An oral history of Larry Bird’s 60-point game

"It was like living in a video game."

Roaming the basketball court during his heyday, Larry Bird was a genius, an artist, a purist, a perfectionist, and an ingenious passer, deadeye shooter, savvy rebounder and sly defender. Of course, that’s just the abbreviated list of attributes. Ego-puncturing trash-talker definitely should have been mentioned sooner.

During the 1984-85 season, Bird was 28 years old and all of those powers — visceral, intangible, and virtually unprecedented and unmatched — were operating at peak levels. Bird averaged 28.7 points and 10.5 rebounds that season. He hit 42.7 percent of his 3-pointers, 52.2 percent of his field goal attempts, and 88.2 percent of his free throws.

No one in the NBA played more minutes. No one in the NBA played better minutes. He won his second of three straight NBA Most Valuable Player awards, receiving 73 of 78 first-place votes.

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Over thirty years ago, Bird submitted one of the most memorable performances not just of that marvelous season, but his entire career — though it should be noted that he does not consider it one of his favorites.

“Fans and you guys think in terms of points, and I get that,” said Bird in an interview. “But my favorite games are the ones in which I did a lot of different things to help us win the game.”

On March 12, 1985, Bird set a Celtics franchise record by scoring 60 points in a 126-115 win over the Atlanta Hawks. It broke the record held by teammate Kevin McHale, who dropped 56 on the Detroit Pistons just nine days before.

The performance is legendary not just because of Larry Legend — though his career is certainly reason enough for any celebration, anniversary or no anniversary — but this particular game was also marked by some unusual circumstances.

It was played in New Orleans, a supposed home-away-from-home for the Hawks, but in reality, a fine place for Celtics fans to take a holiday and watch their stellar team.

Bird’s performance was so electrifying — he scored 32 points in slightly more than 14 minutes of court time during a second-half scoring barrage — that opposing players on bench got swept up in the wonder of it all.

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That’s right. The end of the Hawks bench morphed into a Larry Bird fan club.

“They way he was shooting the ball,’’ said Hawks star Dominique Wilkins, who scored 36 points in defeat, “was like living in a video game. It couldn’t be real. But it was.”

This is the story, as told through more than a dozen interviews with Celtics and Hawks players and personnel, as well as select anecdotes excavated from the archives, of that memorable night in New Orleans. But to tell the full oral history of Larry Bird’s 60-point game, we must begin nine days before his achievement.

‘Why not go for 70?’

On March 3, 1985, Bird scored 30 points, collected 15 rebounds, and dished out 10 assists in a 138-129 home victory over the Detroit Pistons. On most nights, the triple-double against an increasingly despised rival would have made Bird the talk of the league. But this night belonged to another Celtics forward.

Kevin McHale, the affable, rubber-armed sixth man — who was starting only because of a knee injury to Cedric Maxwell — scored 56 points, breaking Bird’s franchise record of 53 set in March 1983 against the Pacers. McHale, who played for the Celtics from 1980-93, was just coming into his prime in 1984-85. Like fellow front-court partners Bird and center Robert Parish – forever known as the Big Three – he would eventually be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. But this? This was the game of McHale’s life.

KEVIN McHALE, Celtics forward, 1980-93: “The only time I ever scored that many points before was in a pickup game when I was 12. And then we played almost five hours.”

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BIRD: Once you realize what’s happening … you know, you don’t get there very often, where you have a chance to do something like that. When you get there, you defer even more. You get the guy the ball. That’s what I tried to do with Kevin. You defer a lot when someone gets hot anyway.

McHale might have scored more than 56, but he pulled himself from the game with a couple of minutes remaining and the victory secure — a decision that offended Bird’s competitive sensibilities.

BIRD: Kevin took himself out of the game. I couldn’t believe that. Especially against the Pistons. We didn’t get along with them anyway, so why not go for 70, you know? They didn’t have anyone who could guard him a lick.When he pointed to the bench to come out, I said, ‘You can’t come out. You gotta get even more.’ I couldn’t believe it.

GLENN ORDWAY, Celtics radio broadcaster, 1982-95: Bird made the famous comment after the game. ‘He should have stayed in there. Should have got 60.’ You could see it. There was this real interesting rivalry between those two guys anyway. They were really good together on the court. They were both different off the court.

