Larry Bird always knew his style of play would break his body, but he couldn't stop

Ball Don't Lie
Larry Bird slides head first under the scorer’s table after a loose ball during the first half of a mid-January Celtics-Pacers game in 1984. (AP)
Larry Bird slides head first under the scorer’s table after a loose ball during the first half of a mid-January Celtics-Pacers game in 1984. (AP)

This summer will mark the 25th anniversary of Larry Bird’s retirement from professional basketball. The Legend remains one of the most revered and decorated players in the history of the sport — a 12-time All-Star, three-time champion, a three-time Most Valuable Player and one of the greatest shooters ever to set foot on a basketball court. (Even as recently as a few years ago.)

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Thirteen seasons of hard-charging play against some of the best big men and wingmen the NBA had to offer — plus another two full seasons of postseason games, which most players will tell you take an even greater toll on you than regular-season contests — did a number on the Boston Celtics magician’s body, most notably his back, forcing him to step away from the sport at age 35, just 209 points shy of 22,000 for his illustrious career. Bird famously compounded the pounding he took as the offensive focal point of some of the best teams in league history by running miles and miles — before and after games, in the concourses of arenas and outside on the pavement — to keep himself in top condition, and avoid getting tired during crunch time on the court.

Now, though — a quarter-century removed from his final playing days, having long since shifted to the front office as the president of the Indiana Pacers — he acknowledges that his pedal-to-the-metal approach both on and off the court might have contributed to the curtailing of a career that could’ve stretched even longer. From a conversation with ESPN’s Baxter Holmes:

BH: Do you feel like if you hadn’t have done all that running that you would’ve played longer?

LB: I had to do it.

BH: But do you think you would’ve lasted longer if you hadn’t?

LB: Probably. But I couldn’t [not do all that running]. I had that thing in my body that told me to get up and go — that clock. When it’s time to run, you go run. That’s just the way I was. I remember my second year in the league, we were in the All-Star Game in New Jersey, and Artis Gilmore told me, “Man, you’re really a good player, Larry. You’re going to be great. But if you keep playing the way you’re playing, you’re not going to last long.” I said, “I can’t play any other way. That’s the way I play.”

BH: Did he mean how far you ran, or how hard you played?

LB: I think it was how hard I was playing. He never worked out. But I knew it. I knew I wasn’t going to last long. I knew I was breaking down. It was just the way it is. I had this desire to win every game and the only way I felt, in my mind, that I could do that was to be in the best condition. […]

My thoughts were always that that night was the most important game in the world. Everybody in the world was watching that one game. And I had to be the best player on the court and win that game that night. That was my mentality and it stuck with me all the way through my career. But, knowing that, I knew that I was going to pay for it in a hard way. That’s probably why, when I retired, after the press conference, I probably felt relief.

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Bird recalls how his teammate, fellow Hall of Famer Robert Parish, passed on basketball-specific workouts during the offseason in favor of then-radical approaches like yoga to remain flexible and strengthen his core. “The Chief,” the eighth overall pick in the 1976 NBA draft, stuck around to age 43, logging playoff minutes for the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls before hanging ’em up after 21 seasons; maybe he was onto something when it came to taking care of his body. (The relative merits of his, um, other preferred treatments remain very much a topic of debate, in both the NBA and the nation at large.)

Bird now thinks that his intense commitment to pushing his limits — “I had to run my 3 miles to warm up. I had to ride my bike 12½ miles. I had to sprint. I always felt that I had to do more, more, more” — might have helped put too much strain on his 6-foot-9 frame. His decision to spend a year working as a garbageman in French Lick, Ind., between dropping out of Indiana University in 1974 and enrolling at Indiana State University in 1975 might not have helped matters, either. (Ditto for eating “ten gallons of ice cream and seven weddin’ cakes” in 2 1/2 weeks on the shelf as a 34-year-old sidelined by a variety of issues.)

What certainly didn’t help, though, was Bird’s decision in the summer of 1985 — at 28 years old, in the heart of his prime, coming of a heartbreaking six-game loss in the NBA Finals to frenemy Magic Johnson and the arch-rival Los Angeles Lakers — not to hire a contractor. From Jackie MacMullan’s great book on the Magic-Bird era, “When the Game Was Ours”:

Bird wasn’t lounging on the beach in the summer of 1985. He was shoveling gravel for drainage to protect the new basketball court he had just installed. Although he had the financial means (times ten) to hire someone to do the work, the Celtics star prided himself on doing his own chores.

