TERRE HAUTE —
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 must 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’s 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.