Contrary to popular belief, Michael Jordan wasn’t the lone NBA icon with a baseball career. Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird, too, once tried his luck. The difference was that Jordan played it for his love for the sport. Bird tried it out because he felt like it.
Provoking Larry Legend
Bob Warn, Indiana State University’s baseball coach from the 1970s to 2000s, first took notice of Bird, the school’s basketball star, always icing his body in the locker room. Warn approached Bird then, out of nowhere, tried to provoke him.
“‘You’re a real wuss,'” Warn recalls telling Bird. “‘Every night, I see you. You’re just here in the training room icing,'” Warn said, per IndyStar.
“I told him, ‘You know? Real men play games with balls this size.'” Warn said, forming his hands into the shape of a baseball. “I said, ‘Anybody can play games with balls this size.’ Warn formed his hands into a basketball. “‘You just have to have a large basketball or you can’t do it.'”
Bird, a competitor by heart, took on the challenge: “I could do that,” Bird said. “I could play baseball.”
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Warn possessed the qualities of a good coach and knew how athletes are designed and which buttons to push. The Sycamore baseball squad wasn’t necessarily in need of a talent boost. Warn had guided the baseball squad to a decent record before he provoked Bird. Instead, Warn had a different intention. He knew that Bird was on his way to becoming a basketball legend. So why not capitalize on his impending fame?
“Warn wanted Larry to try baseball primarily because he knew that it would boost crowd attendance against a lower-level opponent,” said Tom James, the sports information director at ISU at the time. “Coach was big on trying different things in order to boost attendance.”‘
The marketing ploy worked. Warn estimated that some 3,000 people flocked to watch Bird, the basketball star, play baseball. But Warn didn’t let the massive crowd cloud his judgment.
He knew that Bird wasn’t really a baseball player. He also knew that if anything serious happened to Bird, whose body was already beaten up from basketball, he would be in trouble. Warn advised Bird not to take the game too seriously.
In the two games Bird played baseball, he had two injury scares. One was when he collided with the catcher and, for a couple of seconds, did not move at all. The other was in an infield pop-up between first base and home plate. Bird once again collided with the catcher and did not move.
“Larry collided with the catcher and they both went down and they just laid there not moving,” Warn said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?'”
Warn wisely took Bird of the game and never played him ever again. It put an end to Bird’s baseball career. Besides the injury scare, he also forged one of the highest batting averages in his school’s history.
“All the time I’d been playing basketball, I’ve never been knocked out,” Bird once said. “One baseball game and I get it. I was really hurt. So, end of career — one for two, .500 average, two RBI. I figured I couldn’t do much better than that.”