Pat Riley, Larry Bird have been fierce competitors for nearly 40 years

“I think what Boston did was the equivalent of two gang warlords meeting the night before a rumble and deciding the weapons. They both say bare fists and one them shows up with zip guns. … What they did is they came into our territory, a neutral zone out there and decided to use zip guns. Weapons that we didn’t plan on because this is a game of basketball.” – Pat Riley, from The Lives of Riley, talking about the 1984 Finals between the Celtics and Lakers.

 

Pat Riley chats with Larry Bird prior to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony at Symphony Hall in Springfield, Mass., in 2012. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

 

The relationship between Pat Riley and Larry Bird got off to a rocky start. … like so many in sports when two teams are measured by what they do against each other.

But over the years it turned to respect and admiration for the job each has done wearing several hats. Although Riley and Bird never will be friends the way Magic Johnson and Bird have become, they are two of the greatest competitors in the history of all sports.

Bird’s decision last week to step down as the Pacers president of basketball operations likely ends a competition that started nearly 40 years ago and followed each of these Hall of Famers through different stages of their careers. And although Bird stepped away in 2012 but returned a year later in the same position, this does not feel like he has the desire ever to  return to a prominent role in the organization.

For those keeping score: Teams in which Riley and Bird have held jobs have met 141 times with Riley holding an 81-60 edge.

This includes Bird’s time as a player in Boston, executive in Boston and Indiana and three years as a coach in Indiana.

For Riley, this covers his time as a coach with the Lakers, Knicks and Heat and executive with the Heat.

Bird, 60, apparently has reached that point where he prefers to take a reduced role (scout, adviser) and slide into retirement sooner than the 72-year-old Riley.

“I felt it was time to step away in a full-time capacity,” Bird said Monday. “This has nothing to do with my health or our team. I’m 60 years old and I want to do other things away from basketball.”

The competition started Dec. 28, 1979, Bird’s rookie season with the Celtics and Riley’s first year on the Lakers bench as an assistant coach. The Lakers won that game 128-105 and Bird scored 16 points.

A true rivalry was born.

Pat Riley’s Lakers defeated Larry Bird’s Celtics in the 1985, 87 Finals

Riley would move over to head coach two years later, turning the Lakers into “Showtime.” The Celtics were the antithesis of the Lakers on the East Coast, dominating with a style that some said bordered on thuggery. The styles clashed and the two teams would become hated rivals, meeting three times in the Finals with the Celtics winning that physical series in 1984 and the Lakers breaking through in 1985 and winning again in 1987.

Riley later called it the greatest rivalry in basketball history.

“They were right in the midst of their dynastic run as a team. … as the Lakers were, and we were both trying to find that ultimate identity of being the best in the world by basically measuring them as a standard and we as a standard,” he once said.

“It’s really the greatest rivalry in the history of basketball, Celtics-Lakers, and I think it was derived more so in the ’60s. … But every spring, it seemed like it was Lakers-Celtics, so that’s what really planted the seed of what a great rivalry could be about.”

Then, as cooler heads prevailed and he was able to step away from the bad-blood, Riley bestowed the ultimate compliment on Bird.

“If I had to choose a player to take a final shot to win a game I’d choose (Michael) Jordan, but if I could pick one to shoot to save my life I would pick Bird.”

Riley got the better of Bird while coach of the Lakers with those two titles and winning 22-of-38 overall. When Riley took over the Knicks and then moved onto the Heat in 1995, Bird was in the Celtics’ front office as a special assistant.

The rivalry took on another dimension in 1997 when Bird was named coach of the Pacers. Riley was starting his third season in Miami and Bird barely got the better of Riley during their three years on opposite benches, going 7-5 head-to-head against Riley and the Heat. Bird coached just three seasons but captured one Coach of the Year award and took the Pacers to the 2000 Finals, losing to the Lakers.

In 2003, Bird moved into the Pacers’ front office and Riley shed his title of coach remaining as president only. Riley, though, did return as head coach for two-plus years starting early in the 2005 season.

The two had a long run of pitting teams against one another that they built. And although it come out nearly even during the regular season – Bird 33, Riley 32 – the Heat and  Riley eliminated the Pacers in the postseason with Bird in charge in 2012 and 2014, both during the Heat’s Big Three era.

[Miami Heat Mailbag: What kind of package will it take to acquire Paul George from Indiana?]

[Paul Millsap plans to opt out, enter free agency this summer. Should the Heat be interested?]

[Willie Reed says returning to the Heat next season ‘would be great.’ But is it realistic?]

[Want more Heat news sent directly to your Facebook feed? Make sure to like our Heat Facebook page]

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

0 comments