Here in 2016, you’re well aware that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson basically saved basketball in the 1980s. Case in point: When Magic won his first title in ‘80, the NBA Finals scored an 8.0 in the Nielsen ratings. When Larry won his first title in ‘81, ratings dipped to a then-record low 6.7. In both cases the games weren’t even shown live. CBS opted to broadcast them on tape delay. Can you imagine that today? “At 2:30 am, stay tuned for Game 6 of the NBA Finals right here on ABC. But first, four hours of Fresh Off the Boat and The Goldbergs!” Anyway by 1987, when Larry and Magic met in the Finals for the third time in four years, ratings had soared to 15.9, and they remained consistent through the Jordan years, peaking in ’98 (MJ’s last title) with a still-record 18.7.
But while Larry, Magic and ultimately Michael put the NBA on their shoulders, they were diverging personalities who represented very different things. From a marketing perspective, Magic embodied the flash and glamour of Los Angeles. MJ was larger than life on his way to becoming basketball’s first global icon. Meanwhile, Larry was Larry; the down-home, no-nonsense, blue-collared country boy, and on the surface you might assume that placed a lower ceiling over his impact as a TV pitchman. Bird had less range. His personality didn’t exactly “pop” on screen. You got the sense he’d rather stick his arm in a tractor blade than sit for hair and makeup. He was in a smaller market -- especially compared to Magic. But for this week’s installment of #86Celtics, we’ll look at Bird’s commercial history and eviscerate the crazy notion that he was somehow a less flashy, cool or marketable TV personality than his Hall of Fame peers.
For instance, when you think “Larry Bird” you don’t necessarily think fashion. But then again, maybe you’ve never heard of Chardon jeans.
Talk about lust. Talk about sex appeal. Talk about whatever they were trying to do with that shot of both hands on the joystick. Hot damn, Larry! The first time through, I questioned why he’d bring a basketball to a futuristic roller-skating burger arcade. But then the waitress pinned him against the Galaga machine and it all made sense.
Bird’s impact on fashion wasn’t limited to jean companies you’ve never heard of. In 1987, when the league was looking for the new face of their NBA catalog, they didn’t go running to LA or New York or even MJ in Chicago. David Stern knew better than anyone that sex sells.
How about that guy sitting on the bench behind Larry in the locker room? I’ll guess that he was the stand-in while they set up the shot earlier that morning, but do you think he’s an actual actor? Maybe a random NBA employee that people thought looked enough like Bird? You think he ever acted again? Is there a chance he’s still sitting there on that bench 29 years later? More importantly, if you want to get your hands on that white Cliff Engle sweater, there’s an XL available on Etsy for $164.
Yup, Larry still moves units.
So Bird had the sweet jeans. He sported the coolest NBA-themed sweaters. But when it came to hocking vehicles, Bird took his game to the next level. Here he is trying to sell you a 1985 Ford Escort, courtesy of Rodman.
I guarantee that Larry did laugh when someone asked him to do an “escort commercial” but it probably had nothing to do with the size of the car. Either way, you really think Magic Johnson could have carried this spot? From the very start, standing in front of that dull, porny blue backdrop, Bird’s in control. He’s working his hands and eyes with the green screen like a veteran meteorologist. I’ll go out on a limb and say that Rodman sold at least 25 extra escorts on this commercial alone -- and that doesn’t even count the one they gave to Larry. “Sorrrry!”
Now we know what Larry wears. We know what he drives. But what’s he eat? Well, can you say flashy? Can you say provocative? Can you say . . . BEEF?
Listen to Bird’s opening line one more time.. "OK, look. I like my steaks very well done. What most people call roont, I call perfect." Is he saying "ruined"? That would make sense but it’s just that "ruined" has never been pronounced like that before or since this commercial. Speaking of rarities, this has to be the only ad in television history that features two NBA players wearing cardigans buttoned up only to their belly buttons. Finally, it’s hard to ignore the weird variation on the "I’ve got a taste for some real food" jingle after Larry and Cooper’s respective scenes. Were those suppose to riff on the player’s personalities? You know somewhere there’s a tape of that guy singing 15,000 different "I’ve got a taste for some real food" melodies and it’s probably one of the funniest things you’ve never heard.
But Bird’s commercial reach wasn’t limited to the glamorous world of beef and blue jeans. It got a lot more glamorous. For instance when Waltham-based Raytheon wanted an ad preaching the power of fundamentals, who do you think they turned to?
And when Bengay needed a face for their new pre-workout analgesic heat rub campaign, who do you think THEY turned to?
And when Canon needed someone to dunk on an eight-foot hoop and sell a few T70 cameras, you know they wasted no time lining up the only man for the job.
How much do you think Quinn Buckner, Rick Carlisle and Greg Kite got paid for this? Maybe Bird just took them out for dinner after? If they did get paid, did Buckner get more for catching a pass AND throwing an alley-oop while Kite and Carlisle just stood there? Also it’s great that Canon felt the need to flash “SIMULATION” on the screen as Larry threw down that alley-oop. Otherwise you might have confused the overweight, 40-year-old center with back hair for a real NBA player. At first glance I actually thought it was Moses Malone.
Bird also brought the house down in this national spot for the American Heart Association. (Although we can all agree that Dr. Dave steals the spotlight. He perfected the “Oh god, I’ll do whatever you say, please don’t hurt my wife and kids” look into the camera.)
Larry was back to stealing his own spotlight in this 7-Up commercial, with a performance that inspired Ben Stiller’s Simple Jack character in Tropic Thunder.
And you want cool? You want Hollywood? Hollywood has never been cooler than early ’90s Billy Crystal.
Hollywood or not, nothing was ever cooler than Larry picking up the mic and spitting hot fire for Converse.
(it’s also pretty cool that Kevin McHale played in the Birds. Parish wore them for a time, too. Not Danny Ainge, though. He was a Nike man.
Then, of course, there are the ads you’re already familiar with.
There’s the showdown with Magic in French Lick.
There’s the showdown with Michael in the gym.
There’s the other McDonald’s campaign that launched the “Big 33” burger
There was a lot.
Larry got around.
And the point is that next time someone tries to tell you that Larry Bird wasn’t as “cool” as Magic or Michael, and couldn’t quite pull off the same smooth, wide-ranging collection of high profile sponsorship deals . . .
Well, you should probably just agree.
But then follow up the same way Larry would --
With a giant “Who cares?”