Yes, I’m an extremely biased Celtics fan, however, I can provide several points. Just had to get that out of the way. I’m trying to take a little solace in the however way of watching them lose like maniacs this season. Looks like it might be a while before the modern team gets back on track. Anyhow, this longtime Celtics fan is going to throw out some thoughts on the comparison, one of which I usually never delve into, of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
It can be tough to compare players from different positions. The Forward is the toughest position to dominate a game from. But Bird was a dominant forward, and was the greatest forward of all time. Bird is the only player in history about whom there’s no argument as to being the best ever at his position. Bird was a better outside shooter, with much longer range. Bird was a far better passer. Jordan was a better individual defender, making all defense first team multiple times. But Bird was all defense 2nd team 3 times. Bird was excellent in the team defense concept, and played the passing lanes extremely well. Bird was a better leader and a better teammate. He instantly transformed the Celtic franchise, a team that won 29 games the year before he arrived. In his first 3 years, he led them to 61, 62 and 63 win seasons.
Jordan did not instantly transform the Bulls franchise, as he “led” them to three straight losing seasons upon joining the team. Jordan never played for a winning team without Scottie Pippen, and when he did make the playoffs during his first 3 years, he was knocked out in the first round each time, with a combined record of 1 win and 9 loses (thanks to the Detroit Pistons.) When Jordan left to pursue a pathetic baseball career, Scottie Pippen once won 55 games in a season without him. However, no titles, and that was the missing link to that system — Michael Jordan.
Larry Bird truly made his teammates better from the first day he stepped on an NBA court. Michael Jordan didn’t really make his teammates better in the way that Larry Bird did. Scottie Pippen had his best season in 1994, the year after Jordan’s first retirement, and in that same year, BJ Armstrong and Horace Grant made the East All star team for the only time in their 11 (Armstrong) and 17 (Grant) year careers, even though Michael Jordan wasn’t around to “make them better.” I do think Jordan was a great teammate, and made many memorable setup passes (Steve Kerr in the ’97 or ’98 NBA Finals to put the Suns away. But he had to make the shot right? He hit that 3, nailing it. Bird’s passes were always lead-and-go, here-you-go-buddy, here’s-your-present-on-Christmas Day type of passes. What I mean was, Larry Bird found his teammates on the spot, and right there when he needed to hit them on the spot with the pass, right on the money, in great position, where it seemed as if there was no way that his teammates were going to miss that upcoming shot, and they nailed the trey nearly every time Bird made those great passes, and that’s how Bird sets his passing apart from Jordan.
His leadership was in ahh in the 80’s, and really was difficult for him to win games with so many teams playing at such a high level. The same could be said with Jordan, because I’m not going to down the Trail Blazers, Suns, Sonics, or Jazz, but the stars of the 80’s made it tough. Basketball was a tougher sport then, because fouls were especially limited where you could be knocked around silly. MJ was knocked around in the 80’s by the Pistons with their “MJ rule.” He was slapped upside the face, and no fouls were called a lot of the times. It drastically changed in the 90’s, where players startd to get barely touched, and it was nearly instantly a foul. Now in days, it IS like that, and it’s sad on how basketball is becoming more and more of a sissy sport in terms of aggressiveness, and toughess. It’s hard to play defense in today’s game anymore, and offense is dominating the game. Sad enough, I still love basketball like I love chilli on my hotdog.
Larry Bird (along with Magic Johnson) also saved the NBA in the 80’s, in my opinion. Michael Jordan didn’t save the NBA from anything really, it was booming when he won his first title against Magic and the Lakers in ’91, and Michael Jordan just was becoming a superstar from mid to late 80’s when he had his run-ins with the bad boys from Detroit (too bad Pistons fans now in days never ever even mention MJ and the Bulls back then. Pfft.) After he finally got the monkey off his back from his Bulls losing to the Pistons in the playoffs, he won 6 titles in the 1990’s, and really electrified the game of basketball, spicing it up. However, he didn’t rejuvenate it. He just made people want to be just like him, and that was his biggest highlight with his shoes, titles, MVP’s.
Jordan won 6 championships to Bird’s 3, but Bird faced much tougher competition in the 80s than Jordan faced in the 90s…. the Celtics, Sixers and Lakers were all better than anyone the Bulls faced in their 90’s finals matchups. Those teams would have never even lost a game to teams like Portland, Phoenix, Seattle and Utah. If it wasn’t for Magic and the Lakers’ titles in the 80’s (especially those great Celtics/Lakers matchups), Bird would very well have 6 rings, too. Besides, if anyone wants to merely use the number of rings, then that means that Bill Russell was the greatest player of all time, period. Rings are moreso team success. The TEAM wins a title, not a PLAYER. Slap me in the face when a player scores every single point, in every single game of the regulars season, throughout the playoffs, while the player’s teammates just stand around, deliberately, and do nothing to contribute to a team. That will never happen, so don’t count on it. Another thing that Michael Jordan and Larry Bird had in common was that they were both fanatics about conditioning. They were never out of shape, and both would be just as strong in the 4th Quarter as they were in the 1st Quarter. However, if you’d ask any NBA player from that era who he’d rather have as a teammate, 99 percent of them would say Larry Bird.
Conclusion: All in all, in their prime, put them 1 on 1, and I think Michael Jordan would win. Because, in my opinion, MJ was the better individual player, which is aside from the all-around, team player. Larry Bird wasn’t so much a great athlete as he was SMART about the game of basketball. He had a knack, an uncanny one at that. Also, a great shot. He made his team better and fit in to it really nicely. However, as I mentioned, his conditioning made him an athlete, and he stuck to his instincts, and thrived at them. Therefore, I think Michael Jordan is superior in athletic ability.
As for that drive/killer instinct on the court, most would give it to MJ for his intensity, and the way he stuck his toungue out when he leaped up for a dunk (seriously, it scared defenses, and made kids run around their backyard, and dunk the bal with their toungue sticking out. It’s a signature, baby.) However, Larry Bird was just as driven and bloodthirsty on the court (in the win-getting sense, that is), so you really can’t say who you’d give that drive to. A lot comes down to team dynamic then. I could see Michael Jordan doing his thing on a different team. Larry Bird, not so much, but how would we know about Larry Legend when he spent his whole career being a loyal Boston Celtics’ player? It comes down to this: If I’m wanting to build a team around the individual player, I’ll take the #23, Michael Jordan. If it’s about who I’m wanting to take as a team player, I’ll take Larry Bird for the things he did on offense, and his pure leadership. However, that’s like picking between the filet mignon and the lobster.