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Indiana basketball, Celtics legend Larry Bird retired from NBA in 1992


INDIANAPOLIS – Nobody knew the thoughts swirling in Larry Bird‘s head the summer of 1992. Bird was in Barcelona, Spain, on a court battling Croatia within the gold medal basketball game of the Olympics — and he had a secret.

Bird was a member of the USA’s star-laced Dream Team, but he wasn’t there as some token player. He was not some perfunctory add to the roster.

If he had been anyone aside from Larry Bird, he won’t even have been on that team in any respect and, if he were, possibly as a backup.

Bird was 35. He had played 13 seasons at full throttle within the NBA and back injuries were plaguing him.

Without Bird, that Dream Team had colossal talent: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley.

But because the USA trounced Croatia 177-85 for the gold medal Aug. 8, 1992, Bird wasn’t just a job player. He was a contributor, a crucial contributor. Against Germany within the USA’s third game, Bird led the American team with 19 points — and he did it with that secret looming in his head.

“Larry was a force to be reckoned with,” said Bill Benner, who was a sports columnist for the Indianapolis Star, covering the Olympics in Barcelona. “He was not window dressing in any shape or form.”

And yet 10 days later, 10 days after Bird reveled within the gold, he retired from basketball.

The key was out. He not could play the sport he loved at the extent he desired to play.

Fans grieved on the news of Bird’s retirement Aug. 18, 1992. The basketball world gushed. Opponents sang Bird’s praises. Nobody was shocked, said Benner.

For at the very least two seasons, Bird had been seen lying by the bench, flat on the ground in between playing. He was nursing his back, that nagging back.

“It was increasingly difficult for him to be Larry Bird,” Benner said. “And if Larry Bird is just not 100%, his pride is such he would not have desired to steadily bow out.” He would not have desired to go downhill because the world watched.

So Bird played his final game, not for the Boston Celtics where he had spent his entire 13-year NBA profession, but for the USA.

“I feel everybody knew that Dream Team was sort of his last soiree,” said Jake Query, morning co-host of the Kevin & Query show on 107.5 The Fan. “Loads of people knew of their hearts Bird was playing his last game.”

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‘I knew today was going to come back’

The improbable superstar of skilled basketball, a rustic boy bred on biscuits and gravy who worked as a garbage truck driver at 18 and who grew right into a soft-spoken beast on the court, retired 30 years ago. Bird choked back tears on the news conference in Boston.

The remaining of the world didn’t.

Larry Bird announces his retirement Aug. 18, 1992.

Fans mourned as Bird’s 13-year profession got here to an end with just just a few words: “I knew today was going to come back,” Bird said as he announced his retirement, but he couldn’t say any more, not until he swallowed the lump in his throat.

Fans were shown in tears on nightly television newscasts, hours after Bird ended his NBA profession. They reminisced concerning the French Lick basketball teen of Springs Valley High, who went on to “single handedly” lead his Indiana State team to the NCAA championship game, who went on to flourish as a bona fide Celtics legend.

They lamented that there would never be one other star like Bird, a star who all the time talked and acted as if he was not. A star who preached that each one it really took to be an NBA great was exertions.

The star who said things like, “I’ve got a theory that if you happen to give 100% all the time, someway things will work out in the long run” and “I hate to lose greater than I prefer to win.” And a star who looked back on the profession he was giving up and downplayed the importance of what he had done.

“I all the time thought the entire idea of being paid to play pro basketball is ridiculous. I mean, give it some thought. You’re taking that ball, running down the court and you have got someone on you,” Bird said after retiring. “And also you look up and the place is packed, and all you are attempting to do is make that ball undergo the opening. It’s just crazy to me. In any case these years, it still doesn’t make sense.”

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Nevertheless it made sense, a number of sense, to the individuals who loved to observe Bird play, to the players who battled against him, to the coaches who led him and to the lads who coached against him. Bird had legend written throughout him.

