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Larry Bird Q&A: Being a white player in the NBA, trash-talking and today’s game

Bird sat down with The Undefeated at the NBA India Games to talk hoops

MUMBAI, India — Twenty-seven years after Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and the “Dream Team” made the world fall in love with the game of basketball in 1992, India showed its adoration for the Boston Celtics great during the first NBA India Games last week. Fans gave Bird a standing ovation when he was introduced. They chanted, “Larry! Larry!” And Indian actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas even took a picture with the Hall of Famer.

The Indiana Pacers and the Sacramento Kings traveled to India to play two preseason games. Bird, who is a consultant for the Pacers, believes the “Dream Team” had a major impact on this historic sporting event taking place in India.

“The Dream Team, it is definitely the reason why I am here,” Bird told The Undefeated. “The late Dave Gavitt told me before he even went over there. He said, ‘You can make a major influence on basketball throughout the world.’ And I didn’t understand that. He said, ‘You’re going to find out how far behind they are, and how hard they got to work.’ He said, ‘You’ll see their culture is spilling over to the NBA and colleges to learn.’

“And he was right on it. So this is one of the reasons why we’re here today, because the Dream Team. … Look how many international players we have in our league now. It’s unbelievable. If you’re good enough, come in.”

Bird, 62, sat down with The Undefeated during the NBA India Games to talk about his influence on the league, the “Malice in the Palace,” his favorite NBA players, how he would fare in the NBA today, and much more.

I have heard stories about how you used to play pickup basketball with black men who worked at a hotel near your home in French Lick, Indiana, as a kid. Can you talk about the influence they had?

Yeah, back then I would just try to develop my skills as a young player, and I got in games around there. But these guys were older. When you’re 9, 10, 11, you see somebody 20, you think they’re old. But it was a number of guys who would show up every day. In between games they’d smoke their Kool cigarettes and drink their beer, but great guys.

What was really great for me and made me happy is 30 years ago I ran into Slim, who was down in Atlanta out there cooking at one of the hotels we stayed in. And he’d come up and say, ‘Remember me?’ And I knew I’d seen that face before, but I didn’t know where. He was a little bit older. But he said he was so proud of how I turned out.

What were those guys like, and how did they treat you?

They treated me very well. When I showed up, if somebody needed a break, they’d throw me right in there and I’d be in there the rest of the day. But they were pretty good players. They really weren’t great by any means. They always seemed to let me get in there and play with them, and I always enjoyed that because I always looked at that group of guys. They had a great kinship, they got along very well. … Score meant very little, but a lot of talking going on, a lot of fun.

Looking back to you and Magic entering the NBA in 1979, do you think people still talk enough about how you both helped the game?

It’s funny, all through my career they always say, ‘You helped save the NBA.’ But there’s a lot of people who helped save this NBA, it didn’t start with us. Maybe we helped in some way as far as the competition we had in college and going against one another. But I do think we brought a different aspect to the game when we came in.

We both liked to pass the ball. We liked to try to make other guys better. And then we were winners, there was no question about that. Not that there wasn’t a lot of winners before us. But just how we played the game and approached the game, I think, made a big impact throughout the league as far as watching the game.

Magic Johnson (left) of Michigan State, and Larry Bird (right) of Indiana State during a news conference on March 25, 1979, for the NCAA college basketball championships in Salt Lake City.

AP Photo/Jerome McLendon, File

What was the NBA like when you guys came into the league?

I really didn’t know much about the NBA when I came in. I didn’t really follow it. I always watched the ABA and followed them. … Coming in, I didn’t think much about it, but as a few years went by you could see it progressing. And I could really look back and say 1984, when David Stern took over as commissioner, is where it really took off.

You got to remember, when I came into the league they had cocaine problems … so there was a lot of drug use. I can remember David Stern saying in 1981 he had to give away tickets for people to come to the All-Star Game. But once ’84 hit, you could tell it was a shift in the feelings of the NBA and how it was perceived. And then you got to remember Isiah [Thomas] came in, and Jordan came in, and Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone. You can keep naming them. A group of guys that came into our league and just took it to another level.

But that being said, you and Magic were the foundation of that …

Well, we were first, but I don’t want to say that we changed anything. But we made people take a look at the NBA the way we played. You got to remember, at that time, satellite dishes were just coming out and we were getting into more homes. …

And it goes back to college. We played against one another in the finals [in college]. And they say it’s still one of the highest-rated basketball games ever. So, obviously, we had an impact. But we didn’t change this league.

Boston gets a bad rap in terms of racism. But a lot of people don’t realize Boston drafted the first black player, had the first black starting five and had the first black head coach. Do you think a lot of that is forgotten or overlooked?

Well, I don’t know. To me, Boston is just a hardworking, tough town that loves their sports. I heard a little bit about all [the racism]. I know how Bill Russell was treated when he was there, and it gives you a feeling in your stomach. It makes you want to throw up. But I can’t speak for anybody else that said that it’s forgotten because I didn’t go through that. I didn’t see a lot of that when I was out there. All I knew is when we came into the game that they wanted you to win. But you hear about things.

