Larry vs. LeBron: why Bird is better

By Cort Reynolds

There has been a lot of talk over who is the best "small" forward in NBA history in recent times, the incumbent Larry Bird or the challenger, LeBron James.

Of course since James has the flashier name, nicknames (the King, LBJ, Bron-Bron, etc.) and superficially flashier style of play, is the beneficiary of much greater media coverage and Internet play today - and is a current standout - many tend to think James has somehow surpassed Larry Legend.

But a closer look at comparing their games says otherwise. When one breaks the comparison down by the phases of the game and by intangibles, Bird is a clear winner.

Knowing that it is always dangerous to assess a player in mid-career too before his inevitable decline phase happens due to age and or injury, I would hesitate to place James definitively ahead of other great small forwards like John Havlicek (who starred for 16 years), Rick Barry and others, until his career is finished and his entire body of work is able to be assessed devoid of judgement-clouding current hype.

James, whose game depends greatly on size and athleticism, might well also suffer a steep and fairly quick decline once his athletic ability diminishes, and/or when he starts suffering the nearly inevitable injuries that usually end most great player's careers, especially in a sport as demanding as basketball, where 100 games or so are played per year.

When a player is in his prime and dominating, it is always tempting to overstate how great they are and underestimate the past. Most fans succumb to now-ism, a disease promoted mostly by mainstream major media (which is often not knowledgeable and also has a built-in self-interested reason for existing - are you listening ESPN?) - to over-hype for ratings and brainwash a society lacking in the time and/or critical thinking skills with the notion that whatever is hottest or best right now is automatically better than anyone or thing from the past because of the falsely-purported, illusory notion of progress and in the case of sports, superior "athleticism."

Of course, out of hubris and a lack of respect for the past and knowledge thereof, each new (sporting) generation also wants to believe it is the greatest and produces the best of everything, and is thus susceptible to now-ism.

Let's also not forget that basketball is not track and field, a sport won by the fastest, highest-leaping and strongest, but is instead a game of skill, intelligence and athleticism. When played right and officiated uniformly by the rules, the game is usually won and played best by the more skilled, smarter, more unselfish/cohesive and better-conditioned - and better-coached team.

In time most knowledgeable observers will come to realize that although James is a great player, he has dominated a very weak era rivaled by few if any peers in their prime, as well as a historically bad Eastern Conference. And because of that, plus his flashy style of play in a highlight-oriented society, his honors and reputation have outstripped his true level of play.

Six years ago most golf fans were ready to crown Tiger Woods as the greatest ever. But he has not won a major since 2008, nor even come close most times, and now his status all-time is being revised. What was once a given that he would surpass the record of 18 major wins by Jack Nicklaus now is in grave doubt, with Woods stuck on 14, age 38 and suffering from back injuries and self-doubt. His aura of intimidation is also gone.

Six years ago most golf fans were ready to crown Tiger Woods as the greatest ever

Not to mention the fact that Nicklaus also finished second in 19 majors, and played in an era more top-heavy with fine players to share the major titles with - although probably not as deep in good players as the era Woods has played in. To finish first or second in 37 majors is probably more impressive than winning 18.

However, when one is going by titles won as the measuring stick, more competition at the very top is certainly more of a threat.

Bird played the second half of his career in severe back and Achilles pain, yet still remained at the very top of the league at a time when the NBA was chock-full of Hall of Fame greats and great teams. In his first nine seasons before doubles Achilles surgery ended his 10th campaign after just six games, Bird was first team all-league every year, something only Bob Pettit - not James - ever did at forward.

From 1981-87 he finished first or second in the MVP voting each year, and is still the only non-center to win three MVP awards in a row (1984-86). He could have and probably should have won two more, and added two Finals MVP honors in 1984 and 1986. Bird also deserved the 1981 Finals MVP that went to teammate Cedric Maxwell.

That Bird accomplished all this and more in an era loaded with superstars and Hall of Famers makes his career all the more impressive. Meanwhile, James has won four MVPs in a league diluted by seven more teams, with very few peers of top quality and when the quality of play is far lower, especially on offense.

