When Larry Bird was on the court, the basketball itself seemed to take on a different set of kinetic properties, a whole other range of potential places it could go and ways of getting there. One quick tap off the dribble could send it sharply into the hands of an open man cutting toward the basket. Or maybe Bird would simply flip it behind-the-back to finish off the fast break. Open on the baseline, instead of taking the easy shot at 20 feet, he might put the ball back on the floor, step back, look down to make sure his feet were behind the 3-point line, and then let it fly. It was as if the opponent didn’t present enough challenges; Bird had to go and create a few more on his own just to keep things interesting.
It was a way of talking trash without even opening his mouth. Bird was a master of these subtle and not-so-subtle little psych-outs: the choke sign, the word of warning, the well-placed taunt. Sometimes, with the 3-pointer hanging airborne in the middle of its arc, Bird would turn around and head back on defense, the shot already completed as far as he was concerned. He knew when the shot was going in.
He also knew when it wasn’t—both his own shots and others’. It was the source of his mastery as a rebounder. Not only did he know when a shot would miss; he knew the precise angle, distance, and velocity at which it would return off the rim or backboard. Positioning himself accordingly before anyone knew what was happening allowed him to always make it there in time. When you think three moves ahead of the opponent, it’s often possible to get away with being three times as slow.
And yet, he could sometimes be alarmingly quick, for someone of his size, complexion, and reputation. In traffic on the break, he moved through the lanes with agility and speed. Rightfully regarded as someone cool in the clutch, the go-to-guy with the game on the line, it’s important to remember that perhaps his most significant clutch play, against the Pistons in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, was a feat of defensive athleticism (and anticipation): a running-lunging steal from an inbounds pass and then the no-look assist.
All of these attributes were grounded deeply in the fundamentals. That’s where his roots were. He wasn’t the first. Plenty of players had already taken the fundamentals and made them flashy. It took someone like Bird to come along, seize the flash, and then make it nothing less than fundamental, in some of the places in the game where you’d never expect it.