DANNY AINGE, Celtics guard, 1981-89: Larry would always come to me and say, ‘Hey, go tell Kevin this,’ and Kevin would come to me and say, ‘Go tell Larry that.’ They were such great players, but sometimes they didn’t know how to talk to each other and how to yell at each other. But they knew how to yell at me.

RICK CARLISLE, Celtics guard, 1984-87: Everybody on that team took grief. There was no one that was spared. That was what made that group of guys such a special group of guys. There was a mutual respect on one hand, and on the other hand, anything was fair game, to practical jokes, humor, you name it.

SCOTT WEDMAN, Celtics forward, 1982-1987: When I first got traded here, Larry put me through the ringer. He was the best psych artist ever. The master. He’d always tell me I was too short to guard him, then he’d post me up, and he’d score a lot in there. Then he’d tell me he was going to do it again. He made me a much a tougher player mentally. He had his own way of dealing with each individual player. He had a different relationship with every player, a sixth sense in how to deal with people, including Kevin.

ORDWAY: There was some talking, some chirping going on with Bird in those nine days. There was some playful stuff, but remember, Bird held the record that McHale broke.

BIRD: Of course after the game, they asked me about it and I had to be a smart-ass and say, ‘I’ll break that record in no time.’

WEDMAN: He congratulated Kevin, and he never said a word to any of us that I know of about breaking it again, but it did not surprise any of us when he went out and got it back so soon.

‘I’m passing Larry Bird!’

On March 8, Bird led the Celtics to their 50th win in 64 games, a 133-122 victory over the Dallas Mavericks in which he submitted a typically masterful 32-point, 15-rebound, 9-assist performance. With three days off until their next game against the Hawks, Bird got his competition fix by running in the sixth annual Shamrock Classic on March 10, a five-mile road race that started at the Boston Garden.

—Boston Globe Archives

BIRD: I used to shoot the gun off to start it. It was about 3,000-4,000 people, and it kept growing and growing until they stopped it.

WEDMAN: When I didn’t play much during a game, I’d get into practice a half-hour early and I’d run for about 20 minutes beforehand around the court. About a month before that road race, I came in one time and Larry was running. I was like, ‘What’s he doing?’ He just said quietly, ‘I need to stay in shape.’

For a week or two this went on, and after a couple of weeks — he was kind of shy — he came up to me and just goes, ‘Buddy of mine is having a fundraiser for such-and-such thing. You wanna run with me?’

I said, ‘If [Coach] K.C. [Jones] says it’s OK, sure. He said Louise Boland, our fitness instructor and a marathon runner, had to pace us, and as long as no one pulls a hamstring or gets hurt, he was all right with it.

BIRD: We went out there and just ran it. Boy oh boy, my hamstrings were never tighter after that.

WEDMAN: We were obviously recognizable, being about a foot taller than the rest of the runners. So we take off, beautiful day, and there are a couple of thousand people in this race.

So we’re running along — and Boston is a big sports town — and you hear, ‘Hey, there’s Larry Bird! Hey there’s Larry Bird! Look, Larry Bird! Hey, is that Scott Wedman?’ And then you start to hear, ‘Hey, I’m passing Larry Bird!’ People were running fast and enjoying the fact that they’re passing us.

BIRD: It’s amazing to me when you run those races. Some people you think can’t run, they run right by you. It’s amazing. Kids 10 years old flying by you at the four-mile marker. You’re like, ‘What the hell?’

WEDMAN: So the last mile, Larry’s noticing this, and he says, ‘Nobody’s passing me anymore. Let’s go.’ And he took off. Remembering what K.C. said, I didn’t try to beat him. Don’t know if I could have. He did the last mile in under five minutes.

BIRD: We used to try to get it done under 34 minutes.

Bird finished the race in 33 minutes and 40 seconds.

WEDMAN: It was a sprint. I experienced what a heart of a champion was. I was right behind him and I felt like my legs could have burst.

BIRD: I beat Scotty, so that was good.

