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Editor’s note: “Distant Replay” is an occasional feature from The Athletic re-examining notable games from Boston sports history. Read more Distant Replays.

Game 5 of the 1991 first-round series against the Indiana Pacers might not be the most elegant or important game of the original Big 3 Celtics era. But this game has lived on in Celtics lore for one reason: Larry Bird’s incredible return from smashing his head on the parquet floor.

The 34-year-old Bird had missed 22 games that season due to a compressed nerve and ruptured disc in his back and the pain had gotten so bad that he spent the night before Game 5 in traction in the hospital. When Bird had back surgery after the season was over, the surgeon said, “I don’t see how he played with what he had.”

Nonetheless, Bird was out there in an elimination game, leading with his ground-bound wizardry even if he looked like he would shatter if he tried to land from a layup. He was just starting to find his rhythm when, at the 4:37 mark of the second quarter, he dove after a loose ball. Bird went for it with his right hand and tried to brace for impact, but the hand couldn’t break his fall. He landed on his stomach and violently smashed his head on the ground.

“When I hit the floor, I thought I broke my jaw, because I couldn’t move my mouth,” Bird told the Pacers website in a 2004 piece pairing his interview with that of Indiana’s Chuck Person. “I was in a lot of pain, but I could hear the crowd out there and I thought, ‘I can’t leave those guys out there all by themselves.”

Bird lay motionless as the Pacers ran the floor to draw a foul, but he soon got up and walked back to the locker room. It would turn out he broke his cheekbone and he was told his night should be over.

“The doctor told me I probably had a concussion and they didn’t think I should go out there with both the back and the damage I did to my brain,” Bird said. “I rattled it a little bit.”

When he later jogged back out to the court buttoning his white warm-up jacket halfway through the third quarter, the crowd went into a frenzy as Bird settled in a crouch in front of the bench. Coach Chris Ford called a timeout and the Garden erupted, greeting the check-in process with a feverish standing ovation the entire way through.

“I thought, ‘Well, here’s the second coming,’” Person later told the Pacers’ site. “He definitely played ungodly the rest of the way. For a guy who could’ve broken his neck or fractured a jaw or something, he really came out and performed at a level he’s accustomed to playing at.”

There was this special sense of relief, as much as it was a thrill. When Bird had run off into the locker room, everyone hoped he would return, and many probably expected it. But there remained this gnawing fear that Bird would never emerge from that tunnel and that was the last of one of the most beloved athletes Boston had ever seen.

“I kept hearing the crowd oohing and aahing, and I kept asking what the score was,” Bird said. “I had this massive headache on the right side of my head but finally I decided, ‘This could be your last game ever, so you’d better get out there and give it all you can.”

He checked in to what had become a high-paced fast-break game since his departure, with both teams knotted at 73. NBC color commentator Mike Fratello prudently warned that Bird was in for a tough moment, coming in cold from the locker room to an uptempo game that would be a great challenge for an elder statesman with a terrible back. Naturally, the ball was inbounded to Bird, the Pacers trapped him with their full-court press and he had to give the ball up. Indiana was going to make this as hard as possible for him.

So the Celtics immediately went to 37-year-old Robert Parish, who hit a gorgeous hook shot from the low post. Bird then took a wide-open 3 on the next possession and clanked it off the back rim, which prompted Person, nicknamed The Rifleman, to bury an off-balance heat-check 3 of his own and run back on defense holding his arms out and goading the crowd into a shower of boos. Parish answered back with a turnaround jumper in the post before Detlef Shrempf drove on Bird to draw the foul. The game was hitting a crescendo, and Bird looked like he might not be ready to take over.

Then he grabbed a rebound off a Reggie Miller miss, scanned the floor and floated a perfect full-court pass to a streaking Reggie Lewis for an easy lay-in. A few possessions later, Bird grabbed a rebound, brought the ball down the floor as the Pacers elected not to press and buried a 20-footer to prompt an Indiana timeout.

Coming out of the break, the Celtics stayed small, subbing Kevin McHale for Parish and sticking with Bird at the four to match up with Schrempf, the Pacers’ great sixth man. The Pacers would play in a box scheme, with their wings starting on the block and their bigs up high. Center LaSalle Thompson would come down to the block to set pindown screens to free Person or Miller, then float back out toward the perimeter to try to keep McHale away from the boards.

But Bird was somehow getting up in the air to win the battle on the glass and on the first play out of the timeout, he grabbed the rebound off a Miller miss and immediately launched another brilliant downfield pass to Lewis ahead of the break for the finish. On the next play, he blew by Shrempf and hit a floater just over LaSalle’s outstretched arm. He followed it up with a baseline spin out of the high post to draw an and-one on a reverse layup. A few plays later, he hit a fadeaway in the post and drew a foul, prompting Fratello to exclaim, “How many times does he drive that spike through your heart with shots like that?”

Bird was officially back and the Celtics were off and running. What had been a one-possession game for most of the third quarter opened up to a nine-point lead heading into the fourth. Bird scored 12 points over those six-plus minutes in the third.

It’s a good thing he returned because he ended up passing John Havlicek as the franchise’s all-time leading playoff scorer in the quarter. Had he remained in the locker room, the Celtics likely would have lost the game, the series and, perhaps, Bird to retirement. He ended up playing almost 12 straight minutes before Ford gave him a breather, going big by putting in McHale next to Parish against the Pacers’ small lineup. They had opened up a 110-96 lead with eight minutes remaining, so it was the right time to give Bird some rest.

