There was a chance for the Indiana Pacers to get their hands on a generational and franchise-altering guy like Larry Bird. But they didn’t get him.
Nancy Leonard, the wife of former Pacers owner Bobby Leonard, spilled the beans on what really happened behind the scenes in what could be one of the most horrendous blunders ever committed on draft night.
“We gave Larry Bird away”
Larry Bird was up for grabs for the Indiana Pacers. Nancy Leonard, former owner Bobby “Slick” Leonard, who was team coach and general manager at that time, and scouts all watched Bird play, and they all agreed that getting him would be a top priority.
Even at his young age, Bird displayed the skills that would make anyone watching him recognize his potential, prompting Nancy to call him “perfect.” For her, it was an obvious choice. But the Pacers board meeting had other things in mind.
The board members disagreed, citing the team's financial situation, and they wouldn’t be able to play him as Bird was set to play his senior year in college. “The Hick from the French Lick” already played four years but he wanted to max out his five years. However, for Mrs. Leonard, Larry was worth the wait, and if they failed to secure the money for his contract, the sweet-shooting forward could have been a good trade asset for the Pacers. Instead, the team drafted Rick Robey at the third pick. Larry Bird slid all the way to the 6th pick.
Ironically, Robey would get traded after only a year. Nancy knew they made the wrong move when the crowds in Boston erupted with joy after passing up on Bird.
"We gave Bird away. We totally gave him away."
Nancy Leonard, USAToday
Larry Bird was destined to be a Celtic
Imagining Bird doing Bird things in other uniforms is just impossible. It was destiny that he played for Boston and continued the franchise's legacy. Larry took over from Bill Russell, created his own legend, and passed on his greatness to the next Boston Celtic hero.
Larry didn’t forget about the Pacers passing up on him. The Boston Celtics’ record against Indiana was 32-5 in a span of six years in the 80s. Bird took it personally. Eventually, the Hall of Famer got to help Indiana as a coach and a team owner. He even led the team to its first and only finals appearance in 2000.
That’s how just life is. The Pacers dreamt of having Bird leading the team to the finals in 1978. He would make it happen after 32 years but as a coach. It was a mistake on the part of the Pacers but the financial strain on the team at that time was just too much. Not even Larry Bird could solve it.