

While Bird and Magic provided that spark the league craved, Michael Jordan joined a few years later. The Chicago Bulls selected the University of North Carolina star with the third overall pick in 1984. Although Bird and Magic stole the spotlight for most of the decade, Jordan made plenty of noise. His 63-point performance in the 1986 playoffs against Bird and the Celtics was a sign of things to come.

Jordan patiently waited as the Bird vs. Magic rivalry came to a close in the early 1990s, and then he became the NBA’s next major show. Led by Jordan, the Chicago Bulls were kings of the 1990s, earning six championships, including two three-peats.

Jordan put Bird among the top five players in NBA history

Bird was often thought of as slow and unathletic, at least by basketball fans. Greg Kite, a former teammate of Bird’s, told Sportscasting in 2021 that was not the case.

“It’s just wrong to say he wasn’t athletic, and you hear it a lot,” Kite said. “Everybody in the NBA is athletic. Maybe he wasn’t as fast as certain guys, but he was a good, solid athlete. He had adequate speed and quickness, but everybody in the NBA is athletic.”

As Jackie MacMullan pointed out in her book When the Game Was Ours, Bird and Magic helped dispel some sports stereotypes but not all. MacMullan pointed out that Magic was one of the smartest players but was never looked at as having a “high basketball IQ,” something Black athletes claimed was used specifically for white players. On the other hand, Bird’s natural basketball ability was often downplayed because he wasn’t one who could jump out of the building.

Jordan agreed.

“Larry was a debate,” he said, per MacMullan. “He still is. People ask me all the time who my all-time top five players are, and when I start saying Larry, they interrupt me. They say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. He can’t play with LeBron James.’ I tell them, ‘You guys don’t get it. Larry is far better than any small forward who played the game, and to be honest, I’m still not sure if he’s a small forward or a power forward.’

“To appreciate Bird fully, you need to know the game. You have to be a basketball person to be able to give him his due. He’s not jumping out of the gym. He doesn’t dunk on anyone. He doesn’t show any quickness. That’s why some people can’t see the value of his game.”