INDIANAPOLIS — No one knew the thoughts swirling in Larry Bird's head the summer of 1992. Bird was in Barcelona, Spain, on a court battling Croatia in the gold medal basketball game of the Olympics – and he had a secret.
Bird was a member of the USA's star-laced Dream Team, but he wasn't there as some token player. He was not some perfunctory add to the roster.
If he had been anyone other than Larry Bird, he might not even have been on that team at all and, if he were, maybe as a backup.
Bird was 35. He had played 13 seasons at full throttle in the NBA and back injuries were plaguing him.
Without Bird, that Dream Team had colossal talent: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley.
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But as the USA trounced Croatia 177-85 for the gold medal Aug. 8, 1992, Bird wasn't just a role player. He was a contributor, an important contributor. Against Germany in the USA's third game, Bird led the American team with 19 points – and he did it with that secret looming in his head.
"Larry was a force to be reckoned with," said Bill Benner, who was a sports columnist for the Indianapolis Star, covering the Olympics in Barcelona. "He was not window dressing in any shape or form."
And yet 10 days later, 10 days after Bird reveled in the gold, he retired from basketball.
The secret was out. He no longer could play the game he loved at the level he wanted to play.
Fans grieved at the news of Bird's retirement Aug. 18, 1992. The basketball world gushed. Opponents sang Bird's praises. No one was shocked, said Benner.
For at least two seasons, Bird had been seen lying by the bench, flat on the floor in between playing. He was nursing his back, that nagging back.
"It was increasingly difficult for him to be Larry Bird," Benner said. "And if Larry Bird is not 100%, his pride is such he wouldn't have wanted to gradually bow out." He wouldn't have wanted to go downhill as the world watched.
So Bird played his final game, not for the Boston Celtics where he had spent his entire 13-year NBA career, but for the USA.
"I think everybody knew that Dream Team was kind of his last soiree," said Jake Query, morning co-host of the Kevin & Query show on 107.5 The Fan. "A lot of people knew in their hearts Bird was playing his last game."
'I knew this day was going to come'
The improbable superstar of professional basketball, a country boy bred on biscuits and gravy who worked as a garbage truck driver at 18 and who grew into a soft-spoken beast on the court, retired 30 years ago. Bird choked back tears at the news conference in Boston.
The rest of the world did not.
Fans mourned as Bird's 13-year career came to an end with just a few words: "I knew this day was going to come," Bird said as he announced his retirement, but he couldn't say any more, not until he swallowed the lump in his throat.
Fans were shown in tears on nightly television newscasts, hours after Bird ended his NBA career. They reminisced about the French Lick basketball teen of Springs Valley High, who went on to "single handedly" lead his Indiana State team to the NCAA championship game, who went on to flourish as a bona fide Celtics legend.
They lamented that there would never be another star like Bird, a star who always talked and acted as if he was not. A star who preached that all it really took to be an NBA great was hard work.
The star who said things like, "I've got a theory that if you give 100% all of the time, somehow things will work out in the end" and "I hate to lose more than I like to win." And a star who looked back on the career he was giving up and downplayed the importance of what he had done.
"I always thought the whole idea of being paid to play pro basketball is ridiculous. I mean, think about it. You are taking that ball, running down the court and you've got somebody on you," Bird said after retiring. "And you look up and the place is packed, and all you are trying to do is make that ball go through the hole. It's just crazy to me. After all these years, it still doesn't make sense."
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But it made sense, a lot of sense, to the people who loved to watch Bird play, to the players who battled against him, to the coaches who led him and to the men who coached against him. Bird had legend written all over him.
"Larry was the only player in the league that I feared, and he was the smartest player I ever played against," Magic Johnson said when Bird retired. "I always enjoyed competing against him because he brought out the best in me. Even when we weren't going to head to head, I would follow his game because I always used his play as a measuring stick against mine."
The measuring stick was now packed away and everyone in the NBA knew it.
"Pro basketball has just thrown away the mold," said Pat Riley, the coach of the New York Knicks at the time. "He was one of a kind. Unique. Not just the best of the best but the only one who ever did what he did. He was a true warrior."
A warrior, a king, a legend. All the superlatives were used as Bird sat in front of a microphone in a red, white and blue polo shirt, biting his bottom lip.
No matter how stoic Bird had tried to be as the unlikely superstar of the NBA, on this day, he couldn't fight the emotions. The emotions that came with saying goodbye, not to greatness or legend, in Bird's mind, but saying goodbye to playing the game he had always loved so much.
'Larry believed in Larry long before anyone else believed in him'
The goal hung on a dilapidated barn on a dirt driveway. It was a rusty rim on a wooden backboard. This was Bird's childhood basketball goal in French Lick. An ironic beginning for a kid who went on to be great in the flashy, glitzy world of the NBA.
"My understanding as a kid was that great players only came from the city," said Rob Hammer, who published a book inspired by Bird's childhood basketball goal. "I didn’t understand how his greatness came from such humble beginnings."
Bird's childhood hoop proved to a young Hammer that it didn't matter how much money you had or where you came from. Basketball brilliance could start anywhere.
For Bird, that hoop is where his brilliance began. He shot baskets from morning until night and, when the sun started setting and shadows crept in, Bird kept shooting. He would shoot in the dark. Bird knew what he wanted, to some day be great at this thing called basketball.