‘It was all Celtics fans’

What wasn’t so good was the condition of Bird’s legs as the Celtics embarked on a trip to play the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday, March 12. But they didn’t head to Atlanta. Instead, the game was played at Lakefront Arena, a 10,900-seat arena on the University of New Orleans campus.

BIRD: That race left me so sore, my hamstrings were so tight, I went over to shootaround and I didn’t feel good. I couldn’t get loose. But once I got running during the game, they loosened up. But going into that game, I didn’t expect to do anything.

ORDWAY: This almost felt like a preseason game, had the feel of an exhibition game, because you were not playing in an NBA arena. This had none of that routine you get from covering an NBA game. It just seemed out of place. It was this dingy little arena, tiny little place. Everyone was real close to the floor. There was no upper balcony or anything. You could hear everything everywhere. The players were talking about it in the shootaround beforehand. They weren’t accustomed to playing at a place that size. Ten-thousand people? C’mon.

MIKE FRATELLO, Hawks coach, 1980-81 (interim), 1983-90: We played a dozen games there that season. The reason was a promoter down there offered Ted Turner, our owner, a hundred-thousand dollars a game. And that’s when Mr. Turner was trying to get TBS off the ground. That was a lot of money to infuse into the network.

JOHN STERLING, Hawks television broadcaster, 1981-89: It made for terrible travel. But it made a lot of money for the Hawks, which is what they wanted.

FRATELLO: We basically played 53 road games and 29 home games in Atlanta.

ORDWAY: It was all Celtics fans. Like a Celtics home game.

BIRD: I noticed that right away. There were usually a lot of Celtics fans in Atlanta, but this was even more. Celtics fans traveled well. It seemed like it was about 75 percent Celtics fans. That got me fired up.

FRATELLO: That happened all over the place then. When we were in Atlanta, we’d see our share of green jerseys in the stands. We were rebuilding the team then, trying to put the group together that would end up having four-to-five great years together — Nique, Doc [Rivers], Kevin Willis. But that year was a tough year because we knew we were in transition.

Add on top of that that the Celtics were as good as they were and had a loyal following all over the country, and that’s why you saw so many people there. A chance to see the Celtics in New Orleans? That’s a big deal.

GREG KITE, Celtics center, 1983-88: One of the Boston writers used to say all the time that Larry was like Elvis, and that’s exactly how it was, in New Orleans and everywhere else. He was the king. Everyone wanted to see him no matter where we went.

BIRD: I didn’t think that game was played well by either team. Still don’t. But the fans in New Orleans sure liked it.

‘The game really sucked’

Bird’s performance in the first half against the Hawks didn’t suggest McHale’s new record was in imminent danger of already becoming past tense. Bird was not otherworldly, but merely excellent in the first half. He scored 12 points in the first quarter, entering halftime with 23. Not that he was particularly pleased with any of it, especially when Dominique Wilkins and Eddie Johnson, who combined for 72 points, helped the Hawks tie the game 69-69 early in the third quarter.

BIRD: If you watch the tape, the game really sucked. That wasn’t the kind of game I like to play in. Nobody was guarding anybody, the ball wasn’t moving good.

KITE: I’m watching the YouTube clips as we talk about this. A backdoor pass from DJ. [Dennis Johnson] That was a staple for them. Beautiful play.

CARLISLE: Larry was one of the most fun players ever to watch for his fertile imagination to try different stuff on the court and pull things off.

During the third quarter, Bird seized control, seemingly making every shot in his deep repertoire —the familiar fallaways, step-backs and leaners were out in abundance,. He hit a runner with eight seconds left that made you believe he may never miss again.

Perhaps he even invented one or two new moves along the way. He finished with 19 points in the quarter, including 11 in the final three minutes and 10 seconds as the Celtics took a 100-89 lead into the final quarter.

“I could feel it at the end of the third period,’’ said DJ in the aftermath. “He made a shot – the real high one? – and I said to myself, ‘Watch out. He already had 42 points and he was just getting hot.’”

ROBERT PARISH, Celtics center, 1980-94: He told us at halftime that nobody could stop him so just give him the ball and get out of the way. Then he went out and started taunting the Atlanta players on the floor, the ones on the bench, their coaches, even the referees. He was talking so much trash he was buried in it. It was one of those nights when he could have drop-kicked the ball in. I loved it.