Without further adieu, let's break the comparison down...

1) Shooting-Bird is one of the best shooters ever, and almost certainly the best-shooting non-guard in NBA annals. Only forwards like Rick Barry, Glen Rice, Chris Mullin and possibly Kiki Vandeweghe can even come close to Bird as a shooter.

Larry was a great mid-range shooter, a great foul shooter (88.3% and four-time FT champion), and an excellent three-point shooter (38%) in an era where the three was not practiced as much or emphasized as a main part of offense as it is now.

Larry, who won the first three All-Star three-point shootouts from 1986-88, only took 1.9 three's a game over his career. 1.9! That is an average quarter for many guys today. He did not even like the rule, but took advantage of it to deliver many backbreaking triples (see game 6 of the 1981 Finals).

James has improved his shooting from less than average to adequate at best in recent years. But there simply is no comparison here. The eye test suffices here, as a stat comparison is not really even necessary. But to give just a few, James shoots 34% on three's and 75% at the foul line over his career to this point.
Edge: huge edge to Bird

2) Scoring: Bird could score more ways, and more efficiently, than James. A much better shooter from all distances, Bird was also a better post-up player and more creative. James is more effective in transition, but that is the only area of scoring he is better at.

Although their career scoring averages are similar, James hasn't had the decline phase to his career that will lower all his numbers. And playing in a much less competitive era while being awarded more foul shots - as well as star calls and extra steps regularly - skews things wrongly for James.
Larry loved going left

Larry, a natural southpaw, is easily the most ambidextrous
player in NBA history. He had games where he scored 20 lefty! Layups, runners, even 15 foot shots left-handed were fairly routine for him. His long left-handed outlet passes haven't been seen since. He took and made clutch lefty shots late in tight playoff game 7's vs Detroit in 1987 and Atlanta in 1988. Against the Pistons, the Lakers watching the game out in LA fell off the couch when Bird nonchalantly executed a running 14-footer off glass in the waning moments of arguably the most rancorous, tough series in NBA history.

James couldn't even begin to make those or have the guts to even try them. And dont forget his flying lefty rebound flip of his own miss in game 1 of the 1981 Finals. Other than maybe Paul Westphal or Pete Maravich, no other NBA player comes to mind who could have the instincts, guts and skill to pull off such a miraculous shot, especially late in a huge game.

James has a slightly higher career scoring average, but that is bloated by inferior competition, constant star treatment and the lack of a decline phase to his career, which is coming and will drop his scoring 3-5 ppg by the time he retires in five to six years or so.
Edge: slight edge Bird

3) Rebounding
This phase is a clear edge to Bird stat-wise, by a wide 10-7.2 per game margin, with James's career numbers sure to dip even further toward six per game as he ages. Bird had several top 10-ranked rebounding seasons, and grabbed more defensive rebounds than any forward in the 1980's.
Yet somehow his great board work goes overlooked, partly because  his scoring, shooting and passing skills were so wondrous.

But Bird's very good board numbers could easily be even bigger than the stats might indicate because he played with other excellent double-digit rebounders on his team, cutting into how many boards he might get. Parish and Cowens were top rebounders, while McHale and Maxwell excelled on the offensive glass.
By comparison, James has not played with any other high-rebound teammates in his career, probably not with anyone who ever even averaged 10 a game. LBJ's best season board averages are 7.6 per game on some Miami teams without much rebounding prowess or big men, which is much less than Bird's worst seasons on the glass. Larry pulled down 11 boards per game in 1982-83 for his best year. In each of his first six seasons he averaged 10 or more per game. And in 10 of his 11 of his full or nearly full seasons, he averaged 9.2 or more each time (the only other year, his penultimate season, he grabbed 8.5). In the brutal even-game 1984 Finals, probably the greatest championship series since 1970 if not ever, he pulled down 14 caroms per outing.

