By Todd Golden CNHI News Service
The Herald Bulletin
---- — 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.
In 1997, the wheels fell off. A dispirited team fell to 39-43 and missed the playoffs. Brown decamped for Philadelphia shortly after the season ended.
“Larry Brown was the ultimate teacher. That’s what he calls himself, but that’s all he did,” said former Pacers center Rik Smits, who played for Indiana from 1988 to 2000. “He’d teach everyone this, teach everyone that and it was almost too much. He’d make you mad because you were never good enough. You never did this right, you never did that right.”
The Pacers were at a crossroads. Still talented, the potential was there to again scale the heights reached in 1994 and 1995. But several teams in NBA history had suffered a similar bump in the road and never got back on track. If the Pacers made the wrong hire, they could easily have slipped back in the NBA pack.
This was the conundrum Walsh faced in 1997. He knew he needed someone who both commanded and demanded respect.
“From the very beginning, I was intrigued (with Bird) because, quite frankly, with the way Larry played I thought he knew the game and I wanted to hear what he’d want to do with our team,” Walsh said.
Bird’s playing career ended in 1992 when he retired from the Celtics. From 1992 to 1997, he served in the Celtics’ front office as a special assistant, but had never been a head coach. Walsh wasn’t dissuaded, and the expectations he had in his initial approach were far exceeded.
“We met for about two hours. He took me from the first day of practice to the finals of the NBA. He went through every player and how he would use them and how he saw the team playing,” Walsh said.
Bird was hired in May 1997 and agreed to coach for three years. On the day Bird was hired, the Pacers wouldn’t have been together as a team, but word spread quickly.
“When I heard we were getting Larry Bird, I was excited,” said power forward Antonio Davis, who was with the Pacers from 1993-99. “He had played with great players and was a great player himself. He knew the game inside and out. Here he was to teach me and give me the opportunity to learn that stuff.”
When Walsh looked back on his original conversation, he realized he had the right man.
“When I thought back on it after the season was over, Larry told me in that two-hour session exactly what he ended up doing to the letter,” Walsh said. “That’¹s very unusual. He didn’t do any more, he didn’t do any less. It was exactly what he told me that day. I developed a great relationship with him because I knew when he told me something I could trust him.”
Bird’s day-to-day manner helped build that style.
Bird’s motivating presence
Given that Bird had never been a head coach, one of the first decisions he signed off on was to have experienced X-and-O’s men on his staff. Dick Harter and Rick Carlisle were his lieutenants and proved to be valuable. That’s because Bird’s biggest strength, and what the Pacers sorely needed at the time, was someone who could take a veteran team over the top with his presence and his championship experience.
“They did a great job as a team,” Davis said. “I remember him winning Coach of the Year (in 1998) and giving credit to Dick Harter and Rick Carlisle. They were this three-headed monster. Dick was more of a defensive guy, Rick was an offensive guy, and Larry was the motivator. You could really relate because here’s this great player telling you you can go out and get anything done.”
Bird’s mere presence served as motivation enough. Most of the Pacers’ key players of the time — Miller, Smits, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Sam Perkins and others — had played against Bird and had enormous respect for him as a peer. While not all players who won championships succeed as coaches, Bird’s
message was received loud-and-clear by the hungry Pacers, none of whom had won any NBA championships themselves.
“You didn’t have any excuses for him. You might not run the fastest or jump the highest, but he’d figure out a way for you to get things done. He motivated you to be better,” Davis said.
Bird’s message might have been received loud-and-clear, but not in the literal sense. Bird was well known for his stoic sideline manner when he was a head coach. He wasn’t quite as stoic behind the scenes, but chose his words for maximum effect.
“He didn’t talk much. I don’t remember Larry saying a ton, but when he said something, you knew it was from the heart. He wanted you to be the best you could be,” Davis said.
The benefits were immediate. Bird coached the Pacers to a 19-win improvement in 1998 as the Pacers once again advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost in a thrilling and air-tight seven-game series against Chicago. During Bird’s time as coach, the Pacers never failed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals and advanced to their first, and as yet, only, NBA Finals appearance in 2000.
Bird once again drew upon his own playoff success — he played for three NBA championship teams in Boston — to mold the Pacers for their playoff runs. “He knew how to get ready. With Larry Brown, we’d play a certain way for 82 games then the playoffs would start and everything would change,” Smits said. “With Bird, we did the exact routine in the playoffs that we did in the regular season. It was something we were used to, and it ended up working for us.”
Bird has always been a man of his word. He said he’d give the Pacers three years, and even though the Pacers reached their franchise peak with a NBA Finals appearance in 2000, he walked away from coaching as he’d promised. “I don’t think he felt comfortable coaching. He tried it for a few years, had some success, and all-in-all, he did really well,” said Smits, who also retired in 2000 after suffering through foot injuries for several seasons.
