It was Larry Bird's height that made his basketball skills so remarkable. A 6-foot-9 forward who could dribble, pass and shoot the way Bird could made him one of the greatest NBA players we've ever seen and will ever see. His time leading the Boston Celtics was one of the most spectacular stretches of basketball you could imagine. The three-time MVP helped redefine the position and his battles with Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers is the standard for NBA rivalry even today.
However, Bird's height seems to come at a cost -- a cost he's well aware of and doesn't try to hide from. Taller individuals have more growth hormone, which accumulates more damage and dysfunction at a faster pace, and tend to have shorter life expectancies due to rapid aging. Bird knows all about the problems with 7-footers and their health, and despite his wife's aversion to wanting to hear about it, reaching 75 years old isn't something Bird, 59 and now president of the Pacers, necessarily expects to accomplish. From Jackie MacMullan of ESPN the Magazine:
Bird, who has an enlarged heart, was diagnosed in 1995 with atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heartbeat resulting from electrical signals being generated chaotically throughout the heart's upper chambers. With proper medication, exercise and diet, atrial fibrillation can be controlled, but Bird abhorred medication and was prone to skipping his pills. Part of the reason, he admits, was his own fatalistic view of what the future would bring.
"I tell my wife all the time, 'You don't see many 7-footers walking around at the age of 75,'" says Bird, who's 6-foot-9. "She hates it when I say that. I know there are a few of us who live a long time, but most of us big guys don't seem to last too long. I'm not lying awake at night thinking about it. If it goes, it goes."
This is a very scary thought for a lot of NBA players, both past and present. The strain that goes on the heart of someone that tall is tough, and despite being rewarded financially for their skills and size, having that life cut short because of that same size is their reality. As morbid as the subject is, Bird doesn't really duck away from it and what it means for him and his family. The best they can do is continue to monitor their health, try to keep up with working out, and hope for the best.
In the piece, Bird theorizes that the big men who played the hardest and ran the most are the most susceptible to passing away early. He says they build their hearts up so much that when they retire, the hearts just sit there. Considering the troubling back issues Bird has had, which started during his playing days, exercise becomes a much tougher thing to do when you get older.
The losses of Moses Malone (60 years old), Darryl Dawkins (58), Anthony Mason (48), Christian Welp (51) and Jack Haley (51) all in the last year are a reminder of Bird's and others' contemporaries and peers during their playing days passing away far too young.