In 164 career playoff games when the competition was higher, which equals two full seasons exactly, Bird grabbed 10.3 rebounds a game. In 31 Finals contests where the intensity was at its peak, Larry pulled down 361 rebounds, or 11.64 per game. In the 1981 Finals he grabbed 15.3 boards per outing. Only after back, elbow and Achilles injuries hit in the mid-1980's and began limiting his underrated mobility did his prodigious board numbers start to decline a bit, yet they still remained at a high level.

Plus Bird, a fine offensive rebounder early in his career, sacrificed most of that when McHale emerged as a star with Parish in a double-low post offense, which forced Larry almost exclusively to the perimeter on offense. After a Celtic shot went up, his main role then was to get back on defense to stop transition offenses, which every team ran back then, especially against the less than speedy Bostonians. Few clubs run the fast break now.

Bird, with his cunning, anticipation and quick hands, probably stopped more two on one and three on one breaks than anyone since Jerry West.
In addition, the indomitable Bird possessed a knack for getting the tough rebounds. In game 1 of the 1981 Finals, he yanked down 21 caroms in a hard-fought 98-95 win over grind-it-out underdog Houston and their frontline of rebound champ Moses Malone and 6-11 Billy Paultz. Bird's last rebound came off the offensive glass vs. Moses and the ensuing clutch lefty reverse layin amid a crowd with 19 ticks left clinched the critical win, staving off the upset bid.

In game 4 of the 1984 Finals, an epic struggle at LA with Boston trailing 2-1, Bird again snared 21 boards and scored 29 points, including the game-winning fadeaway over nemesis Earvin Johnson. Before that, Bird nailed two pressure free throws in the final seconds of regulation to send it to overtime.
Edge: Clear edge to Bird

4) Defense
Bird did make three All-NBA defense second teams in the early 1980's, at a time when the coaches still voted for the honor. Today's all-defense awards by the media are like the Gold Glove has become, more a function of reputation and flashy highlight plays.

James is a better individual defender, although he isn't as good as people think and Bird was better than is usually thought. James just gets more eye-catching chase-down blocks and steals than Bird, who still excelled at blocking shots from behind and playing the passing lanes well. Larry was almost always in position, which is a lot of what defense entails, and was as good a help defender at forward as anyone. And no one got back on transition defense better to stop the break than the hustling Bird, who rarely was out of position.
Edge: slight edge to James

5) Passing
James is a tremendous passer, arguably the best passing forward ever behind Bird, although Rick Barry, Mullin, Maurice Stokes, Billy Cunningham and Havlicek are in the conversation too for the number two ranking.

Almost all of Bird's assists came in the halfcourt offense, which is much harder to compile assists against, versus a set defense. As esteemed Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan once said, "there are no second's when it comes to voting for the all-time best passing forward, there are only others receiving votes." Any check on YouTube of Bird's greatest passes - or a look at one of my prior articles on Bird's 33 best passes - should convince any doubters.

Larry always hit his teammate in stride and in the shooting pocket with a soft but firm pass, making it as easy as possible to score, the true definition of an assist. He also possessed much greater creativity than James but didn't use it unless needed, as his showmanship was still somehow pragmatic, as well as done with an efficient flair. His vision was superior - many if not most of James's assists come off penetration and dishes when he draws defenders.

Larry was always looking ahead to pass

No non-guard saw the floor as well as Bird, nor visualized the play unfolding 2-3 steps ahead of time. All-time great Celtic point guard Bob Cousy, an ingeniously slick passer himself, once said only he, Bird and Ernie DiGregorio saw the play two to three steps ahead of time.

The ball rarely stuck in Bird's hands, and he was a deadly passer out of double teams. His crisp feeds always caught the defense off guard and when moving, sometimes like a tennis player hitting behind his scrambling opponent.

Bird was also a superb post entry passer, virtually a lost art today when guards over-dribble and arrogantly control the game and hog the ball in order to shoot far too many three's. Plus, far fewer big men have good back-to-the-basket games today.