"I remember when I came here 13 years ago, he looked like a little country bumpkin," Celtics president Red Auerbach said the day Bird retired. "But when you looked into his eyes, you knew he was no dummy. He knew what he wanted in life and what he needed to get there."
All that shooting off the side of a barn turned into Bird becoming a high school star. At Springs Valley High, Bird scored 1,125 career points, averaged 30.6 points and 20.5 rebounds. He was named an Indiana All-Star.
But in that All-Star game, Benner watched Bird on the verge of tears as he got scant playing time. Coach Kirby Overman "didn't think he was worth" playing, said Benner.
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"I recall Larry being tremendously upset," Benner said. "That was another stepping stone for Larry, his unending drive to prove himself, to prove he was far more than just a small town, country kid."
Somehow, the kid from French Lick had an uncanny belief in himself, no matter what others said. "Larry believed in Larry," Benner said, "long before anyone else believed in him."
Bird went on to shine in the NBA and is widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
Through his 13-year career with the Celtics, Bird helped seal Boston’s basketball greatness. He won three championships, 1981, 1984, and 1986. He led the Celtics to the playoffs in every season of his career. Bird was a 3-time league MVP and left the game with more than 21,000 points.
Bird flourished, he dominated, he flew. And then all those years of fighting and giving his all set in. Bird just couldn't do it anymore.
'He just couldn't carry on like that'
Georgia Bird saw her son was in pain. She told him, "Larry, it's time." Time to retire.
Bird told his mother he couldn't. "Oh mom. I need the money," Bird would say. It was a joke to deflect the real issue, the injury that meant Bird might have to say goodbye to basketball.
Georgia Bird talked to the Indianapolis Star hours after her son announced his retirement in 1992. Bird had finally taken her advice. It was the best for Bird, Georgia said, but somehow it didn't feel like a happy day.
"Bird's flight of greatness comes to end," the front page of the Indianapolis Star proclaimed of Bird's retirement. "Hoosier legend's heart is still in it, but his back isn't."
His mom had been right. The nagging back pain wasn't just nagging. It was excruciating.
"He just couldn't carry on like that," Georgia Bird said. Injuries had limited Bird's effectiveness in his final seasons. And that frustrated Bird.
"Because here was a man who knew how to play basketball at only one speed. All out," wrote the Indianapolis Star in 1992.
Even through back issues, Bird never let up. He couldn't, Bird told reporters as he retired.
"I wasn't going to let an injury stop me from diving on the floor, to try to do everything that I was capable of doing to win a basketball game," he said. "And that's all I want to be remembered for."
'I always hated playing Larry'
Of course, Bird has been remembered for that and much more.
"He could do it all. He was a phenomenal shooter, he was a phenomenal passer, he was a phenomenal teammate that lifted others up and made them better," Benner said. "And he had a confidence and belief in himself that was, I hate the word extraordinary, but it was extraordinary. He believed in himself more than anyone else."
A year before he retired, Bird was playing the Pacers in the 1991 playoffs. Bird suffered an injury to his cheek. But the cheek wasn't the only thing bothering him. His back was, too. During that playoff series, Bird was seen lying on the sidelines in pain.
No one knew if Bird would come back into the game.
"As we all sat there, I said, 'It's Larry.' There is no way Larry isn't coming back," Donnie Walsh, then the Pacers president, told IndyStar. "Of course he came back. I always hated playing Larry."
Bird returned from the injury as the Celtics were struggling and helped Boston hold off the Pacers' fourth-quarter rally to claim a 124-121 victory and the series win. Bird scored 32 points.
"I thought it was a little over dramatized back then," said Query. "But in hindsight, his back was that bad."
When Bird retired a year after that game, it was "like a forgone conclusion. It was something you knew had been coming for two to three years," Query said. It wasn't a retirement that sent shock waves through the NBA.
'There will never be another Larry Bird'
Back in Barcelona on a subway ride in 1992 to Pavelló Olímpic de Badalona where the USA's basketball Dream Team was playing its games, Benner noticed a young boy from Spain looking at his press credentials. The boy saw the word "Indianapolis" in the Indianapolis Star.
"Indianapolis?" the boy said to Benner. "Indiana? Larry Bird?" When Benner said yes to all three, a smile spread across the young boy's face.
"That was one of my most memorable moments," Benner said, "because it underscores what a worldwide presence Larry Bird was."
And while fan admiration is often the measuring stick of players after they leave the game, Bird finished his career, cemented his career with words from the men who called him their opponent.
"The thing about Larry Bird that has been fascinating to me, now when I hear those great players talk about the best players they've played against, one of the first names they say is Larry Bird," said Query. "I don't know if Larry Bird's legacy was cemented as much by fans but as by fellow players."
"Without a doubt, he was one of the most, if not the most, difficult player for me to defend," former Laker and then team executive Michael Cooper said on the day Bird retired.
Other players went on about the legend of Bird. Michael Jordan said Bird was the best trash talker. Johnson said Bird's play kept him awake at night. Julius Erving said Bird had the best vision on the court.
"Quite simply, Larry Bird has helped to define the way a generation of basketball fans has come to view and appreciate the NBA," David Stern, then NBA commissioner said when Bird retired. "In the future, great players will be judged against the standards he has set, but there will never be another Larry Bird."
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Larry Bird had secret as he won gold on Dream Team: He would retire.