‘Winning Time’: Did Larry Bird’s Father Really Take His Own Life?

I know the contours of the Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry, having watched sports for many years, but I am surprised every week by new details surfaced by Max’s Winning Time. I couldn’t believe that Magic Johnson’s first game ended as dramatically as it did in the series, and yet that’s largely how it went down. I had no clue that a dead body derailed Jerry Tarkanian’s chances to coach the Lakers or that Spencer Haywood contemplated hiring a hitman after being cut from the team due to a cocaine addiction.

 

Likewise, I didn’t know much about Larry Bird’s journey to the NBA (I’m not a Celtics fan), which took center stage in this week’s episode of Winning Time, perhaps in response to the series’ Larry Bird caricature. I’m not sure this week’s episode humanized him that much, but it did make him more interesting than the racist stereotype depicted previously in the series. Was Bird himself actually racist? There’s no evidence of that, but he did play for a majority white team in Boston, and he certainly benefited from racism.

 

As for the outline of Bird’s basketball career before the Celtics, Winning Time generally gets that right, too, although the timeline has been fudged. Bird was recruited by Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers, and he did drop out of college after only a month due to the culture shock of moving from a town of 2,000 to a college campus of 33,000 (Bob Knight was also difficult). After spending time in community college and working odd jobs in French Lick, Indiana, Bird was recruited by Indiana State University. Yes, he did wear blue jeans in a scrimmage against the varsity team. He played at Indiana State for three years before losing the national championship to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State. That’s where the rivalry between the two began.

 

It’s also true that Larry Bird declined to play for the Celtics the year after he was drafted, opting to finish his college career. Before the national championship game, he led ISU to an undefeated season. He also threatened to reenter the draft if he wasn’t compensated appropriately (he received a 5-year, $3.25 million contract — the largest ever for a rookie; compare that to Magic Johnson’s $1 million per year for 25 years after his second year). The NBA changed the rules because of Larry Bird — afterward, teams were not allowed to sign players until they renounced college or until their college eligibility ran out.

 

As for Bird’s home life? He grew up in poverty. His mother worked several jobs, and his father, a Korean War veteran and alcoholic, had fallen on hard times. Bird’s mother divorced his father the year. Joe Bird, behind on child custody payments, called his ex-wife and told her that they’d be better off without him. After he hung up, he shot himself. Joe Bird died in February 1975.

 

The difference between reality and the series, however, is that Bird was still a junior in high school when his father died (not in between colleges, as depicted in the series).

 

“I sort of always felt my dad gave up on not only himself, but us kids,” Bird once said. “I handled it pretty good, I think.” After his father’s death, Bird returned to his high school team and won a state championship.

 

The series also leaves out that Bird married and divorced within a year while in college. He fathered one child with his first wife.

 

 

 

 

Gideon Canice

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