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Celtics' Larry Bird Retires; Star Helped Revitalize NBA : Basketball: Back injuries bring career to an end. His rivalry with Magic Johnson highlighted 13 seasons.

August 19, 1992|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Larry Joe Bird, the self-proclaimed "Hick From French Lick," whose uncanny ability to play basketball carried him from a small town in Indiana and enabled him to revive a moribund Boston Celtics franchise and help rescue a professional sports league, announced his retirement Tuesday at a news conference in Boston.

Bird, 35, a three-time Most Valuable Player of the National Basketball Assn., played just 45 of 82 games last season, his 13th with the Celtics, because of recurring back problems that ultimately ended one of the most celebrated careers in basketball.

Named to the NBA All-Star team 11 times, Bird finished as the 11th-ranked scorer in the league's history, with 21,791 points. He averaged 24.3 points, 10 rebounds and 6.3 assists a game.

"I played as hard as I could," said Bird, who seemed choked up at times as announced his retirement. "I wasn't going to let an injury stop me from diving on the floor to try to do everything that I was capable of doing to win a basketball game, and that's all I wanted to be remembered for."

But Bird undoubtedly will be remembered for something else. In addition to the three NBA titles the Celtics won during his tenure, his career always will be linked with that of Magic Johnson, his longtime Laker rival, with whom he helped reshape the image of the NBA from a struggling, barely profitable league into a highly visible, financial and marketing dream for team owners and players alike.

Bird and Johnson, the two 6-foot-9 superstars, engaged in one of the greatest rivalries in sports. The first Bird-Johnson confrontation came in 1979 when Bird led Indiana State into the NCAA championship game against a Michigan State team starring Johnson. Johnson's side won.

The next fall, both were in the NBA, then a reeling 22-team organization nearly half of whose franchises lost money.

Bird's Celtics and Johnson's Lakers went on to meet in three NBA championship finals, Boston winning in 1983-84 and the Lakers winning in 1984-85 and 1986-87. They wound up playing on the same side once, with the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics.

Johnson, who is considering coming back to the Lakers after announcing his own retirement in November because he had contracted the virus that causes AIDS, said he will miss his sparring sessions with Bird.

"Larry was the only player in the league that I feared, and he was the smartest player I ever played against," Johnson said. "I always enjoyed competing against him because he brought out the best in me. Even when we weren't going head to head, I would follow his game because I always used his play as a measuring stick against mine."

Used sparingly because of his back, on which he had surgery to remove a herniated disk 14 months ago, Bird still played in all eight games of the Olympic tournament, scoring 67 points with 30 rebounds and 40 assists.

In his last game, the gold-medal game against Croatia on Aug. 8, Bird sat out the entire first half. He played 12 minutes in the second half and failed to score.

"I think everybody sensed the way that I went about the games over there that it would probably be my last games," Bird said. "I really didn't care how much I played. I really didn't care about scoring. I just wanted to be part of a great team."

Drafted in 1978 while a junior at Indiana State, Bird had an immediate impact on the once-proud Celtics franchise that had fallen upon hard times. From 29-53 the year before his arrival, the team rebounded to a 61-21 record in Bird's first season of wearing the storied green Celtics uniform.

The Celtics have sold out every game in the 14,890-seat Boston Garden since the 1980-81 season, Bird's second with the team.

In Bird's career, the Celtics won at least 60 games in six seasons and at least 56 games in three others. Bird was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player in three successive seasons, 1984 through 1986, joining Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to do so.

The arrival of Bird and Johnson coincided with the emergence of the NBA as a successful professional sports league. With Bird and Johnson leading the way, new commissioner David Stern and the NBA set off to gain greater exposure through cable television and profit from marketing initiatives made possible by its two biggest stars.

The NBA soon began to experience success at the same level as the Celtics with Bird and the Lakers with Johnson.

In the 1980s, the Lakers and Celtics won eight titles between them. Meanwhile, expansion brought five new teams--Dallas, Orlando, Charlotte, Minnesota and Miami. The owners prospered, and so did the players. Their average salary has increased from less than $250,000 in 1979 to more than $1 million today. The minimum salary jumped from less than $30,000 to $140,000.

Stern, who was present for Johnson's retirement and also for the announcement by Bird, said there can be no underestimating the impact made by Bird on the sport and the league.

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