It’s amazing how short people’s memories are. No sooner than someone is called “the best” or “the greatest” that people forsake him for someone else. I see this in all sports. Hey, just look at tennis. Just last year Roger Federer was being crowned as the best player ever; this year some are saying he’s not even the greatest player in his own era. Or football. Joe Montana was the best ever when he retired, but with three Super Bowl victories, Tom Brady has taken over that position in some people’s minds. How is that? Is Brady really better than Montana? Or is it more that the memory of Montana has faded? One factor is certainly that the media likes to hype up the present. Why not, considering how important the demographic of 18-34 year old males is.
From my perspective, nowhere has this chronic amnesia been more apparent than in the case of Larry Bird. In only his sixth season, prominent basketball people like K.C. Jones, Red Auerbach, and Bob Cousy were already suggesting that he could be the best player ever. In 1986 an article was written in Sports Illustrated labeling him as the greatest player ever. He won three straight MVPs. He was selected to First Team All-NBA for nine consecutive seasons.
And yet, very few people today still consider him the best. Certainly, none of the so-called experts dare to label him as such (I think that some Boston guys like Bob Ryan secretly still think that Bird is the best ever). Of course, the predominant opinion is that Michael Jordan is the best ever. Some people will even laugh at you if you try to suggest anyone else. Was Jordan that much better than Bird that virtually no one hails Larry as the best ever anymore?
The answer, according to the facts, is NO. Statistically, Jordan is not better. How about achievements? Yeah, Jordan has more titles and more MVP awards, but I think we need to look at that in perspective. Bird’s Celtics won three titles by the end of Larry’s seventh season; Jordan won his first in his seventh season. The Celtics – and Bird in particular – suffered all kind of injuries late in the 1980’s, thus preventing them from taking another title. Jordan’s Bulls got to play in a league watered down by expansion; Bird’s Celtics won when there were 23 teams. Bird won three straight MVPs and had more through his first seven seasons (3) than Jordan did (2). Most importantly, though, basketball is a team sport. Jordan’s Bulls were a good team that were able to compete against lesser teams; the Celtics played against other great teams.
The Celtics had to face the 76ers of Dr. J, the Lakers of Magic-Kareem, and the Pistons of Isiah. Who did the Bulls face? The Trail Blazers? Sonics? Utah Jazz? Sorry, those teams certainly don’t match up with the Celtics’ competition. You know, the 1983-84 Lakers had four future Hall of Famers? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Bob McAdoo, and James Worthy. The Celtics beat that Laker team, too. How many future Hall of Famers did the 1995-96 Seattle SuperSonics have? ONE (Gary Payton). It’s no surprise to me that the Bulls didn’t become dominant until the competition had either gotten old or had disintegrated. Remember, it took the Bulls four years to finally get past the Pistons, and only then because the Detroit was older and hobbled by injuries.
In this first post on this case, I want to point out a fact that few people want to face up to: Larry Bird meant more to his teams than Michael Jordan did to his. Sorry, but the facts say so.
- In college, Bird led Indiana State to the national title game. Before Bird, ISU had never even made it to the NCAA tournament, and since he graduated they haven’t made it back. As for Jordan, he couldn’t even get North Carolina back to the Final Four after James Worthy graduated (Worthy was the clear leader of the 1981-82 championship team).
- In Bird’s rookie season, the Celtics improved 32 games, from 29-53 to 61-21. That’s with virtually the same team as the year before. They didn’t have Robert Parish or Kevin McHale yet, either, and even the addition of those two great players the next year only netted a one-game improvement. On the other hand, Michael Jordan’s arrival in Chicago produced only an 11-game improvement, from 27-55 to 38-44 – again, with virtually the same team.
- When Bird was out of the lineup, the Celtics suffered badly. In 1988-89 Bird missed all but six games with bone spurs: the Celtics fell from 57-25 to 42-40. Contrast that 15-game drop with the Bulls’ performance in 1993-94: without Jordan for an entire season, the Bulls went 55-27 – only a 2 game drop from the previous season!
Larry Bird entered the NBA and made the Celtics winners immediately. Jordan took four seasons to get the Bulls above .500. When Bird left, the Celtics suffered badly. Without Jordan, the Bulls were still winning. Think about it.