R – I have been inspired by stories of athletes throughout my life, especially those who I admired as they were still active in their profession. At the top of that list of athletes is Larry Bird. When he began his career with the Celtics, I was a month into my Freshman year of High School. When he played his last game in the NBA Finals, I was a month removed from my College graduation. He gave me some of my greatest joys as a teenager and some of my favorite memories growing up.
I played 1 on 1 basketball virtually every day after school with a friend of mine down the road, Mark Dexter. Mark was a year older and several inches taller. He was also an athlete and I was not 😉 But I loved being on the court, playing basketball the way I imagined Larry Bird would. Mark and I would sometimes just play as if we were on the same team, seeing who could come up with the most creative pass. And there is my lesson #1. It was always more fun to share the spotlight than to own it. In March of 1985, Kevin McHale set the all time Celtics record for points scored in a game with 56. This was the first year McHale was a regular member of the starting 5 and he was just setting the league on its ear. After the 56th point, coach KC Jones asked him if he was ready to finally sit down and McHale said yes. Larry Bird approached him and said that he shouldn’t have done that because it just made it that much easier for him to break the record. Nine days later Bird scored 60. He was that good. He could have scored at will on command all the time. But he knew his true value was in making those around him better and given the choice of the spotlight or passing to teammates who could elevate the entire team, he made a career of choosing the latter. He was a prolific scorer, but his greatest contribution to his team’s success was his passing. That made a big impression on me.
Larry Bird grew up in poverty and literally did not realize at the time that there were those who didn’t know poverty. All he knew was what he knew in rural Indiana in the early 1970’s. When he became well known, he hesitated to do interviews and had no desire to become someone he wasn’t. He had a tragic childhood: his parents divorced and his father committed suicide while Larry was still in High School. But he continued on his own path that he carved out for himself. He never allowed circumstances to determine who he was, who he would be, or what he would accomplish. It was never easy for him. But “ease” was never part of the equation for him, and he made it a point to move forward with what he wanted his life to be regardless. Even as he was winning MVP awards, traffic would routinely halt in front of his house every week because he would be out mowing his own lawn. He never forgot his roots, he never forgot who he was, and he always stayed true to who he was.
Larry Bird’s work ethic is legendary. Unfortunately, it comes across now as something mythical rather than a simple tale of sweat equity. But it was real. He would run before games, he’d run after games. He did what needed to be done do make himself the best possible “him” he could be. He would do it out of the spotlight though there were times TV cameras would catch him doing it. The lesson is clear: it doesn’t matter how good you are or what you’ve done, there is always more work to be put in.
His preparation led him to be ready for anything. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, after winning the MVP award one year, he decided in the offseason to learn how to shoot with his left hand. He did so and became virtually indefensible. It wasn’t sufficient to just be “the best”. Instead, he was analytical about his skill set and abilities. He measured himself against himself. Instead of dwelling on what he did well, he focused on his weaknesses and turned them around into strengths by sheer will and intentionality.
Larry Bird was famous for making claims and backing them up. One of the “legends” of his career – all of which is pure truth – is that he would routinely tell the opposing defender what he was about to do to them. Here’s the deal: he set himself up for success. All that work allowed him to trash talk but simultaneously back it up. This game that was supposedly so serious, he prepared himself so well that it became what it was supposed to be all along: a game. How cool is that? He always had the antidote for what he was up against because he was always prepared.
When he was physically unable to do what he normally did, he still gave it everything he had. At the end of his career, his back was so bad that he would wait to go in by the official’s table by laying down on his stomach. On March 16, 1992, his last year in the NBA, he was not scheduled to play that day. He had an achilles injury and various other ailments. In addition, the Celtics were to play the eventual Western Conference champion Portland Trailblazers. Bird ended up playing. He reached into a reservoir of determination and put in a triple double which included 49 points. Nearly 27 years later, I vividly remember watching this game on TV. It was an unbelievable effort by someone who wasn’t at their best. I knew it then, as did anyone else watching, that it was the last great game he’d ever have. He wasn’t physically able to continue. But through sheer force of will he found a way to bring his A game and it was there one more time.
One of my very favorite memories growing up during my High School years was watching Celtics games with my Mom. She would get so riled up she’d be yelling out loud at the TV. I would be so entertained by her! But it’s something she and I will always share together that’s uniquely ours. Larry Bird of all people will never know about that. But he provided some of the most special memories I have of my Mom and I. And that too is an important lesson: you never know the impact you have on others.
I clearly have my sports idols, and Larry Bird may be my very favorite. He was larger than life during very formative years of my own life. I love that I can look back on him, what an impact his playing years had on me, my memories of it all and see some wonderful lessons that I still value. I don’t believe that all we have to learn in music education comes from music educators. If we’re smart, we learn from those around us, no matter who they are. On the surface, reflecting on the impact of a star basketball player from the 1980’s is a pretty shallow exercise. But lessons can be learned from the most random of places: this includes a Boston Celtics basketball player from the Ronald Reagan years. I feel pretty lucky about that.
“If I had to choose a player to take a shot to save a game I’d choose Michael Jordan; If I had to choose a player to take a shot to save my life…I’d take Larry Bird.” – Pat Riley