When it comes to Larry Bird, there’s one franchise with which he’ll always be indelibly associated.
Bird will live on in eternal Boston Celtic green. He will forever be a symbol of a NBA that exploded in popularity in the 1980s partly because of his considerable exploits.
But as iconic as Bird is as a Celtic, one could make an argument for similar iconic status with the Indiana Pacers.
Bird, of course, never played a game for the Pacers, but first as head coach and then as general manager and team president, Bird is an integral part of the Pacers’ most successful NBA eras.
Bird has had a direct hand in five of the Pacers’ seven conference finals appearances. The Pacers made their only NBA Finals appearance to date in 2000 — Bird’s final season as head coach.
Bird has helped the Pacers revive themselves into an elite playoff team three times. He did it in his first season as team president in 2004, and he rebuilt the Pacers, who were a NBA lottery team from 2007 to 2010, into an Eastern Conference Finals team in 2013.
But Bird did it the first time as head coach. Back in 1997, Bird had never been a head coach at any level. He quickly proved he was up to the task.
1997: Bird comes to Pacers
To understand what Bird did, one has to understand where the Pacers’ franchise was in 1997 when he was hired.
Starting in 1987, when Reggie Miller was famously taken ahead of Steve Alford in the first round of the NBA Draft — a move that irritated the many Pacers fans who were also Indiana University basketball fans — the Pacers had been building themselves into a contender under general manager Donnie Walsh.
When Walsh hired longtime friend and associate Larry Brown as the team’s coach in 1993, he helped the young Pacers make the final step. As a No. 5 seed, the Pacers made a surprising run to the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals and narrowly lost in seven games to the New York Knicks. In 1995, the Pacers were one of the East’s elite teams, qualifying again for the Eastern Conference Finals, with another heart-breaking seven-game loss to Orlando. But starting in 1996, there were cracks in the armor. The Pacers won 52 games, same as the year before, but were a No. 4 seed in the playoffs, and lost in five games in a first round series to Atlanta, a series in which Miller was hampered by injury.