TERRE HAUTE —
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 than 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.”