Bird’s Rookie Year – Game 17 vs. the Nets

Celtics (12-4) vs. Nets (7-12)
Wednesday, November 21, 1979

The Celtics looked to begin another winning streak after a turnover-plagued loss to the New York Knicks with a home game against the Nets the night before Thanksgiving.  After dropping the game to the Knicks, as well as one to the 76ers, the Celtics fell to just 3-2 in the Atlantic Division but still entered the night in first place as the Sixers, now 13-6, had lost four out of their last six games.

Kevin Loughery’s bunch had almost been beaten down by the Celtics earlier in Jersey with a 37-point drubbing, but would play a much more precise game against Boston at the Garden.  The Nets led by four after a quarter and took an 13-point cushion into the half before the Celtics stormed back with a 31-17 third quarter to tie the game after three.  The final frame belonged to the Celtics, as the Green Team gave the 13,265 something to be thankful for with a 111-103 victory.

Larry Bird bounced back with a 24/12 performance, adding three assists but still turning the ball over four times.  Though Bird was only playing in his seventeenth game in the NBA, the stakes were extraordinarily high for the rookie.  Or at least they were to everyone else involved.  Douglas Looney shared more in a Sports Illustrated feature on the kid from French Lick:

Larry Bird, the Designated Savior of professional basketball, was being driven back to Boston following a recent visit to the sport’s Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Agent Bob Woolf, who negotiated Bird’s five-year contract with the Celtics—at $650,000 per, plus an estimated $325,000 signing bonus—was at the wheel of the gray Cadillac Fleetwood. Bird’s contract is the most lucrative ever for an NBA rookie; indeed, only veterans David Thompson in Denver, Bill Walton in San Diego, Moses Malone in Houston and Artis Gilmore in Chicago make as much or more. Woolf glanced over at the $3.6 million man and said, “All I can say is you’d better be good.”

“I’ll knock ‘em dead,” replied Bird.

“But what if you don’t?”

“Then everybody will say, ‘Gee, I don’t know what could have happened to him. He sure was good in college.’ “

And both of them broke up laughing. Why not? Bird and Woolf have the cash; the NBA and the Celtics have the crossed fingers. If Bird is anything short of splendiferous on the court, he will be judged a failure of enormous proportions. Not since Walton came into the NBA in 1974 has there been so much interest—yea, unbridled hope—invested in a single player. Says Bird with a shrug, “Nobody expects much of a rookie.” Wrong. Says Boston’s new coach, Bill Fitch, “I’d say he adds a little to our expectations.” Ah, come on, Bill.

Looney captured a young, playful Bird.  Even in 1979, he always had a knack for saying the right thing at precisely the right moment:

It is unlikely that Bird will fail, what with his unerring accuracy from the outside (the new three-point rule helps him), but his preference is to pass. “If the other guys score,” says Bird, “you start seeing a gleam in their eyes. Besides, passing is more of an art than scoring.” At a recent dinner on Cape Cod, Ethel Kennedy asked him what he liked most about basketball. “Passing,” said Bird. Woolf heard that, laughed and said, “See what a great guy he is?” Al McGuire thinks it will take Bird one season before he’ll be an all-star. “I know what I can do and what I can’t,” says Bird. But when pressed, he can’t think of much he can’t do. Nor can anyone else.

And, in an ode to many of the current fans of basketball frustrated with the league’s product, Bird held the very same point of view:

“I can see why fans don’t like to watch pro basketball,” he says. “I don’t, either. It’s not exciting.” If that makes those at league headquarters cringe, it is also classic Bird. He talks straight (“Very few people can turn a team around by themselves, and I’m not one of them”), he shoots straight (28.6 points per game last year at Indiana State, where he was College Player of the Year) and, most important, he passes straight. Indeed, Bob Cousy, the greatest ball handler in the league’s history, says, “He has exceptional passing ability, the best I’ve ever seen.” Nonetheless, Fitch cautions, “Yeah, but if the guys he’s passing to are throwing up bricks, well, Bird won’t be too good.”

Coach Fitch did not tinker with the starting lineup, beginning with the same five he had used the prior sixteen games.  A combined 10 3-pointers were attempted, but each team only connected on one (Bird hit the lone three for the Celts).  Both teams attempted roughly the same amount of shots (85-81, Boston) but the Celtics controlled the battle of the boards, particularly on the offensive glass with an 18-11 differential.  Teams that could expose Boston’s weakness in the paint provided problems both home and away, but New Jersey was not good enough to deliver that kind of forceful attack.  Eddie Jordan, a third-year pro out of Rutgers (where the Nets played their home games, too) paced NJ with 21 points and 7 assists — but was forced into 7 turnovers.  Despite his four turnovers, Tiny Archibald delivered yet another sensational game at the point for the Celtics, scoring 21 and dishing out 10 assists (Archibald had nearly half of the team’s 21 assists, but the team also amassed 21 turnovers).  Joey Crawford officiated the affair and, to the surprise of no one reading this, four technical fouls were called.  The calls were whistled against 1) Fitch in the first; 2) a Jersey illegal zone in the second; 3) Coach Loughery in the second; and 4) Dave Cowens in the third.

The win had added significance, as the Sixers lost by three in Houston to drop to 13-7.  Philadelphia preceded to rip off the next nine games, forcing the Celtics needed to put together a winning streak of their own in order to stay ahead.

The C’s returned to the Garden on Friday night against Indiana, looking to even the score with Slick Leonard and his Pacers.

 

About Justin Barrasso

Justin Barrasso has worked in the Boston sports scene in various different capacities since 2001, including writing for the Boston Herald and WEEI.com.