This Day In History: August 18

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On August 18, 1992, celebrated Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird retires.

Bird was a high school basketball star in his native Indiana. After graduation, he received a scholarship to play for legendary coach Bobby Knight at Indiana University, one of the finest teams in the country. However, Bird was homesick and uncomfortable in the spotlight in Bloomington and left the school after one month. He returned to French Lick, his hometown, and eventually enrolled at the smaller Indiana State, far from a basketball powerhouse. There, Bird was a one-man offense, averaging 30 points per game as a sophomore, junior and senior. He led the Sycamores to an undefeated record in his senior season (1978-79) before losing to Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans in the most viewed NCAA title game ever.

Bird entered the NBA in 1979 and had an immediate impact on the league, winning Rookie of the Year after leading the Celtics to a 61-21 record and first place in the Atlantic Division just one year after they went 29-53 and finished in last place. In his second season, Bird, playing alongside fellow future Hall of Famers Kevin McHale at forward and Robert Parrish at center, led the Celtics to an NBA title. They would win the championship again in 1984 and 1986, with Bird winning the Finals MVP each of those two years. He was the NBA regular season MVP three years in a row, from 1984 to 1986, and a first-team NBA All-Star nine times. In the process, he won legions of loyal fans in Boston and throughout the country. Bird was also recognized for his versatility on the court: He could pass, rebound, shoot from the outside and play tough defense. As his career progressed, though, Bird began to suffer from chronic back pain that, by the 1990s, limited both his playing time and his effectiveness.

The final triumph of Bird’s career came at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, his first Olympics and the first in which professional players were allowed to participate. The much-hyped U.S. “Dream Team,” which also included his good friend and rival Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley among other NBA greats, may have been the best basketball team ever assembled. They wowed the world with their amazing play, easily brought home the gold and appeared to have a spectacularly good time in the process.

In 1992, at the age of 35, Bird’s back condition finally rendered him unable to play. At an emotional press conference in Boston to announce his retirement, Bird explained, “The last couple of years have been very tough on me, on my back and on my body. It was very hard to deal with, day in and day out.” NBA commissioner David Stern released a statement that read in part “Quite simply, Larry Bird has helped to define the way a generation of basketball fans has come to view and appreciate the N.B.A. In the future, great players will be judged against the standards he has set, but there will never be another Larry Bird.”

Bird did not disappear from the NBA after his retirement from the court. He remained in Boston, working as a special assistant in the Celtics’ front office until 1997, when he was hired as head coach of the Indiana Pacers. In 1998–the same year he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame–he led the Pacers to a 58-24 record, the best in team history, and was named NBA Coach of the Year. Bird later became the team’s president of basketball operations, a position he held until 2017.

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