Larry Bird’s post-playing career has humbled him. He’s still a competitor of the highest order, and as president of the Pacers, has pressed players like franchise star Paul George to reach his standard of excellence. That’s how he differs from Michael Jordan though, excluding their few years’ difference in age: he has let go of the need to prove his playing ability as he matures.
When Bird appeared on The Dan Patrick Show on Monday, the host baited him with the retired-athlete provocation du jour. Could he go toe to toe with his 1980s rival Jordan? Here’s his answer:
LB: God, I hate to admit this, but he’d kill me. (laughs)
DP: I don’t know if I honestly believe that.
LB: Dan, I’m 40 pounds more than I was when I played, I’m broken down. I really don’t care like I used to. I have a fight in me, but it’s not the fight I once had. But it would be a pretty close game. (laughs)
Bird had a chance to correct course, though, and stick to his narrative profile as a stone cold killer of opponents and ruthlessly confident shot-maker. But the Indiana legend wouldn’t exaggerate the length of time he was “great” enough to contend with active NBA talent as he made his way into the coaching ranks:
DP: Was there ever point when you were coaching that you were better than somebody on your roster?
LB: Back when I was 40? Nah, I don’t know about that.
DP: What about shooting?
LB: Oh yeah. When it came to shooting, ain’t no problem.
DP: OK, was there a point where you were coaching, where you were the best shooter on the team?
LB: No, Reggie was here. Chris Mullin was here. Sam Perkins. We had some pretty good shooters.
He just gave Reggie Miller and Chris Mullin their due as the greatest shooters of that Pacer era without needing to compare himself. Jordan, who could probably beat Bird right now judging by this video of him trash-talking in a recent 2-on-2 with Tom Brady, hasn’t yet shown that he can let go of his playing accolades. At 50, he told Wright Thompson of ESPN that he could probably return to playing professionally and be effective.
In all seriousness, Jordan said that.
It may be demanding too much of our icons that they age gracefully, fully circumspect that with time comes softer stances and rounded edges. Bird, however, absorbs the truth of his age with considerable respect for what he is now and a strong memory of what he was — without needing the two ideas to be the same. That’s novel and admirable.