A Sure Way to Upset Larry Bird

(Ed. note: This column first appeard in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on January 11, 2009)


One of the never-ending quests of stat freaks and fantasy geeks is to devise a system that resolves one of the most passionate sports arguments, which is: How do you determine who the best player is?

That’s important on several levels, not the least of which is to determine votes for awards like MVP or in the case of an article in this section, ranking the best point guards. It is also important on a more casual level – who do you pick in the first round of your fantasy draft?

During the ‘80s at one of the NBA Finals involving the Celtics, Larry Bird told reporters the system he used for ranking players. He gave each player one point for every point, rebound, assist, steal and block and subtracted a point for each missed field goal, free throw, turnover and foul.

i was of the opinion then – and I still am – that Larry Bird was better at that sort of thing that most people, and years of reading articles by self-styled “fantasy experts” has not changed that opinion.

Motivated by Bird’s system, a group of us formed the first Larry Bird League and Bird became our titular president. He had only one duty each year – to pick the draft order.

That led to several comical moments, but my friend Terry Lyons, who worked many years for the NBA, has a favorite. In 1992, we were in Barcelona at the Dream Team hotel one day and Bird had a couple of his buddies I think from Indiana and they were sitting at the bar drinking a beer.

The bar had only six seats and we were forming a Olympic fantasy league. So we wrote the team names on small bits of paper and put them in a baseball cap. Bird looked over a couple of times and knew what was going on.

We mixed up the pieces of paper and I walked towards Bird. He turned, began reaching in the hat and picking the order. We never said a word to each other. He knew what his role was.

Whenever I saw Bird, he would always ask about the league. After a couple of years, I told him that I had revised his formula and had eliminated fouls because sometimes giving a foul is a good play and shouldn’t be a deduction. Also, superstars tended to get more favorable calls.

“You’re wrong about that,” he said. “Superstars get all the calls.”

It was important to let him know I changed it and in his role as titular president, he approved the change. We still use the system and when the stats are calculated, we call the totals “Bird points.”

When Bird had surgery to remove bone spurs in both heels in 1988, it looked like he would return before the end of the season. I had taken him in the draft, but managed to trade him soon after the injury based on the diagnosis that he would return, which he never did. He played only six games that season.

Bird didn’t like to talk to the media while he was recuperating, but one day, I was in Boston and saw him. He said hello, but then walked away.

“Larry, just wanted to let you know I traded you,” I said with his back to me.

Bird, who was on crutches, stopped, turned slowly and walked towards me.

“You traded me?” he said incredulously. “Who did you get?”

“John Stockton and Willie Anderson.”

Bird looked at me, frowned, shook his head and told me in graphic terms that my trading partner had violated me.

“Larry,” I said as he hobbled away. “You’re hurt! You can’t play!”

Didn’t matter. I had insulted him.

The Bird system is not perfect. But as far as my group of friends are concerned, it is the best system we’ve seen. If it’s good enough for Larry Bird, it’s good enough for us.

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