“We Said, They Said”

larry bird and dr. j fight
Larry Bird and Dr. J fighting

“We Said, They Said” is a monthly feature in which Harvard and Wharton MBA students take opposing positions on a topic relevant to both schools. The views expressed are those of the writers only and are not meant to reflect the general views of either student body.

The Boston Celtic’s Larry Bird and the Philadelphia 76’er’s Julius “Dr. J” Erving were two of the greatest basketball players of all time.  They both shaped the sport and represented their cities with pride.  Who of the two was more influential?  In this edition, HBS and Wharton each root for their home team All Star.


Point 1: Larry Bird, by Miguel Ruiz (HBS 2012)

Larry Bird can be described in three words: drive, elegance, and fire.

Drive describes Bird’s will to win. The morning after the Celtics won the 1984 Championship, Bird had already begun training for the next year.

Elegance describes Bird’s game. During the 1981 finals, he took a twenty-foot shot from the top of the key. Sensing the shot was off, he ran toward the baseline as the ball took a high bounce off the rim. Five feet from the basket, Bird caught the ball in the air with his right hand. He switched it to his left hand and finger-rolled it into the basket for two points.

Larry  Bird shooting against Dr. J
Larry Bird shooting against Dr. J

Fire describes fearlessness under pressure. ESPN’s Bill Simmons wrote “Bird, Jerry West and Michael Jordan are the three greatest clutch players of all-time by any calculation.” Former Laker, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, describes playing against Bird as “The only time in my life I’ve ever been scared about a game.”

Bird’s passion for basketball produced a dramatic impact on the game and the league. The Neilson Rating for the NBA finals in 1979, the year before Bird entered the league, was 7.2, meaning that only 7.2% of observed households were watching. In his last finals appearance in 1987, the rating was 15.9, an increase of over 100%.

Also, during the period that CBS owned NBA broadcasting rights (1973-1990), Bird played in three of the top four highest rated games. In fact, during the late seventies/early eighties, the NBA finals were not even broadcast live. Bird was a major part of the rejuvenation of the league, which culminated with a Gold Medal victory in the 1992 Olympics.

Bird made shooting cool. In many circles, including OneManFastBreak.net, he is named the best pure shooter of all time. The other player often cited is Ray Allen, who modeled his shot after Bird’s.

In 1979, the year the three point shot was introduced to the NBA, teams shot an average of 2.8 three-pointers per game. Now, three point shots per game average consistently over 18 per game.

Larry Bird was a driving force behind the evolution of the game of basketball. The level of dedication and competitiveness, which was later made ubiquitous by Michael Jordon, had its roots in the 1979-80 season, Bird’s rookie year.

Point 2:  Dr. J by Anne Marie Aponte (Wharton 2012)

The history of basketball is flooded with stars, yet only a select few have become the type of household names that have transcended generational gaps.  Still fewer have left a mark on the game in a way that has completely revolutionized what the product on the court looks like today.  An important difference between Larry Bird and Julius “Dr. J” Erving lies not in their stat lines but in the lasting impact each has had on the sport.

Dr J takes a shot
Dr J takes a shot

Dr. J pioneered a new style of play, something that few did before or have done since.  His aerial theatrics were unprecedented, and they’ve been imitated by the greats ever since.  Most of us aren’t old enough to recall his “rock the baby” cradle dunk against the Lakers in ’83, but we can remember Michael Jordan borrowing the move time and time again.  And though many of us associate flashy moves and in-flight improvisation with modern-day stars like Kobe Bryant, don’t tell that to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; he’s still reeling from the ridiculous baseline move Dr. J pulled on him during the 1980 NBA Finals – a perfectly executed reverse layup which Magic Johnson later referred to as the greatest move he’d ever seen.  Most people also don’t realize that Dr. J popularized dunking from the free throw line with his famous tomahawk jam at the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest.  When we think of contemporary hoops greatness, we think of power, speed, and super-human athleticism – vintage Dr. J.  The modern NBA star is molded in his image.

Dr. J didn’t just blaze a trail for future generations of players – he shaped the direction of an entire league.  As the preeminent player in the ABA during the ‘70s, he is often cited as the impetus for the NBA-ABA merger, a milestone that forever altered the landscape of professional basketball.  The NBA had long resisted the move but finally yielded in 1976, following years of salary-inflating competition for talent between the leagues.  The ABA subsequently brought with it a new style of play – Dr. J’s style – which is still dominant in today’s game.

The general consensus among basketball aficionados is that Bird was the superior all-around player. Erving, however, has influenced the sport in a way that extends well beyond the accolades he accumulated over the course of his storied career, and to this day, we see evidence of that impact in each and every game.