When you look back at an NBA draft, you see that some superstar players weren’t taken highly at all. Whether it’s because they didn’t perform well in college, developed late or had a black mark against them for perceived personality flaws, teams just didn’t want to add them onto their roster. Larry Bird was one of those elite stars that many teams passed up on for one reason or another.
Who Was Drafted Ahead of Larry Bird? Larry Bird was drafted with the sixth overall pick in the 1978 NBA draft. Other teams ahead of the Boston Celtics had chosen to select Mychal Thompson, Phil Ford, Rick Robey, Micheal Ray Richardson and Purvis Short over him in that order. As you could have probably guessed, none of those five players left nearly the same impact on the game of basketball as Bird did.
Let’s take a bit of a deeper look into each of the players drafted ahead of Bird in 1978, and see if we can figure out why teams became fascinated by players other than Bird coming into the draft. The entire landscape of the NBA could have been a whole lot different if one team chose Bird out of those first five selections.
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Mychal Thompson – Portland Trail Blazers
Thompson was the first overall selection by the Portland Trail Blazers. Leave it to the Blazers to miss out on yet another superstar player in the draft. He wasn’t very impactful on the Blazers during his 7 seasons and went to the Los Angeles Lakers after a brief stop in San Antonio. He won two championships, both with the Lakers (‘87 and ‘88) as he came off the bench as an impact sub. His best season saw him average 20.8 points and 11.7 rebounds per game when he regained his starting spot after an injury disrupted the start to his Blazers career. Those numbers may seem decent, but obviously they aren’t Larry Bird numbers. Plus, he didn’t even impact the team that originally drafted him. Mychal is the father of Klay Thompson, a guy that we all know very well in the NBA today. Klay and his father Mychal are the only father-son tandem to both win back-to-back NBA championships. He was a clear beneficiary of the Big Man bias that prevailed throughout much of the NBA’s early years. It’s hard to know if he would have lived up to his billing had he not suffered a long term injury early in his career.
Phil Ford – Kansas City Kings
Phil Ford was snagged second by the Kansas City Kings, now known as the Sacramento Kings. During his rookie season, everybody thought that he was the best player out of his class. He won the Rookie of the Year award and averaged 15.9 points and 8.6 assists. Unfortunately, he started to fall off in the years that followed. He retired very young at the age of 29 and wound up playing for the New Jersey Nets, the Houston Rockets and the Milwaukee Bucks as well. He wasn’t the best player out of the class like many had hoped and his career was short lived, but he still got inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2012. He also won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics. He was drafted for his excellent ball handling, but that clearly wasn’t enough to warrant a selection over Bird looking back on it.
Rick Robey – Indiana Pacers
Robey was taken by the Indiana Pacers, based not far from the French Lick, that Larry Bird calls home. Larry Bird would go on to be president of the Pacers following his playing career until resigning in 2017. Robey didn’t do much with the Pacers and was traded to the Celtics after just 43 games. Winning an NBA title in 1981 as Bird carried the Celtics to the championship. He later moved on to the Phoenix Suns but failed to make a huge impact there either. When he retired, he scored just 3,723 total points and 2,301 rebounds in 8 seasons as a center.
Micheal Ray Richardson – New York Knicks
Richardson was taken fourth overall by the New York Knicks. He was active for eight years in the NBA, switching between the Knicks, the Golden State Warriors and the New Jersey Nets during that span. He wasn’t ever a true offensive force like the Knicks were hoping to get out of him, though he did end up being huge on the defensive end. He led the league in steals three different seasons, in 1980, 1983 and 1985. He also led the league in assists in 1980. Sadly, his career was cut short, not by injuries or retirement. Richardson was actually banned from the NBA for life in 1986. This was because he had violated the league’s drug policy and the former commissioner took the time to ban him personally. The ban was lifted in 1988 but Richardson chose not to return to the NBA and instead went to play in Europe.
Purvis Short – Golden State Warriors
The final player drafted ahead of Larry Bird, Purvis Short. He was drafted fifth overall by the Golden State Warriors and had a solid rookie year, averaging 10.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per contest. He took a massive leap forward a few years down the line, having his best year of his career in 1985 averaging 28 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. After 12 years in the league he left in 1990 to pursue a basketball career in Israel for another year. Still, he managed to become one of the best scorers in the NBA for an individual season.
Larry Bird – Boston Celtics
Straight away, it was clear that Bird was a league changer. His trash talking, his skill and his leadership all influenced how great the Boston Celtics were when he was on the team. They were always competitive regardless of who else was on the roster and won three NBA Championships at a time when the Lakers were a dominant force coming out of the West. Bird has been inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame since his retirement and was a 12-time All-Star. He averaged 24 points, 10 rebounds and 6.3 assists throughout his entire career, as was a known winner outside of the box score. On top of all that, he was given the MVP award four different times and has since been named to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team. Larry has a lot more accolades and other achievements but it would take ridiculously long to singularly name each here. If this draft were to ever be redone with teams having the knowledge that they do right now, every single franchise would take Larry Bird with that top overall spot. It wouldn’t even be a question. He was that much better than everybody else taken above him, and will be forever remembered as one of the greatest draft selections in NBA history.
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