When you imagine Larry Bird, the image of a talented NBA player probably springs to the front of your mind. The famous forward burst into the spotlight during his time at Indiana State and only got bigger from there. During his time in Beantown, Larry Legend became, well, a legend. Whether he was scoring with his left hand, draining a clutch three-pointer, or talking a bit of trash, No. 33 could do it all.
And while it’s easy to view Bird as a fully formed product — he was good for as long as he was in the public eye, after all — that’s obviously not the case. Everyone has to start somewhere and learn some key lessons en route to stardom.
Where did the Hick from French Lick hit the metaphorical books? At least part of his basketball education came in third grade.
Let’s check it out.
Larry Bird learned about fundamentals from his youth basketball coach, and those lessons served him well
It’s easy to write youth basketball off as an after-school activity with limited coaching and crowds of small children chasing after the ball. Larry Bird, however, apparently learned some important lessons during that stage of his career.
“Jim Jones, a former University of Indiana baseball player, ran the youth basketball program in French Lick and had a big impact on Bird’s early days,” Dan Shaughnessy explained in his 2021 book, Wish It Lasted Forever: Life With the Larry Bird Celtics. “Larry played in Jones’ Biddy Ball program when Larry was in third grade. Jones taught the boys how to box out and shoot free throws.”
Those lessons may sound basic — every youth coach is going to stress those parts of the game — but they did serve Bird well. He knocked down 88.6% of his free throws in the Association and averaged 10.0 rebounds per game across his professional career. Is it possible that he was simply relying on raw talent? Maybe, but it’s still reasonable to think that he internalized Jones’ lessons and never looked back.
Those weren’t the only lessons the famous forward learned in Biddy Ball, though.
“[Jones] encouraged the right-handed Bird to use his left hand, which came naturally to a boy who boy who wrote and ate left-handed,” Shaughnessy continued. “Jones stressed fundamentals and practice, which became twin pillars of Bird’s game.”
Here the impact of the coach’s guidance becomes a bit more apparent. While the stories of Bird’s left-handed game have become more and more embellished over the years, the Celtics star was more than comfortable using his weaker hand when the situation called for it. And, as Shaughnessy noted, No. 33 always valued fundamentals and practice. As Michael Jordan himself once explained, Bird knew he wasn’t the most athletic, so he honed every other part of his game to mitigate that potential weakness.
That wasn’t the only lesson Bird learned in his hometown
While those principles from Jones clearly stuck with Larry Bird, they weren’t the only things he learned in French Lick. When the forward got a bit older, he got a crash course from some unexpected teachers.
During a 2019 interview with Marc J. Spears of Andscape.com (then The Undefeated), the topic of pick-up games came up. Spears mentioned that he’d heard stories of a young Bird playing against grown men who worked at a nearby hotel; No. 33 confirmed that was true and provided some additional details.
“In between games they’d smoke their Kool cigarettes and drink their beer, but great guys,” Bird recalled. “They treated me very well. When I showed up, if somebody needed a break, they’d throw me right in there, and I’d be in there the rest of the day. But they were pretty good players. They really weren’t great by any means. They always seemed to let me get in there and play with them, and I always enjoyed that because I always looked at that group of guys. They had a great kinship, they got along very well. … Score meant very little, but a lot of talking going on, a lot of fun.”
Although those games might not have been the most conventional classroom, it’s easy to see what Larry Legend took from the experience. Not only was the forward largely undaunted by any NBA challenge, but he showed that with his ability to talk trash to anyone who would listen. When you consider that one of his signature moves was telling an opponent how he was going to score and then executing, the confidence of those hotel workers hadn’t been forgotten.
At the risk of trotting out a cliche, we’re all a product of the people and experiences we encounter along the way. That was true of Larry Bird, even at the height of his NBA powers.