LBJ is very unselfish, but part of that is because he isn't a good shooter and would rather facilitate a la Earvin Johnson, than be a finisher/scorer in the crunch like a Jordan or Bird. He is far more Johnson than Jordan. Bird's unselfishness was greater because Larry passing up shots to get teammates better shots, therefore maximizing them, was an act of greater sacrifice precisely because he was such a superior shooter and great scorer.

Bird could easily have averaged over 30 ppg any year through 1988 had he wanted to. In fact, in his final mostly injury-free season of 1987-88 as he approached age 32, he tallied a Celtic franchise record 29.9 ppg.

In addition, Bird had the ball far less than James does yet did more with it, particularly from an efficiency standpoint, and with far less isolation and dribbling or monopolization of the ball. One also suspects that LBJ's assist numbers are slightly inflated by lenient score-keeping meant to help market him better. Too much of his offense starts out with James dribbling 30 feet from the basket, then driving into a waiting help defense for a predictable drive and kick.

Larry made the hard pass look easy; his passes were often subtly spectacular, done not to draw attention to himself, unlike Johnson or even James at times. Others like James and especially Johnson sometimes made the easy pass look hard with needless post-pass lookaway facial antics or leg kicks/arm flails.

Larry wanted his teammates to look good and to enjoy scoring, something he discovered back in high school. That sort of chemistry-building unselfishness, especially from your superstar, is almost immeasurable and inspires teammates to play even better and harder. They fall in line when the superstar is so unselfishly, plays so hard and helps them become better with incredible feeds.
Edge: slight edge to Bird

6) Ballhandling
As a pseudo guard as compared to a point forward, James handles the ball much more than Bird did. He has the better handle, although he gets away with a lot of palming that gives him an edge on drives. Bird was efficient with the dribble, and almost never over-dribbled, except when backing down a defender.
Edge: James

7) Athleticism
James gets the edge here again, although it probably isn't as clear-cut a huge edge as most might think off the top of their heads. People today tend to have a narrow concept of athleticism, confined mainly to speed and leaping ability, two areas James excels in while Bird was only okay by NBA standards, and less than that in his later years when injuries and age took their toll.

However, in his early years Bird had a decent 28-inch vertical and was far more athletic than people tend to think or remember.  Of course, James often wows fans with spectacular, speedy and explosive drives. He may have the greatest combination of power, strength and speed in finishing in transition of anyone in league history, even more than comparable guys like Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Gus Johnson.

Yet in other less obvious versions of athletic ability, in terms of vision, body control, hand-eye coordination, quickness of hands and first step, Bird was at or near the top, and as good or better than James. Plus remember, the guy was 6-9 and he ran the floor quite well in his early years when Boston was a fast break team from 1979-83.

One must also factor in that today star players like James are given 2-3 extra steps on drives (as well as much leeway on initiating contact and getting foul calls), making it much easier to jump higher, hang in the air longer and be more spectacular on highlight-type finishes, which are are often excessively flashy for style points. By contrast, Bird could be flashy but only when needed.

It is sort of like comparing a one-or-two step long jump in Bird's day to a running long jump today in terms of what players get away with; of course the person with the longer run-up will be able to do more, and thus appear even more athletic. Also, this category is not as important to being great, nor is ballhandling a huge part of being a forward.
Edge: James

8) Intangibles
8a) Clutch play: James doesn't like to take last shot, while Bird lived for it and made numerous winners.
Edge: huge edge to Bird.

8b) Toughness/competitive drive: Bird played the second half of his career in constant serious pain due to back and Achilles injuries. James plays hard, but Bird played consistently harder. Maybe not quite as hard as guys like Dave Cowens, Dave DeBusschere, or Jerry Sloan, who probably played harder than anyone, but Bird was close.

In the legendary game 5 of the classic 1984 Finals, Bird enjoyed the best outing of his 31 championship series games despite severely trying conditions.
Tied 2-2 with the hated Lakers and playing in 97-degree heat with no air conditioning in the ancient Garden, Bird shot an astounding 15-20 from the field and grabbed 17 rebounds to lead Boston to a decisive, series-turning 121-103 win.