M.L. CARR, Celtics swingman, 1979-1985: I was [on the injured list and at home in Weston] watching the game on television with my wife. I was watching and watching, rooting for us to win, and all of a sudden I got thinking about the record and Larry. My wife kept falling asleep and I kept waking her up. ‘Sylvia, look at this one.’ She’d fall asleep again and I’d have to wake her up again. ‘Sylvia, look at this.’

STERLING: In the old days, you were so much in the game. I was sitting at the table right there next to the Hawks bench. He was making shots from our microphone, one unbelievable shot after another. You know that modern term, heat-check? Larry might have invented the heat-check that night.

BIRD: We used to do that all the time. Danny did it a lot, Kevin, and me. If you get a little space, you’re going to fire it up and see if it goes in. Low-percentage shots, but somehow they end up getting in the rim and going in.

Did they ever go in during the fourth quarter. Bird scored 33 points in his last 14 minutes and 13 seconds on the court, including 18 after re-entering the game with 8:41 remaining to play. Bird’s final 18 points were the Celtics’ final 18 points.

BIRD: I didn’t even know I was scoring at that rate until I hit a couple of free throws and the PA guy said I had 51 and 52. I knew I was scoring a lot, but I didn’t know I had that many. I couldn’t believe it was that many. But once it got up there pretty high, I figured you might as well go ahead and try to beat McHale’s record.

FRATELLO: He was feeling it that game. His teammates knew it. This was a night where they could see Larry had it going. They made sure they got the ball in his hands as often as possible. They were pretty smart that way.

BIRD: DJ came over and said, ‘C’mon, let’s bust Kevin’s record.’ But Kevin helped me out just like I helped him out.

The Celtics backcourt combined for 30 assists. Johnson had 17 and Ainge 13. And McHale chipped in with five.

BIRD: Danny had 13 assists? Are you sure? That must be a mistake, first of all. We were playing in New Orleans and it wasn’t a real NBA arena, so you never know who they had a stat guy. That had to be a career-high for him.

Dominique Wilkins, the soaring star of the ‘80s Hawks who came up on the short end of a couple of memorable shootouts with Bird, was the primary victim of Bird’s offensive spree — though he did counter with 36 points of his own.

WILKINS, Hawks forward, 1982-94: Me and Larry, we had some great battles. Legendary. Legendary. He had the heart of a lion. He was a brilliant basketball player, in every aspect of the word. I could not have more respect for him.

STERLING: I coined ‘Dominique is Magnifique.’ He loved it. He was a pleasure.

CARLOS CLARK, Celtics guard, 1983-85: They always had this real competitive rivalry going. But I knew Dominique from college [Clark went to Mississippi, Wilkins to Georgia] and knew he’s a very competitive guy. Sometimes those dunks of his would come down from the rafters.

ORDWAY: You notice a lot of Larry’s big, huge games are against Atlanta? That’s because Larry lit up every time he was going up against Dominique. Larry just tortured him because he knew Dominique could not play a lick of defense. Larry would just go right at him. Right at him. He knew he could beat him off the dribble, hit the fadeaway, make that little dribble-drive, and then back off for that wing shot. I remember him saying once he also knew that halfway through the shot process, Dominique would cheat and start to head down the floor.

GLENN “DOC” RIVERS, Hawks guard, 1983-1991: He saw Dominique as this up-and-coming player and he just tortured him, mentally. He tortured all of us. He was calling shots ‘off the glass, who’s next, where you want this one from,’ and he just made one after another. When he got to about the 55th point you knew it was something special.”

Wilkins wasn’t just victimized by Bird on the court that night. He also was the victim of a good-natured prank by teammates afterward. The late Ray Williams, a backup guard for the Celtics in 1985 who died in 2013, recalled in the days after Bird’s feat that some of the Hawks had gone to a club after the game.

Cliff Levingston, a backup forward, summoned a waiter and had a bottle of champagne sent to Wilkins’s table. The inscription: ‘Thanks. From Larry.’ When Wilkins, known as the “Human Highlight Film” during his prime, was honored with a 13 ½-foot tall, 18,500-pound statue outside of the Hawks’ home, Philips Arena, Bird quipped, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s not made in a defensive stance.’