He knew it had been a mistake, however, the minute he tried to get out of bed the following morning. He had done something to his back and was alarmed by his lack of mobility. He walked around, tried to shake the stiffness, but the pain was unbearable. He lay down and tried to rest, but the sharp jolts shooting down his leg were persistent. Something was wrong — seriously wrong.

In subsequent years, Bird would learn that his back troubles were the result of a congenital condition. The canal in which the nerves led to his spinal cord was too narrow, which caused all that unbearable pain. It was truly remarkable, his surgeon told him after watching Bird play basketball, that he managed for as long as he did.

For the next three weeks, Bird did not play any basketball. Still, the back problems did not subside. Quinn Buckner called to see about working out with him in West Baden [the Indiana town where Bird was born]. He knew something was amiss when Larry declined.

“Quinn,” he said, “I’m in trouble.”

With the help of treatment and physical therapy, Bird would return to form, winning MVP honors and his third NBA championship in the 1985-86 season. He’d never quite be the same, though, constantly playing through pain and beginning a downward spiral that would see him undergo multiple operations over the next several years, including major back surgery for an injury so severe that it put Bird in a fiberglass body brace that stretched from his chest to his hips.

More from MacMullan:

By 1992, his back injuries were the cumulative result of years of diving into the stands, trading elbows with seven-footers, and repeatedly hurling his body onto the parquet after loose balls. The L-4 vertebra on Bird’s back was compressed and twisted on the L-5 vertebra, and a nerve was trapped in between the two. The condition left Bird with unstable bones pushed into the nerves, and a piercing, burning pain shooting down his leg. Physical therapist Dan Dyrek, who spent most of the year attempting to manipulate Bird’s spine to relieve some of the pressure of bone on nerve, begged him to retire.

“I had genuine concerns about what it would mean for the rest of his life,” Dyrek said.

A year and a half after his retirement, Bird underwent spinal fusion surgery to address the issue. Even so, like many former players, the aggregated wear and tear he put on his body during his years on the hardwood has continued to trail him, most notably in the form of an enlarged heart and atrial fibrillation, or an abnormal heartbeat. After the deaths of contemporaries like Jerome Kersey, Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone, Bird waxed macabre on the topic during a conversation with MacMullan earlier this year:

“I tell my wife all the time, ‘You don’t see many 7-footers walking around at the age of 75,'” says Bird, who’s 6-foot-9. “She hates it when I say that. I know there are a few of us who live a long time, but most of us big guys don’t seem to last too long. I’m not lying awake at night thinking about it. If it goes, it goes.” […]

Bird, [who turns 60 on Dec. 7], says more research is clearly needed. “I have my own philosophies on that,” Bird says. “Guys that played the hardest in the league — big guys who ran their asses off — they are the ones in the most danger, I feel. Moses was one of those competitors. We build our hearts up when we are playing and then we quit performing at a high level, and our hearts just sit there. I don’t work out like I used to. I can’t. I can’t go out and run. I jog and have a little sauna, that’s about it. My body won’t let me do more than that.”

The National Basketball Players Association is doing yeoman’s work in trying to help retired players stay on top of their health and stay around as long as possible. For their part, today’s players and coaches — some holdouts aside, and despite some grumbling — are taking a much more proactive tack when it comes to attempting to limit players’ workloads as they make their way through the grueling 82-game NBA season. That’s good. That’s important.

The thing I keep wondering, though, is whether the message Bird delivers today — that he thinks going 100 miles per hour every chance he got in pursuit of glory (with the occasional exception of a defensive possession here and there) shortened his career, might have meaningfully harmed his health, and might have contributed to a decline in his quality of life and perhaps even life expectancy — will resonate nearly as much with players and fans as the part where he talks about how he had to do it that way.

We live for that kind of commitment from our athletic avatars, and gladly exalt those who go the extra mile time and again for even the most infinitesimal of gains, because we want the players we watch to live and die with every possession just like we do; we want it to matter to them as much as it matters to us, if not more, and we’ll all deal with the consequences tomorrow. In a vacuum, if given the choice between a few more devil-may-care crashes into the crowd after loose balls or a few more years of productive life for those players, we’d probably all take the latter. In the context of the world as it actually exists, though, I’m not so sure we would, or do.

Now, Bird looks with some regret at not taking steps to prolong his career, but he says he knew back then that he’d pay a price for his approach, and he chose it anyway. One can only hope that, for him and for the generations of players who’ve followed in his footsteps, the cost doesn’t prove too dear, or come due too soon.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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