On Valentine's Day in 1986, Larry Bird delivered a hardwood love letter to Portland. There would be games in which the Boston Celtics forward would score more points and hit bigger shots, but this one holds a special place in the hearts of his fans.
It wasn't just the numbers, though they were gaudy enough—47 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists. It was the confluence of circumstances: Bird was playing without injured co-star Kevin McHale on the second night of a back-to-back in which he'd already posted a triple-double the previous evening in Seattle. It was in the middle of a gauntlet West Coast trip in which the Celtics, traveling commercial in those days, played nine games in 11 days across five states.
And it was the artistry of the performance itself: Bird hit every three-pointer he took. He dunked. He dished. He slashed. He kicked. He hit Dennis Johnson with one of the prettiest touch passes you'll ever see. He nailed a runner from the foul line to send the game into overtime. In OT, with Boston down one with seconds left and everyone in the arena aware he'd have the ball in his hands on the final possession, he hit a fall-away 14-footer with Portland's Jerome Kersey covering him like a sheet. Ballgame.
And just for good measure, the right-handed Bird did half of the above left-handed.
"At the end of one of the trips, he had accomplished every goal, we hadn't lost a game on the trip," Boston teammate Bill Walton later recalled. (In reality, the Celtics had lost a game on that trip). "And Larry told all of us players and the media too, we were all standing around waiting to leave, he said, 'Tomorrow night's the last game of the trip, I'm going to play this one left-handed, at least through three quarters.'"
Before Steph Curry and this season's Golden State Warriors began making the entire league look like also-rans, before Michael Jordan and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls reeled off an astonishing 72-win regular season en route to the Larry O'Brien trophy, there was Bird and the 1985-86 Celtics, a generation-defining team.
Four of the five starters on the '86 Celtics are in the Hall of Fame. Another Hall of Famer, Walton, came off the bench. The team won 67 regular-season games, second most in league history at the time. They ran away with the Atlantic Division by 13 games. They reeled off 13- and 14-game win streaks. At home, they were as close to perfection as you could get: 40-1, the best home record in modern NBA history. Their lone Boston Garden loss came on a Friday night in early December to a young team struggling to forge an identity: the Portland Trail Blazers.
"They were kind of ushering in the whole age of running basketball, small ball," says longtime Celtics beat writer Peter May, author of The Big Three and The Last Banner: the Story of the 1985-86 Celtics. "The Celtics were not that kind of team. In Boston, they basically got run out of the gym."
"At that point, we were really trying to be an up-tempo team," says Terry Porter, then a rookie guard with Portland. "We talked a lot about pace of play and really pushing the ball."
Bird scored 20 points with 11 rebounds in the loss, but shot just 9-of-26 from the floor.
"They definitely wanted to win in Portland because [the Blazers] had won in Boston and that didn't sit well with them," says May.
The Celtics rolled into Portland's Veterans Memorial Coliseum looking for payback.
The old home of the Blazers was an oblong sphere with curtain-wall windows above the seats on all sides, giving a sharpshooter like Bird great sightlines. Located on the banks of the Willamette River, it held just 12,666 fans. There was no balcony, no upper deck seats. It felt like the fans were right over the floor. From 1977 until the Blazers moved to the Rose Garden in 1995, they sold out every game.
There was something about the old building that Bird just liked. "Old-school place," says May. "He loved the crowd…. He loved to play in that arena." Bird scored more than 20 points every time he played in Portland, except the last time, in 1991, when he was hobbled by chronic back pain. Even then, he nabbed a double-double. Fittingly, Veterans Coliseum was the site of his last competitive game in America, when the Dream Team won the Tournament of the Americas there in 1992.
Of all his great Pacific Northwest performances, the 1986 Valentine's Day game was Bird's masterpiece.
It starts off innocently enough. First quarter. Bird calls for the ball in the corner, in front of the Celtics bench. He picks it up from Dennis Johnson, scoots past a lunging Jerome Kersey, and lofts a pretty runner with his left hand. "That was a great shot!" a broadcast analyst exclaims. "He made that look easy. He shot that with the left hand!"
Moments later, he backs Kersey up on the elbow, puts the ball on the floor, and blows past him for a left-handed finger roll. Bird has two more lefty baskets in the first half. In the second-half, he lifts up six southpaw buckets, with an even three per quarter. By the time he hits a late-game layup righty, the broadcasters are surprised he made the shot with his normal shooting hand.
"We didn't say much in particular about how we were going to defend Larry as much as we talked about trying to not let him get anything easy," says Porter.
Bird's game was a series deft post moves and delicate pirouettes, lefty hooks, lay-ups, and finger rolls. And he made it look effortless.
He hit the game-tying and game-winning shots right-handed, because, who knows, maybe he thought it was time to finally stop messing around. The headline of the Boston Globe's recap the next day summed it up succinctly: "Bird Saves Celtics."
On the night, Bird tallied at least 20 of his 47 points left-handed and ten of his 21 field goals. When you take out his three three-pointers, he scored more points from the field with his left hand than he did his right.
Why did he do this? Was he hurt? Was he pissed? Was he bored, as Walton seemed to suggest?
"Larry was very comfortable using his left hand," May says, an obvious understatement.
"Kersey was maybe 6'5", 6'6" tops," he says of the man given the thankless task of guarding Bird for much of the night. "Larry would have relished the size advantage."
"I know every offseason Larry would go back to French Lick and work on what he perceived to be a weakness in his game," says former Celtic player, broadcaster, and scout Rick Weitzman. "One of those off-seasons he went back and worked on his left hand. He might have been using that game to show the results of all his hard work."
Bird gave a much more practical, if typically arch, reason. Contrary to Walton's fuzzy memory, the Portland game wasn't the last in the Celtics' road trip. They were heading to Los Angeles for a Finals rematch against their blood rivals. "I'm saving my right hand for the Lakers," Bird told reporters after the game. Two days later against Magic Johnson and the Lakers, he dropped 22 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in a six-point Celtics win. If Bird's right hand really needed the extra rest, well, it worked.