WILKINS: Ah, man, that was just a bust from Larry. He’s a funny guy. When you’re playing against one of the greatest players ever, who was gonna guard them one-on-one? There was no one guy who was gonna guard him one-on-one.

SCOTT HASTINGS, Hawks forward, 1982-88: Larry was so on fire, and there was nothing we could do. I’ll be you eight different members of our team guarded him. In fact, after the game, a bunch of us were having a beer in the French Quarter and trying to add up how many he got on each one of us. ‘He only got 14 on me blah-blah-blah, yeah, he got just 12 on me.’ We totaled it up after everybody talked and I think it came out to 32, so how it got to 60, we never solved that one.

FRATELLO: Since it’s years later, I can look at it this way. I was enjoying Larry so much I felt like why should I do something to ruin this guy’s rhythm? I just let him keep going. I hope Larry appreciates that I was part of him getting that record, not disturbing his rhythm at all. I’m sure he appreciates that.

HASTINGS: I feel like he had eight or 12 on me. [Randy] Wittman had 12 or 14. Nique probably had 30 at least. Doc was on him for 10 or 12, Cliff Levingston gave up some, Antoine Carr got a bunch on him, Kevin Willis. I’m not sure there was a guard or a forward in that game, not a soul that played, that didn’t get burned by Larry Bird.

WILKINS: Larry was a bitch to guard one-on-one.

‘Guys erupted like we were Celtics fans’

As Bird piled up the points in the fourth quarter, seemingly increasing the degree of difficulty with each made shot, a small group of Hawks players – particularly forward Cliff Levingston and guard Eddie Johnson — began reacting animatedly. Their reactions of admiration and disbelief became especially obvious when Bird drilled a twisting, bad-angle corner jumper to get to 54 points with 43 seconds left.

HASTINGS: Three or four of the guys erupted like we were Celtics fans. A couple of the guys ran off the bench. I always sat on the bench with a towel on my lap. I took the towel – I was screaming just as loud as these guys were — but I threw the towel over my face and just started screaming and hollering. It was like a precursor to those And1 videos.

Bird got his record 57th point on a free throw, which brought a very high high-five from McHale. And points 59 and 60 came after McHale pulled down an offensive rebound of a Bird miss and kicked it back out to DJ, who fed a cutting Bird for the perfect punctuation mark: a foul line jumper at the buzzer.

Bird: I remember DJ and Quinn [Buckner] hugging me, but I just wanted to get back to the locker room. I was exhausted.

But it was a shot that came a few moments before – one that didn’t count – that is remembered more than any of Bird’s 22 made field goals that did count.

With 14 seconds left, Bird catches a pass in front of the Hawks bench, takes one dribble to his left, and launches a step-back jumper with Rickey Brown draped all over him. The shot falls through the net just as Bird, nudged by Brown, falls into the lap of Hawks trainer Joe O’Toole. The shot did not count— a foul was called on the floor – but that makes it no less amazing.

As Hawks announcer John Sterling shouts ‘Larry Bird! Larry Bird!’ while proclaiming it the greatest shooting performance he has ever seen, the players at the end of the Hawks’ bench – particularly Levingston – can’t even pretend to contain themselves now. They fall all over each in giddy amazement. Only later did we find out the real reason for the reaction: Larry Bird called his shot.

Rivers: He said “in the trainer’s lap” coming down the court, which meant it was going to be a three and it was going to from deep. Then he said, ‘Who wants it?’ Then I think Rickey Brown, I’m not sure who it was, ran out after him, he shot this high rainbow, it goes in, Rickey bumps into him and accidentally knocks him on our trainer’s lap. So it was exactly what he said. It was an accident, but it was almost fate. They show a shot of our bench, Cliff Levingston and Eddie Johnson, standing up giving each other high fives. It was pretty awesome.

CLARK: I not sure who it was, but I could swear one of the guys on their bench tried to give Larry a high-five.

RIVERS: That night was not awesome. We had to go back to the locker room, and Mike Fratello, instead of going out to eat, had a team meeting and put the film in and said, ‘It’s one thing to be in awe. It’s another thing to cheer for the other team.’ And he shows this back and forth, and kept rewinding the high five. It was awesome.