“Larry was the one player within the league that I feared, and he was the neatest player I ever played against,” Magic Johnson said when Bird retired. “I all the time enjoyed competing against him because he brought out the very best in me. Even once we weren’t going to face to face, I might follow his game because I all the time used his play as a measuring stick against mine.”

The measuring stick was now packed away and everybody within the NBA knew it.

“Pro basketball has just thrown away the mold,” said Pat Riley, the coach of the Recent York Knicks on the time. “He was certainly one of a sort. Unique. Not only the very best of the very best however the just one who ever did what he did. He was a real warrior.”

A warrior, a king, a legend. All of the superlatives were used as Bird sat in front of a microphone in a red, white and blue polo shirt, biting his bottom lip.

Irrespective of how stoic Bird had tried to be because the unlikely superstar of the NBA, on today, he couldn’t fight the emotions. The emotions that got here with saying goodbye, to not greatness or legend, in Bird’s mind, but saying goodbye to playing the sport he had all the time loved a lot.

“Larry believed in Larry long before anyone else believed in him’

The goal held on a dilapidated barn on a mud driveway. It was a rusty rim on a wood backboard. This was Bird’s childhood basketball goal in French Lick. An ironic starting for a child who went on to be great within the flashy, glitzy world of the NBA.

“My understanding as a child was that great players only got here from the town,” said Rob Hammer, who published a book inspired by Bird’s childhood basketball goal. “I didn’t understand how his greatness got here from such humble beginnings.”

Bird’s childhood hoop proved to a young Hammer that it didn’t matter how much money you had or where you got here from. Basketball brilliance could start anywhere.

The garage at the home where Larry Bird grew up in French Lick was modest and featured an old, rusty hoop.

For Bird, that hoop is where his brilliance began. He shot baskets from morning until night and, when the sun began setting and shadows crept in, Bird kept shooting. He would shoot in the dead of night. Bird knew what he wanted, to some day be great at this thing called basketball.

“I remember once I got here here 13 years ago, he looked like a bit of country bumpkin,” Celtics president Red Auerbach said the day Bird retired. “But whenever you looked into his eyes, you knew he was no dummy. He knew what he wanted in life and what he needed to get there.”

All that shooting off the side of a barn become Bird becoming a highschool star. At Springs Valley High, Bird scored 1,125 profession points, averaged 30.6 points and 20.5 rebounds. He was named an Indiana All-Star.

But in that All-Star game, Benner watched Bird on the verge of tears as he got scant playing time. Coach Kirby Overman “didn’t think he was price” playing, said Benner.

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“I recall Larry being tremendously upset,” Benner said. “That was one other stepping stone for Larry, his unending drive to prove himself, to prove he was excess of only a small town, country kid.”

By some means, the child from French Lick had an uncanny belief in himself, irrespective of what others said. “Larry believed in Larry,” Benner said, “long before anyone else believed in him.”

Bird went on to shine within the NBA and is widely considered certainly one of the best basketball players of all time. 

Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird compliments a teammate for a nice pass after Bird scored during first half NBA action at Boston Garden on Sunday, March 1, 1992, against the Dallas Mavericks.

Through his 13-year profession with the Celtics, Bird helped seal Boston’s basketball greatness. He won three championships, 1981, 1984, and 1986. He led the Celtics to the playoffs in every season of his profession. Bird was a 3-time league MVP and left the sport with greater than 21,000 points.

Bird flourished, he dominated, he flew. After which all those years of fighting and giving his all set in. Bird just couldn’t do it anymore.

‘He just couldn’t carry on like that’

Georgia Bird saw her son was in pain. She told him, “Larry, it is time.” Time to retire.

Bird told his mother he couldn’t. “Oh mom. I want the cash,” Bird would say. It was a joke to deflect the actual issue, the injury that meant Bird may need to say goodbye to basketball.

Georgia Bird talked to the Indianapolis Star hours after her son announced his retirement in 1992. Bird had finally taken her advice. It was the very best for Bird, Georgia said, but someway it didn’t feel like a joyful day.

“Bird’s flight of greatness involves end,” the front page of the Indianapolis Star proclaimed of Bird’s retirement. “Hoosier legend’s heart continues to be in it, but his back is not.”