As even Pat Riley conceded after the pivotal defeat, "the difference tonight was Mr. Bird...he looked fresh as a daisy out there." Noted hay baler Bird noted, "Aw hell, I play in hotter weather back home in French Lick in the summer."

Fast forward 30 years to game 1 of the 2014 finals in a similar situation where the AC went out in San Antonio...James cramped up down the stretch and could not return in crunch time. Thus the Heat lost a close game and it set the tone for their convincing 4-1 loss to the Spurs that effectively disbanded the big three in south Florida.

Larry handled the heat better than LeBron

Now I know first-hand that cramps are very painful and can be temporarily debilitating. But can you see Bird not being able to play in a championship series game due to cramps, or not being prepared enough to avoid them (Larry was well-known for arriving hours before games to practice and get treatment)?

You'd have to drag him out of there, plus he would have put in the running preparing beforehand to be in top shape in an era where the game was much faster-paced and all teams ran the fast break as a part of the offense.

Thus in the NBA Finals games where the conditions were most similar, Bird shone at his brightest while James withered.

Bird played with severe back pain from 1985-92 at a very, very high level. His legendary physical toughness - see game 5 of the 1991 first round vs. a young, up and coming Indiana squad, when he came back from a fractured cheekbone, bad back and possible concussion to lead the Celtics to a thrilling win over the Pacers in a decisive playoff shootout/trash-talk fest with Chuck "the Rifleman" Person - is quite possibly unsurpassed. Only greats like Jerry West (nine broken noses, numerous muscle pulls, 29 ppg career playoff average) played as consistently well while hurt. 

His second half comeback performance (against doctor's orders in the locker room), is perhaps the greatest injured playoff performance ever, along with Willis Reed in game seven of the 1970 Finals, and is the stuff of NBA legend.  Losing Pacer center LaSalle Thompson even said after the loss that "this is the stuff you tell your grandchildren about; I had a lot of respect for Larry before, but now even more" he shook his head in amazement and his voice trailed off.

And mentally, Bird was as tough as anyone. As even fierce rival Isiah Thomas admitted, "Bird was the toughest" of the superstars in that golden era chock-full of all-time greats. "If you put myself, Bird, Magic and Jordan in a room together, Bird is the one who would make it out." High praise indeed from a serious rival, not one to give compliments easily.

8c) Bball IQ: Bird's brain and basketball IQ are at the very top; James, like Earvin Johnson, is a very smart player but not nearly as much as Bird. Along with Russell, Hondo, West and Stockton, Larry rounds out my all-time NBA brainy starting five, with apologies to Oscar, Bill Bradley, Kareem and others. In reality, most great players are also smart players, with a few exceptions.

As Tom Heinsohn, a smart Hall of Fame player and coach himself, said more than once: "Larry Bird was playing chess when everyone else was playing checkers."

Bird was the proverbial coach on the floor, going back to his college days at Indiana State, where first-year coach Bill Hodges got the credit for leading ISU to the title game in 1979. But Larry really ran the team, as he did for most of his Boston years too.

And does anyone would think James could be as good a coach or front office executive as West or Bird?

8d) Making teammates better: Perhaps the best and my favorite quote about how Bird's heady and unselfish play made his teammates reach as close to their full potential as possible (partly due to great shooting which created great spacing, and crisp, timely and creative passing that opened up opportunities for his teammates) came from ex-Celtic Don Nelson when he was coaching the Bucks vs. Boston during a tough mid-1980's playoff series.

As both teams were warming up, Nelson noticed Bird run to the back of the layup line behind four Celtic players, most of them non-stars. Nellie turned and sagely remarked to his assistant coach, "before Bird lined up with them, I saw four average players. Now I see five great players."

Quite a tribute, maybe the ultimate one in basketball, from a very smart basketball lifer in Nelson, who won six rings as a player and more games as a coach than anyone in NBA history. James makes his teammates better, but no great individual player maximized the talent around him as much as Bird, with the possible exception of John Stockton.

