TERRE HAUTE —
The Walsh-Bird bond
Bird was away from the Pacers from 2000 until 2003. The Pacers faltered under Isiah Thomas, Bird's successor as head coach. The Pacers never won more than 50 games or advanced past the first round of the playoffs with Thomas in charge.
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 its 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 said.
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.