What do you recall about then-Detroit Pistons forward Dennis Rodman saying in 1987 that you were overrated because you were white, with Isiah Thomas seconding it?

Well, I’ve been in them locker rooms after tough losses. There is no telling what’s said off the record, heat of the battle. Stuff like that never bothered me. Everybody is going to have their opinion, they’re going to say what they’re going to say, you just go on about your business. I can remember after that game somebody come up to me right away after they talked to Isiah. But really, it wasn’t a big deal.

We had fierce battles against Detroit at that time, and we knew as we went on we were going to have a lot more. But I think I said it back then and I say it today, that stuff don’t bother me.

Back in the 1980s, the NBA had a lot of great white American players, led by you. Why do you think that has changed in that regard today?

Yeah, a lot of different interests. Different backgrounds. I’m not saying all white people come middle-class. But anything you try to do and try to be the best at … there are not that many jobs in the NBA. I have said over the years that the black man is the better athlete, so to overcome that you’ve got to be special.

Do you reflect much on your legacy now?

Not really. It’s been so long since I’ve played. And I’m not one of the guys to go back and really talk about it. But I’ve been in a lot of situations where you’re put in a room, you’re asked about it. And over 30-something years of not playing — or 30 years, 28 years, whatever — things change. What you’re thinking is not really what happened. So I get a little nervous sometimes when I talk about it because I can sort of remember how I feel back then. But I don’t remember certain plays or certain things that happened.

And I hate to distort history by saying the wrong thing. But that’s just what happens with time. Your own thought in your mind how it happened 30 years later, but it really didn’t happen that way.

Do you watch a lot of NBA games now?

I watch a lot of individual players in college and I watch the NBA. I love the way the NBA is going. I can remember 20 years ago I was worried about small guards; now I’m worried about the centers. The game changes. I like how they cleaned it up. There is more freedom of movement, and guys can sort of let their game go. When we played in Boston in the East Coast, it was a grind-out game. But when we got to the West Coast, it was more open. You could show your talents. Guys weren’t holding on to you, grabbing you.

And I think that’s what the NBA is today. It’s a freer game, it’s more open. If you’ve got a number of skills, you’re able to display them every night.

Have you ever thought about what you in your prime could be like in the game today?

I don’t worry about it. It’s easy for me to say, ‘Our era is the best, and I was the best,’ and all that. But in my mind, I think we could compete and do really well, but you never know until you’re out there. And I say that because I played against guys that I thought were really good when I came in the league, and after playing against those guys I’d say, ‘Well, he’s not that good.’ And I think that goes back to the thinking when I was younger and I played at a small high school: I’d score a lot of points, get a lot of rebounds, but you don’t play against anybody.

Going to Indiana State, it was the same thing. But when I got into the pros, I had thoughts in my head: Can I do this? Once I got in here, I thought it was pretty easy.

Former Celtics star forward Cedric Maxwell tells a story about how when he first saw you and was like, “Man, this white boy can’t play, I’m going to kill him,” and then he shut up after one day of playing against you. Do you recall that?

Max was doing a lot of talking. But the day I walked in there, you know, it was interesting what happened. When I went to my first practice they had Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, which I didn’t know him personally, but I remember watching them on TV at UCLA. Then you had Maxwell. The only time I ever heard of his name was when I went to Boston to watch a game. I didn’t even know who he was. When I walked in, there he was, doing a lot of talking.

By the time our first practice was over, Curtis and Sidney both were cut, and Max is the only one left. You go into these things and go, well, you don’t know how you’re going to be treated, but I ain’t taking no s—. If they want to go, we have to go. But Curtis and Sidney were really nice guys. Cedric was doing all the talking. So, second practice, them two were gone and it was just Cedric. And it didn’t take long to get him quiet.

Where did your competitive fire come from?

I don’t know. I was always driven on the basketball court. I always wanted to win every game I played in, sometimes too much. When you’re out on the playground just playing, and you’re scraping, fighting, and do whatever you can to win the game. When it’s all over with, your friends and I’d think, ‘Why did I get like that?’ That’s the way I’ve always been. A number of guys I went against in college, the NBA, it was the same way. But to say I got it from my parents is bulls—. I just, I think it’s how you were raised.

You were known as a great trash-talker too. I remember when you asked the competitors before the NBA 3-point competition, ‘Who’s coming in second?’ And then you won. You also had some great battles on the court with former Pacers star Chuck Person. Was there a favorite moment?

Not really.

I’ve always respected Chuck, because when you’re playing out there in a game, you know the guys are coming after you, certain guys every time you play them, and he was one of them. There’s certain guys that just didn’t give you no resistance, maybe because they were pissed off at teammates or the coach. And as the game went on you could see they, ‘Ah, hell, we can’t beat these guys.’