8e) Intensity/leadership: As mentioned before, James plays hard, but not as consistently hard as Bird did. Every night, being a member of the hated Celtics, playing in a much better league and in particular a brutally good and physical Eastern Conference, Bird and Boston got every team's best shot - every night for 13 years. Yet Larry always rose to the challenge, never backed down and didn't make excuses. That sort of mental and physical toughness and leadership is irreplaceable too.

James and Miami faced similar pressure and attention during his Miami run, but the competition level was far, far lower. And his Heat tenure only ran four years, whereas Bird faced it from day one as the hyped white hope leader of the NBA's winningest franchise in 1979 until his last game in 1992.
Edge: clear edge to Bird
Overall intangibles: Huge edge to Bird, 5-0

James supporters, blinded by flash, a limited notion of "athleticism", hype and now-ism, will argue that LBJ has won 4 regular season MVPs to "only" 3 by Larry. And I say, so what? Bird should have won at least two more - 1981 and '82 - and played in an era with much tougher competition for his MVPs (to name just a few Jabbar, Johnson, Jordan, Erving, then later Barkley, Hakeem, and even McHale on his own team in 1986-87, as well as other rival greats like Ewing, Sidney Moncrief or Bernard King).

Bird's three in the 1980's are worth roughly double the ones James has won in a weakened era with few worthy rivals. James's biggest contemporary rival, Kobe Bryant, only has won one MVP. It could be argued easily that James would be lucky to win one MVP, and no titles, had he played in the much better NBA of the 1980's and early '90s. Steve Nash, as fine a player as he is, is not as good as John Stockton was. Yet Stockton never sniffed an MVP award over 19 mostly brilliant seasons spent in the shadow of many superstars, while the flashier Nash won consecutive MVP awards in 2005 and 2006. In the 1980's, Nash would have been fortunate to finish in the top five of MVP voting in his best years.

The methodical Tim Duncan, in reality, is not as good as McHale or even Karl Malone - nor as dominant as Bob Pettit (26 ppg, 16 rpg) in his time. Yet "Timmy" parlayed solid fundamentals, great size and a dearth of good big-man competition along with good teammates and a superb coach into five titles during a weak era. Three of the teams his Spurs beat in the Finals (the 1999 Knicks, 2003 Nets and 2007 Cavs) are very arguably among the five worst teams ever to reach the Finals, and the 2005 Pistons are not much better. Only the Heat of 2014 were a truly worthy adversary that the Spurs overcame. The Laker team Boston beat in 1984 - the only time the Celtics were healthy in their three Finals showdowns - featured five Hall of Famers, and several other All-Star caliber players.

Dirk Nowitzki, often compared to Bird for obvious reasons, is a legitimate Hall of Famer, but even the humble German great admits he is not in Bird's class. Larry was a much better passer and a slightly better rebounder, as well as the superior defender. Nowitzki, Nash and Chris Paul, who has yet
to sniff a Finals, might be termed Bird, Stockton and Isiah Thomas-lite.

Miami wouldn't even MAKE an NBA Finals out of the East in the 1980s, let alone win two crowns and make four straight championship series showings.

And that brings us to the next point, that the NBA of Bird's era was FAR better than the league James has played in. And in particular the East in the '80s was like the West now, but more top-heavy with great teams like Boston, the 76ers, Bucks, and later Pistons and Hawks battling it out just to reach the championship round.

LBJ's East has been even weaker than the West of the 80's, making their road to the Finals a comparative joyride. The Bird Celtics probably would have made the Finals in his first nine seasons were they playing today; they led the NBA in wins per season from 1980-88 at nearly 60 wins per campaign.

And since 2/3 of a team's schedule is played in-conference, this is more impressive and important than one might think even before the playoff gauntlet must be run. And the playoffs, always a battle of attrition, are far easier to navigate through shallow waters like the East of the 2000's.

Bird led Boston to the Finals from 1984-87; a quarter century later James led Miami to the Finals from 2011-14, the first time since then that a team won the East four years in a row.