As Bird lay on his stomach to stretch out, the Pacers started aggressively full-court trapping against the big Celtics lineup. It led to a sloppy first possession that ended with a Parish offensive foul, followed by a brilliant move by Pacers guard Michael Williams to score at the rim. Ford called a timeout after a few more buckets were exchanged, but decided to keep Bird on the bench for the time being and stay big against the Pacers’ small lineup. A minute later, Ford realized he had to bring in Bird and reunited the Big 3 on the floor for what could have been the last time.

The Pacers kept pressing and running, capitalizing on Celtics misses and forcing three straight turnovers. Schrempf hit a floating finger roll over Parish and Bird to make it a three-point game with 1:42 left and suddenly, Bird’s return seemed all for naught. The Celtics frontcourt was old and slow and the young Pacers were running all over them. Indiana’s pressure never abated, culminating in McHale catching the ball in the face of a trap as the Celtics tried to break the press up two with 23 seconds left and accidentally committing a backcourt violation.

The Pacers posted up Person, who had been on fire earlier in the game. Bird guarded Vern Fleming on the entry pass and shaded himself just in the right spot to take away the passing lane. As Fleming drove toward the middle to try to find an angle, Person surprised him and cut up to the 3-point line, presumably to drive the middle. But Person shocked everyone and turned around to launch a wild 3, bouncing off the rim into Celtics guard Brian Shaw’s hands.

“I didn’t want to go into overtime here,” Person said in the bowels of the Garden after the game. “So I went for it.”

The game would end 124-121 in Boston’s favor. The Celtics went on to play the Detroit Pistons, who knocked them out in six games. Bird played one more year before retirement. But the Pacers series drove home how the league was changing, and becoming inhospitable to older, slower players like Bird.

“The quickness they had to take us off the dribble, I know Kevin McHale and Robert were saying, ‘Maybe it’s time to quit because these young guys are starting to take over the league,” Bird recalled.

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Jared Weiss is a staff writer covering the Boston Celtics and NBA for The Athletic. He has covered the Celtics since 2011, co-founding CLNS Media Network while in college before covering the team for SB Nations CelticsBlog and USA Today. Before coming to The Athletic, Weiss spent a decade working for the government, primarily as a compliance bank regulator. Follow Jared on Twitter @ JaredWeissNBANational

Editor’s note: The Athletic’s sporadic feature “Distant Replay” revisits significant games from Boston sports history. Read more Distant Replays.

But Bird was managing to get up in the air and win the battle on the glass. On the first play after the timeout, he pulled down a rebound after Miller missed and put Lewis in position for the game-winning downfield pass just before the half. He blew past Shrempf on the following play and hit a floater that went just over LaSalle’s extended arm. He then executed a baseline spin out of the high post to finish with a reverse layup and an and-one. He made a fadeaway in the post a few plays later, drawing a foul that made Fratello cry, “How many times does he drive that spike through your heart with shots like that?”

He passed John Havlicek to become the team’s all-time leading playoff scorer in the quarter, so it’s a good thing he came back. The Celtics probably would have lost the game, the series, and possibly even Bird’s retirement if he had stayed in the locker room. Ford gave him a break after he had played for nearly twelve minutes in a row. Ford made a significant move by starting McHale next to Parish against the Pacers’ thin lineup. With eight minutes left, they had built up a 110-96 lead, so it was appropriate to give Bird a break.

In spite of this, Bird was leading the way in an elimination game with his ground-based magic, even though it appeared as though he would break apart if he attempted a layup. At 4:37 in the second quarter, he was just getting into a rhythm when he dove after a loose ball. With his right hand, Bird attempted to grab hold of it and break his fall, but the hand was unable to do so. He hit the ground hard, landing on his stomach and smashing his head.

It was thrilling as well as having a unique sense of relief. Everyone hoped that Bird would return after he ran into the locker room, and many likely did. However, there was always this nagging fear that Bird, one of the most adored sportsmen Boston had ever seen, would never come out of that tunnel.

He not only disproved his critics, but he also showed early on that he would surely develop into the Celtics’ next great player. Bird defeated rival Magic Johnson to win the 1979–80 Rookie of the Year award by a wide margin.

Some basketball fans believed Larry Bird was a Black guy because they had only heard about his exploits in the 1980s on the radio. When they finally saw him in action or saw the newspaper, they were almost unable to believe what they were seeing.

More importantly, he made the Boston Celtics great again. He started half of the most intense and popular rivalries in NBA history. His matchups with Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers are legendary. While Johnson leads Bird by five championships, many feel that the numbers could have easily been different. Expand Tweet.

He was a vital member of Boston’s squad that year, helping the team win the 1981 NBA title. He placed third in the MVP voting from 1981 to 1988, taking home three consecutive victories in 1984, 1985, and 1986.

On the “Club Shay Shay” podcast, John Salley made the amusing claim that if those people had stuck to their initial belief, they couldn’t have been mistaken. The four-time champion said the following about how excellent Bird was:


Was Larry Bird really a hick?

Larry Bird, known as “a hick from French Lick,” is anything but. He proved it as an overachieving basketball player, and he proved it as a successful, unassuming NBA coach. Bird was one of those rare athletes who made everybody around him better.