FRATELLO: We’re trying to beat these people. We’re not going to the movies to enjoy a show. This is our competitor. I didn’t appreciate the way they handled it, I let them know that, and we moved on. A lesson learned. Their lesson was that they got fined.

HASTINGS: Mike was so mad I think he fined each of those guys 500 bucks. But he didn’t get me. I had the towel.

WEDMAN: I understood why they did it. It was like, where is this coming from? How is this guy doing this? It might not be funny or cool if you’re on the same team, but if you know the game or play the game, especially at that level, you can’t help but marvel at what Larry was doing.

BIRD: I saw the replay of that a few times where those guys are over there laughing. But hell, they guarded me at one time or another that night too. So it wasn’t just one guy.

HASTINGS: It’s the second game I ever played in where I saw the guys on the bench become fans of the opponent. Both times Larry Bird was involved. The other time was my first NBA pro game with the Knicks.

We were playing the Celtics in an exhibition game in Portland, Maine. Larry had one of the rookies guarding him, real athletic kid, and he was getting down low in his stance and was ready to get in Larry’s jock. Larry takes the ball like he’s going to make a pass and fakes like he’s throwing it over this guy’s head, then he pulls it back.

And the kid does about a 180-degree jump-turn and takes about two steps across the lane. And Larry just sits there and looks at him with that, you know, kind of that Larry look. He’s like, ‘Really?’

The kid tries to recover and takes a step toward and him and Larry steps back, takes a shot, hits it, and says, ‘Too late.’ We’re all on the bench going , ‘Oh my god, oh my god,’ and then all of a sudden I remembered, dude, I’m not in college anymore watching Larry Bird. I’m an opponent playing against him. So it happened twice.

KITE: I’d like to say Larry and I combined for 62 points, but I don’t recall if I got into the game.

Kite did not score in one minute of playing time.

WEDMAN: I believe I was excited because Larry and I combined for 78 points.

Wedman scored 12 points on 6 of 9 shooting.

Wedman: I only had 12? Well, Larry and I had just 72 then. Dammit. That’s still pretty good.

ORDWAY: The thing I remember that was absolutely hysterical was they were doing a special drawing for fans that night. The Hawks might have been using the Celtics to draw a crowd because they knew they couldn’t draw that crowd. So the prize for the drawing – you had to buy tickets for it – was the Larry Bird game jersey from the game. At the end of the game, Bird was going to take his jersey off, sign it, and hand it over to a fan.

So the game ends, they’re coming off the floor, and I remember the confusion at the time because suddenly the Celtics were not giving up that jersey. Not that night. They weren’t giving that up. There were, like, negotiations going on.

The person was not real happy because you could tell there was no sweat on the jersey they were given. He probably figured out he had something really precious that they were trying to swap out.

FRATELLO: I’ve got a story. We’re going back to the hotel that night after the game, my assistant coach and I went to get something to eat, we had a little place that we stopped at to talk over the game.

We do that, then head back to the hotel. We’re carrying our bags, slowly walking through the door, and the doorman there that night said, ‘Boy, coach, that one really surprised me. I thought for sure you guys were going to beat them, and I thought for sure that Larry wasn’t going to play well.’

I said, ‘Oh, really. Why would you say that?’ He says, ‘Because I would say that he got in a little bit late last night. He got in a little late. I didn’t think he’d have the energy to do that.’ So that rubbed a little salt in the wound.

BIRD: I just remember having dinner with friends and getting my rest.

FRATELLO: Whatever it was, it worked for him.

BIRD: People get caught up in points, but I can’t say it’s in the top 20 of my favorite games. I had games where I scored just 15 or 16 points, but I played excellent basketball in my mind, I did a little bit of everything. I didn’t rebound or pass much.

Bird: Sixty points is a lot, don’t get me wrong. I made shots against the Hawks that game I can’t recall making in any other time. It’s not easy to do. But there was a game from a little earlier that season where I had a triple-double and a bunch of steals in around 30 minutes against the Jazz. That had it all. That was what I’d call a great game. If you wanna talk about that one …

Box score —Boston Globe Archives