But the East Bird took Boston through was a minefield littered with great teams and players; the Heat have been playing in a relative sandbox with nary a truly good or great rival.

The first half of the 1980's in the Bird era featured such teams as Boston, the 76ers and Bucks who routinely won 55-65 games. As the decade wore on, the Pistons, Bulls and Hawks came on as serious contenders, with Detroit winning two titles and Chicago two in Bird's final seasons.

Milwaukee boasted some great teams who seven straight division titles - 7! - yet never made the Finals ONCE because they could not get past Boston and Philly in the same year. Atlanta's fine Wilkins-led teams of 1986-88 never even reached a conference finals, let alone an NBA championship series. One could easily argue that from 2011-14, Miami faced no team as good as those Hawk teams who routinely won 50-57 games.

Not to mention the fact that in today's heavily-marketed, style over substance NBA, James receives star calls far more than Bird, which is multiplied by the fact that LBJ also has the ball far more than Larry did. Used to getting every call despite often initiating contact, LBJ can be a crybaby who whines when he doesn't get a call; witness his tantrum this past spring when rookie Mason Plumlee rejected his dunk at the buzzer.

Bird rarely if ever whined or made excuses, even when injured or getting bad calls. James travels, palms, pushes off and runs over people regularly, and gets away with it, even being rewarded with free throws. Larry took an average of five foul shots per game, while James gets 8.6 per (up to 9.7 in playoffs).

If you doubt me on star calls and the far more lenient officiating of today, particularly for big stars, google Youtube for the end of game 6 in the 1981 Finals to see a striking example. You will see Bird hit four clutch jumpers in a row to clinch his first title, including a dagger corner trey that sealed the crown. But one of the shots, a pull-up jumper from the circle, was disallowed for an almost imperceptible carry call on his left-hand dribble to the circle before he drained the shot.

There is NO way that tiny palming violation gets called on James, Bryant, Jordan or any star in the last 15-20 years, especially in that situation, with the title on the line. Yet it was called on Bird, in his second season, with the title on the line. In fact, Bird was bumped slightly on the hip during his drive which caused the slight mishandling, but that was not called, as it would certainly be for James, Jordan, Bryant, et al.

James's career stats also look more prodigious than they are since he was able to play right out of high school while Bird played three years in college. Yet Larry was probably already the best all-around player in the world as a fifth-year college senior in 1978-79 when he led a mediocre Indiana State team to the finals with a 33-0 record, making them the LAST club to reach the championship game, 35 years ago, UNDEFEATED.

Think about that for a moment. The fact that Larry virtually carried them there unbeaten is one of the greatest college basketball achievements ever, yet is overshadowed by the final title game loss to a more talented team playing an unusual, tough gimmick matchup zone the Sycamores had little time to prepare for, especially with an inexperienced interim coach in charge.

So in categories, Bird wins five of the eight - with three of those by a clear or large margin, except for passing and scoring, where his edge is lesser. If one counts the five intangibles listed separately, it is 10-3 for Bird.

And of the three he lost, only defense is really a big part of a forward's game, and none were lost by as big a margin as Larry's shooting, intangibles and rebounding advantages were won. Ballhandling and great athleticism are great to have, but not as essential to a forward as shooting, scoring, passing and rebounding.

If one cloned five Bird's and five LBJ's for a full-court, 48-minute game, Larry's superior shooting, creativity, passing, board work, toughness, conditioning and intangibles would more than overcome LBJ's greater athleticism, ballhandling and flashy defense.

James would rather facilitate and shrinks from the big shot. Along with Jordan and West, Bird made more big dagger shots than any player ever. Throw in his superb position and help defense and board work, and Bird might be the most clutch player since West. James has been notable for his lack of clutch play, game 7 in the 2013 Finals notwithstanding.

Cort Reynolds is a free-lance writer with 17 years of experience as a sports editor, newspaper editor, and sports writer. He also was a college sports information director at his alma mater for five years and is a lifelong player, student and historian of the game. You can contact him at to comment or ask him questions.