Larry Bird had three main nicknames: Kodak, the Hick from French Lick and Larry Legend. When he was coming out of college and starting in the NBA, people also sometimes referred to him as the Great White Hope. Larry Legend is the nickname that stuck with Bird the most.
Larry Bird’s Nicknames:The Hick from French LickEmbed from Getty Images
“He had this mask of a hick from French Lick, but if you believed that for one minute, you were in trouble.”Julius “Dr. J.” Irving
The Hick from French Lick is Larry Bird’s best nickname and he gave it to himself. Bird was born in Baden Springs, Indiana but grew up in nearby French Lick. I remember not thinking this could be a real place as a kid, but it’s real.
The name comes from French Lick’s history of being founded as a French trading post near a salt lick. In any case, it is easily most famous for being the hometown of Larry Bird.
When Bird entered the NBA, the league was quite different from today. Game 7 of both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals were televised on tape delay! Bird’s rivalry with Magic Johnson was the driving force that reignited interest in the league.
That rivalry was fed with media attention. Magic, the ultimate showman, ate it up. Bird did not embrace the attention in the same way, but he did have a sense of humor about it all. He called himself just “a hick from French Lick,” and the name stuck.
Of course with Larry Bird, everything was competition. And, while he gave himself the name as a joke, he was also happy to play up the image to his own benefit. He hoped people would look at him, hear the nickname Hick from French Lick and then underrate his abilities. He saw it as potentially giving him an edge.
His best opponents were not buying it, however. Julius Irving saw through it saying, “He had this mask of a hick from French Lick, but if you believed that for one minute, you were in trouble.”
Larry Bird’s Nicknames: Larry Legend
Larry Legend stuck best for the obvious reason: Bird truly is a basketball legend.
He was first called Larry Legend by the NY Post’s outrageous basketball columnist Peter Vecsey.
The early 80’s were a golden age of sports writing and Vecsey had one job: write columns about the NBA. He drew national attention with his bombastic style. He nearly got into a fistfight with Rockets coach Del Harris after a 1981 Finals game for attacking Harris in print throughout the season.
Vecsey later rode the attention his columns brought him to a higher-profile gig on NBC in the 90s. But first he gave Bird the nickname Larry Legend in his columns because Bird was doing legendary things in the early 80s.
After winning 29 games the year prior to his arrival the Celtics won 61 games with the addition of the kid from Indiana State. Bird won Rookie of the Year in 1980, the first of 3 NBA titles in 1981, and began a 3 year stretch as League MVP by 1984. So it’s not hard to see where Vecsey got the idea to call him Legend.
The name stuck in part because several SportsCenter hosts, including Dan Patrick, started using the term to refer to Bird in the late 80s. The late 80s into the early 90s saw an explosion of interest in SportsCenter and a huge growth in its influence on sports culture. So the name Larry Legend stuck. It’s also much easier to say than The Hick from French Lick and that has helped it to stick as well.
Larry Bird’s Nicknames: Kodak
Of Larry Bird’s 3 most famous nicknames, Kodak is the least well known. Bird was given the nickname by his first Celtics coach Bill Fitch.
In his autobiography “Drive”, Bird tells the story of watching videotape with a television producer who stopped the tape randomly at one point. Bird knew exactly how much time was left in the game based on watching only a few seconds.
Not only that, Bird went on to describe how the game played out from there in precise fashion. That uncanny memory is what earned Bird the nickname Kodak.
The Kodak company was the dominant U.S. film and camera company for more than a century. In 1976, two years before Bird was drafted, Kodak controlled 90% of the U.S. film market and close to that number in the U.S. camera market as well. They brought in $10 billion in revenue in 1981, Birds’ second year in the league.
When Fitch nicknamed Bird Kodak, anyone who heard it would have known just what it meant: Bird had a mind like a camera.
He could see everything that was happening on the court. And he could recall what happened as if he had a picture of it in his hands.
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The Great White Hope
I am not sure if I’d call the Great White Hope a nickname for Bird specifically as much I’d say it’s a term some people have assigned to a variety of white athletes, mostly boxers. The term is steeped in racist history
Wikipedia notes at least 8 athletes who have been called the Great White Hope. The idea began with the first black heavyweight world champion Jack Johnson. His next challenger was assigned the term with the idea that he would win back the pride of the white race. He did not defeat Johnson.
As American sports came to be dominated by non-white athletes, various athletes were assigned the term including Bird. There is little doubt that the 80s Celtics, featuring not only Bird but later Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge too, were seen by some as the white team.
But for his part, Bird never gave the idea any credence. He consistently steered clear of the racist controversies that kept finding him and kept his focus on winning basketball games. It seems slightly unfair to Bird to say this was his nickname, as the term was assigned to nearly ten athletes. But the Great White Hope was used by some to describe Bird in the late 70s and early 80s. In fact, Basketball Reference lists it as one of Bird’s nicknames and hence it’s inclusion here.
Summary: Larry Bird’s Nicknames
Larry Bird had three main nicknames: the Hick from French Lick, Larry Legend and Kodak. Bird’s first NBA coach Bill Fitch gave him the nickname Kodak to describe his camera-like mind. Bird gave himself his best nickname, the Hick from French Lick, in the face of exploding media attention. Finally, Bird became Larry Legend in 1980’s sports columns and kept the name with his exploits on the court.
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.