With the numbers he put up at Indiana State, along with the Hall of Fame career that he produced with the Boston Celtics, one might think that Larry Bird was the number one pick in the NBA draft. That was not the case. Many may also think that he was taken in the 1979 NBA draft, simply because he and longtime rival Magic Johnson duked it out in the NCAA Tournament title game that year. That is also incorrect.
Rules back then were a bit different. Larry Bird actually started his college career at Indiana under legendary coach Bob Knight. However, not liking the system, he packed it up and never played a minute for the Hoosiers. After sitting out a year, he suited up for Indiana State. Following his junior year, the 1977-1978 season, a season in which Bird averaged 30 points per game (without a three-point line), he was deemed eligible for the 1978 draft under the “hardship rule” as his original class at Indiana had graduated.
Bird could get drafted but still return for his senior season with the Sycamores, which he chose to do. However, if the team that drafted him failed to sign him before the draft the following year, they would lose the rights to him and Bird could’ve simply reentered the draft. The Pacers had the first pick in 1978 but couldn’t persuade Bird to sign, so they traded the pick. Five teams passed on Larry Bird before the Celtics, believing that they could get him to sign, took him at number six, changing the course of the game forever.
Three NBA titles, three MVP trophies, and more than 21,000 points later, Larry Bird is considered one of the best players in NBA history. But what about those five players drafted before him? How’d they turn out?
5. Rick Robey
When the Pacers traded the first overall pick in the 1978 NBA draft to the Portland Trailblazers, they were given the third pick and chose Kentucky center Rick Robey, who had put up 20 points in the Wildcats’ 1978 championship game win.
Robey played just 43 games for Indiana before being traded to the Celtics in 1979. Robey would actually be a teammate of Larry Bird during Boston’s 1981 championship run and was famously traded in 1983 to the Phoenix Suns. The Celtics got Dennis Johnson in return. In eight seasons in the NBA, Robey averaged 7.6 points and 4.7 rebounds.
4. Phil Ford
When point guard Phil Ford graduated from North Carolina in 1978, he left Chapel Hill as UNC’s all-time leading scorer with 2,290 points, a record that stood for three decades until it was broken by Tyler Hansbrough in 2008. Ford was selected second overall in the 1978 NBA draft by the Kansas City (now Sacramento) Kings.
Ford actually won Rookie of the Year honors in 1979, averaging 15.9 points and 8.6 assists per game, also earning All-NBA Second Team honors. His scoring average went up in each of the following two seasons, but his numbers began to decline during the 1981-1982 season, his final year in Kansas City. Ford played for the Nets, Bucks, and Rockets in the final three years of his career and retired in 1985. In seven seasons, the former All-American averaged 11.6 points and 6.4 assists.
3. Micheal Ray Richardson
Had Micheal Ray Richardson played longer, he’d likely be at the top of this list of players selected ahead of Larry Bird in the 1978 NBA draft. Richardson was actually the only person on this list ever selected to the NBA All-Star Game. Drafted out of the University of Montana fourth overall by the New York Knicks, Richardson was an All-Star from 1980-1982. Shifting between point guard and shooting guard, he averaged 15.2 points and 10.1 assists, which led the league, in his sophomore season.
Richardson was traded to Golden State ahead of the 1982-1983 season for Bernard King. After 33 games, he was then shipped to the New Jersey Nets, for whom he made the All-Star Game in 1985. The following February, Richardson was banned from the NBA for three violations of the league’s drug policy and never played another game in the league, instead playing in Europe. In 556 career games, he averaged 14.8 points and seven assists.
2. Mychal Thompson
While Mychal Thompson may be more known these days for being the father of Klay, Mychel, and Trayce Thompson, he was a great player in his own right. Thompson was the number one pick in the 1978 NBA draft by the Portland Trailblazers, the first foreign-born player in history to be taken at number one. He was an All-American in his final two years at the University of Minnesota.
After a solid rookie campaign, Thompson injured his knee and missed the entire 1979-1980 season. He had the best year of his career in 1981-1982, averaging 20.8 points and 11.7 rebounds for the Blazers. While he may never get the credit he deserves for his role in the last two Lakers championship teams of the Showtime era, he was a great backup to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and was one of the only people willing to body up with Kevin McHale. Thompson and the Lakers beat Larry Bird, McHale, and the Celtics in the 1987 NBA Finals. In 13 seasons (12 if you count the year off due to injury), Thompson averaged 13.7 points and 7.4 rebounds.
1. Purvis Short
While Jackson State’s Purvis Short may not have the name recognition of Mychal Thompson, he still deserves the top spot on this list. With a jumper that seemed to touch the sky, the “Rainbow Man” was an underrated player over 12 seasons in the NBA. Drafted just ahead of Larry Bird at number five overall by the Warriors, Short had just one season, his second-to-last, in which he didn’t average double digits in points, even when he took on lesser roles.
He played nine seasons in Golden State, his best season coming in 1984-1985 when he averaged 28 points per game. He scored a career-high 59 points in one game that season, at the time a top-10 scoring performance in NBA history. He also had a 57-point game and a 46-point game that year. Short wound down his career with the Rockets and Nets and finished with a career average of 17.3 points per game.