Walsh and the Pacers were prepared to do whatever it took to keep Bird in the fold.
“He and I worked out a contract that at the end of the three years, he could be the GM at that point,” Walsh said. “I put that in the contract to give him the choice to do that, but I think he just wanted to get away from it, so he did.”
The Walsh-Bird bond
Bird was away from the Pacers from 2000 until 2003. The Pacers faltered under Bird’s successor, Isiah Thomas, never failing to win more than 50 games or advance past the first round of the playoffs.
Bird had, of course, completely gained Walsh’s trust as head coach. The bond the two had developed in their working relationship was unbreakable. It continues to be to the present.
“We do (work well) because it’s based on respect. I had it the day he walked in as an ex-player and that’s unusual when you’re talking about a coach and a GM,” Walsh said.
Walsh had been willing to take a leap of faith on Bird in 1997. It was no leap when Walsh turned to Bird to be the Pacers president of basketball operations in 2003.
“I know from watching Larry as a coach that he’d be a GM,” Walsh said. “He had great insight into the league. He had great ideas on how to build a team. My role was to make sure he understood the (salary) cap, because he had never worked with it before, and he quickly got a feel for that.”
Bird hired trusted former assistant Carlisle as the Pacers head coach, and the team once again took off. The Pacers went 61-21 in 2004, won the Central Division, and returned to the Eastern Conference Finals where the Pacers were beaten by Detroit in six games.
Walsh saw that many of the attributes Bird possessed as a coach had quickly translated to his role as an executive.
“He has this ability to communicate what’s important in the game. He’s working on another set of statistics that he knows are important to win games,” Walsh said. “It involves teamwork, it involves doing your job and knowing your role out there. It’s not so much are you the most talented guys out there, but how do you fit into this team, and how can you help us win.”
It wouldn’t be long, however, before Bird suffered his first post-playing career setback, though it was through no fault of his. The Brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, an ugly altercation involving five Pacers, Pistons’ center Ben Wallace and Pistons fans on Nov. 19, 2004, stopped the Pacers’ franchise in its tracks.
“He did a great job in getting us back up to the level it had been right before we had that thing in Detroit, which knocked us off-base for three or four years,” Walsh mused.
The Pacers, who had been enormously popular statewide to the point, were shunned by their fans. Many of the players involved in the brawl — Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal — were key Pacers at the time, but the franchise quickly ended its association with them. Other off-court issues for integral players, such as Jamaal Tinsley, saw the team fall out of the playoffs from 2007-10. Indiana didn’t have a winning season from 2006-11.
Bird went to work. He rebuilt, but he did so patiently. Walsh departed in 2008 to become president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks. From afar, he admired the building job Bird set in motion.
“When I looked at the results, I could see it wasn’t a good team, but I could see it was being built in the right direction. It was going to take time, but he was willing to put the time in and do the right things,” Walsh
The seeds that bloomed into the current Pacers crop that allowed Indiana to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 were planted in this period. Walsh was still with the team when Danny Granger was drafted in 2007. Walsh said Granger was drafted on Bird’s recommendation.
Later, center Roy Hibbert and swingman Paul George were drafted. The Pacers traded for guard George Hill in 2011.
“To take Hibbert, someone who had to be developed somewhat, ultimately proved to be a really good move. Paul George the same thing,” Walsh said. “He traded for George Hill, which was a great move. I could see that he was putting together a team that was going to be very, very good.”
Davis, now an ESPN NBA analyst, has seen the same qualities in Bird the executive he saw as a player when Bird coached.
“You saw someone who was getting better all the time. You knew that he was going to be somebody who already understood what a team should be like, what an environment should be. You could see it happening as a coach. He was thinking, sooner or later, he was going to create that same environment (as
a GM),” Davis said.
Bird returns again in ‘13
Citing health reasons, Bird left the Pacers in 2012. Walsh returned to guide the team during the 2012-13 season, and a healthy Bird returned to the Pacers as president in June 2013.
“My goal when I got here was to keep together the team that Larry put together. It wasn’t just on the floor, but in the front office (with current general manager Kevin Pritchard),” Walsh said. “He’s built what you really want in a team. It has players that are committed. It has coaches that are committed. They work well together, and they work hard.”
Bird will always be a Celtic. That will never change. But does his influence on the Pacers warrant the same adulation from his home state fans?
It’s a no-brainer so far as Walsh is concerned.
“He built the team. It’s a very good team and if you look at the ages it has a great future,” said Walsh, who is now a Pacers consultant for basketball operations.
“So if you accept what I just said, then what could be better for the state of Indiana than to have the No. 1 icon in the history of the state leading the professional franchise? I don’¹t think it can be better than that.”