Larry Bird was an absolute sensation in the 1980’s. He did things that were - are still - unbelievable, seemingly magical.
He just had a gift. Former Detroit Piston Joe Dumars calls him a savant.
Everyone acknowledged him as a great, great player Typically though, people talk about him as a guy who overcame a lack of athleticism to be a phenomenal player.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not given his extraordinary knowledge of the game and his iconoclastic personality, the late Bill Russell disagrees.
In this clip, Russell is doing color commentary on a Celtics-Hawks game. Bird makes several plays that draw Russell’s attention.
On the first, the other announcer, named Skip, says that Bird just has a knack for being in the right place.
Russell corrects him, saying that “I want to tell you something, Skip. Contrary to popular belief, Larry Bird is a leaper. He can jump...there aren’t ten guys in this league that can out-jump him.”
It’s an amazing comment but, well, how can you argue with Russell? He was not only one of the best players in the history of the game and the greatest winner in the history of team sports, he was also profoundly observational.
He goes on to say that intelligence will only take you so far and that you have to have real physical gifts to play at this level.
It’s always been interesting to us that Russell and former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had diametrically opposite points of view about how to approach the game. Krzyzewski wanted his players to be instinctive while Russell thought that. you couldn’t possibly excel unless you studied the game and approached it intellectually.
Both approaches worked tremendously well, but for our purposes here, you have to trust Russell’s lifetime habits of close observation.
Still, it’s so different from what everyone ever thought about Bird, including Bird himself, who once said that he probably wouldn’t have become the player he did if he had been more gifted.
On the other hand, he never said clearly that he couldn’t jump, so make up your mind.