It’s kind of amazing to consider that the most popular member of the Indiana Pacers doesn’t don a uniform. And he hasn’t since 1992. Heck, he hasn’t even coached since 2000.
In a recent ESPN Sports Poll, Larry Bird ranked No. 30 in a list of fans’ favorite athletes. No other Pacer past or present made the top 30.
The ESPN Sports Poll measures the most popular athletes in America from across all sports by asking the open-ended question, “Who is your favorite athlete?”
Bird is one of six retired athletes to have made the top 30. Michael Jordan, a decade after his retirement, still reigns supreme. He ranked No. 1 in ESPN's poll, which was for the 2013 sports year. Other retired players on the list were Muhammad Ali at No. 12; Joe Montana, No. 14; Brett Favre, No. 26; John Elway, No. 27; and Bird, at No. 30.
Ray Lewis, who is retired now but played in 2013, was No. 20, and Tim Tebow, who is out of football but is hoping for an NFL comeback, ranked No. 11.
So who is the most popular active athlete of 2013? Former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who got 2.8 percent of the vote. Manning, who now plays for the Denver Broncos, was slightly ahead of LeBron James (2.5 percent), but a long way behind Jordan, who scored 4.1 percent of the vote. The only race car driver to make the list was NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., at No. 15.
Bird, who now serves as the Pacers’ player personnel boss, benefits from having two massive fan bases: one in Indiana, where he grew up and played high school and college basketball, and another in Boston, where he played for the NBA’s Celtics. The fact that Bird guided the Celtics to three NBA titles, was a 12-time all-star, three-time NBA MVP and Olympic gold medalist also made him a national star.