Jerry Bird, a former Kentucky men’s basketball player and member of the UK Athletics Hall of Fame, died Sunday morning of natural causes in his hometown of Corbin, Ky.. He was 83.
Bird, a Kentucky men’s basketball player from 1954 to 1956, helped Kentucky to two Southeastern Conference titles in 1954 and 1955 and was a member of the 1954 team that went 25-0 and was crowned national champions by the Helms Athletic Foundation.
Bird was inducted into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame in 2005 as a part of the hall of fame’s charter class. His No. 22 jersey is retired in the Rupp Arena rafters, which is considered to be the ultimate individual honor for a Kentucky Wildcat.
“Jerry Bird was Kentucky through and through,” UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said in a news release by the school. “He was proud to be a Wildcat and is an important part of Kentucky basketball history. We offer our condolences to his family and friends.”
Bird scored 713 career points and grabbed 589 career rebounds under legendary head coach Adolph Rupp. He averaged double figures in both his final two seasons at UK, including 16.2 points and 11.3 rebounds in 1955-56. He was tabbed an All-SEC Second Team member that year.
On March 17, 1956, against Iowa, Bird grabbed an NCAA Tournament school record 24 rebounds, a postseason mark that still stands today. When Bam Adebayo hauled in 18 boards against Northern Kentucky in UK’s most recent NCAA Tournament run — 61 years to the day since Bird’s historic game — Bird received a number of calls and texts from friends and family telling him that he still held the record, his son, Steve Bird, said.
“My dad was really proud to be a part of the University of Kentucky,” Steve Bird said. “He always thought the university handled everything with first class. As proud as he was to be a player, he would always tell us how proud he was of his school. ‘They do things the right way,’ he would tell us.”
Bird was drafted in 1956 by the Minneapolis Lakers. He played one season with the New York Knicks in 1959.
Bird and his three brothers — Calvin, Rodger and Billy — were all from Corbin and staples of the town. All three of Bird’s brothers played football at UK, while Calvin and Rodger are both members of the UK Athletics Hall of Fame.
Following his basketball career at UK and in the NBA, Bird returned to Corbin and worked the majority of his life at American Greeting Card until he retired.
A memorial service in Bird’s honor is planned for 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Central Baptist Church in Corbin. It is open to the public.
Bird his survived by his son, Steve, Steve’s wife, Lisa, their two grandchildren, his brother Rodger and his sister Nancy Carrol.