Larry Bird and his mother Georgia in Salt Lake City, 1979

His mom had been right. The nagging back pain wasn’t just nagging. It was excruciating.

“He just couldn’t carry on like that,” Georgia Bird said. Injuries had limited Bird’s effectiveness in his final seasons. And that frustrated Bird.

“Because here was a person who knew easy methods to play basketball at just one speed. All out,” wrote the Indianapolis Star in 1992.

Even through back issues, Bird never let up. He couldn’t, Bird told reporters as he retired.

“I wasn’t going to let an injury stop me from diving on the ground, to attempt to do all the things that I used to be able to doing to win a basketball game,” he said. “And that is all I would like to be remembered for.”

‘I all the time hated playing Larry’

In fact, Bird has been remembered for that and rather more.

“He could do all of it. He was an exceptional shooter, he was an exceptional passer, he was an exceptional teammate that lifted others up and made them higher,” Benner said. “And he had a confidence and belief in himself that was, I hate the word extraordinary, but it surely was extraordinary. He believed in himself greater than anyone else.”

A yr before he retired, Bird was playing the Pacers within the 1991 playoffs. Bird suffered an injury to his cheek. However the cheek wasn’t the one thing bothering him. His back was, too. During that playoff series, Bird was seen lying on the sidelines in pain.

Larry Bird rests his back during the 1991 NBA playoffs.

Nobody knew if Bird would come back into the sport.

“As all of us sat there, I said, ‘It’s Larry.’ There isn’t any way Larry is not coming back,” Donnie Walsh, then the Pacers president, told IndyStar. “In fact he got here back. I all the time hated playing Larry.”

Bird returned from the injury because the Celtics were struggling and helped Boston hold off the Pacers’ fourth-quarter rally to assert a 124-121 victory and the series win. Bird scored 32 points.

“I believed it was a bit of over dramatized back then,” said Query. “But in hindsight, his back was that bad.”

When Bird retired a yr after that game, it was “like a forgone conclusion. It was something you knew had been coming for 2 to a few years,” Query said. It wasn’t a retirement that sent shock waves through the NBA.

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‘There won’t ever be one other Larry Bird’

Back in Barcelona on a subway ride in 1992 to Pavelló Olímpic de Badalona where the USA’s basketball Dream Team was playing its games, Benner noticed a young boy from Spain taking a look at his press credentials. The boy saw the word “Indianapolis” within the Indianapolis Star.

“Indianapolis?” the boy said to Benner. “Indiana? Larry Bird?” When Benner said yes to all three, a smile spread across the young boy’s face.

“That was certainly one of my most memorable moments,” Benner said, “since it underscores what a worldwide presence Larry Bird was.”

Boston Celtics Larry Bird (33) gets a congratulation as teammate Kevin McHale (32) goes up with his arms in victory over the Houston Rockets in game four by score of 106-103, Tuesday, June 4, 1986, Houston, Tex. (AP Photo/F. Carter Smith)

And while fan admiration is usually the measuring stick of players after they leave the sport, Bird finished his profession, cemented his profession with words from the lads who called him their opponent.

“The thing about Larry Bird that has been fascinating to me, now once I hear those great players discuss the very best players they’ve played against, certainly one of the primary names they are saying is Larry Bird,” said Query. “I do not know if Larry Bird’s legacy was cemented as much by fans but as by fellow players.”

“Surely, he was one of the vital, if not essentially the most, difficult player for me to defend,” former Laker after which team executive Michael Cooper said on the day Bird retired.

Other players went on concerning the legend of Bird. Michael Jordan said Bird was the very best trash talker. Johnson said Bird’s play kept him awake at night. Julius Erving said Bird had the very best vision on the court.

“Quite simply, Larry Bird has helped to define the way in which a generation of basketball fans has come to view and appreciate the NBA,” David Stern, then NBA commissioner said when Bird retired. “In the long run, great players will probably be judged against the standards he has set, but there won’t ever be one other Larry Bird.”

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com.

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