But Chuck brought it every time. I always respect him for that. Yeah, we got in some verbal things. And he talked a lot junk before he got to Boston or I came to Indiana. But when it was all said and done, I respected the guy.

But the 3-point thing was more of a … it wasn’t really [trash talk]. I just walked in and seen all them guys and said, ‘Who is coming in second?’ But I didn’t do it for any reason at all. The one thing about that first 3-point contest, when I went in the locker room, they had them red, white, blue balls, and so I was feeling them. Them things were slicker than hell. I was like, ‘How am I ever going to shoot this thing?’ …

The 3-point line was never a problem. It’s just that back then I never practiced it until we had the 3-point contest. I figured I could pick up a quick $10,000 by shooting a basketball on a Saturday afternoon. Why not spend a half-hour shooting 3s?

When did you know that you were going to be a special basketball player?

I thought that the third day of [Celtics] training camp. When we started and I got drafted, we went to a place called Marshfield [Massachusetts], and that’s where we held our camp. If you can believe this, the first practice was outdoors. And at night, we would go to the gymnasium and play. But a lot of the veterans would come down there and I’d played against them. So, in my mind, I was thinking, Well, they are out of shape and not ready to go. And I’m having some success. But once we got into training camp and we got going four or five days, I thought, I know they just won 48 or 49 games last year, but I know I’m better than these guys.

I didn’t know how it was going to translate when we started playing in real games. We ended up winning 60 games, 61 games that year. But I knew early that I was going to be all right in this league.

Who are your favorite players to watch today?

A lot of them. Obviously, LeBron [James]. I can’t compare him to anybody because he’s so great, just like Michael [Jordan] was. They’re very special, and I don’t know how in hell he stays healthy. But that’s probably one of the great qualities of his game, being able to stay healthy playing that many minutes.

Kevin Durant is special. Kawhi Leonard‘s run last year in the playoffs, unbelievable. All the Golden State guys, the way they play the game, the way they respect the game. I am still amazed that Klay Thompson could score 60 points on 11 dribbles [against Indiana].

There’s just so many of them, you hate to just pick one.

I love the game now, I like where it’s at. I like where it’s going. A lot of people say, ‘Well, they don’t have to guard, you can’t touch anybody.’ Well, yeah, that makes a difference because you can show everybody your skills.

Like I said earlier, the small guards I was concerned about. Now, I’m concerned about the center. I can remember when we talked about widening the lane because you wanted to pound it inside. The lane wasn’t big enough for all of these guys. Well, it’s more than plenty big enough, we found out. The rims are high enough. It’s just how this game keeps progressing as it goes on. It’ll change like it always does. But as far as me playing in it now compared to then, I like it because it’s more open. It’s freer. I could get more possessions. You can pass the ball easier.

So why haven’t you been tempted to get back as a coach or a general manager with the Pacers or elsewhere?

Well, I enjoyed all that. I’m turning 63 this year and I had my run, just like when I was with the Pacers with Kevin [Pritchard] and [David] Morway and them guys were there, I knew my time was going to come when we needed a change, a fresh voice, just like a coach, and I’ve always felt that. A lot of guys like to hang around for the last minute. But I enjoy my life, and I feel good, and I don’t have to be there all that time. I can go out and do other things.

In the winter I can go to Florida for a while. In the summers I can do other things. I enjoy being around it. I enjoy coming to these places [like India]. I enjoy watching the guys work out all summer, so it’s still in me a little bit. But as far as a full-time gig with a GM [general manager] or a coach or something like that, I don’t have no energy, man.

What was it like being the Pacers’ general manager during the “Malice in the Palace” on Nov. 19, 2004?

Stuff like that takes a lot out of you. To be a part of it was just awful. I’ve been through a lot of things, I’ve seen a lot of scuffles. I was not there, but I was watching it on TV. To watch something like that go on, and it wasn’t just the Pacers, it was both teams, and it was awful.

We took the brunt of it. But David [Stern] made a decision. But really it was both teams. It just gives you a real bad feeling. It’s been I don’t know how many years now, but I can still visualize all that went on during that time.

Looking back, how good do you think that Pacers team could have been?

Well, you build teams hopefully to get an opportunity to play in the Finals, and they were definitely good enough. Even though we went to the Finals in 2000, I think that team was better. They didn’t get to show us how good they were.

What do your three championships mean to you now?

It was hard to get them. Obviously, injuries played a role in stopping us from winning a few more. But you never know, and I’m sure the other teams had their injuries. But our careers were really not that long. I played 13 years, but I really was there for 12, and I had about three years where I didn’t play a little more than half the season. But we had good runs, we had good teams.

And as far as winning championships, it’s the most important thing in your life when you’re doing it. They’re very special now. But it ain’t my whole world [now]. It was then. Basketball was my whole life, still is a part of my life because there is nothing like playing a game. I knew I had to practice all the time because I knew Earvin [Johnson] was practicing all the time and it’s us against the Lakers. I wanted to beat their a–.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.