Larry Bird isn’t new to ranking high in the NBA.
Universally recognized as a top 10 player in history, Bird stepped into the hierarchy of the Boston Celtics’ all-time phenoms and became everything the leprechaun’s wanted since Bill Russell retired in 1969. His competitive nature, willingness to provide for the community, and dedication to the Boston franchise were attributes the basketball world fell in love with. Above all else, Bird’s edgy, intrepid mentality is what enabled him to win three Larry O’Brien trophies, in the midst of capturing Magic Johnson’s admiration and — eventually — friendship.
Earlier this season before a game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a veteran columnist told me more about Bird the player. He intrigued me to a level I never thought possible when discussing the Celtics, considering that I’m a Lakers fan; you could give me a paper cut and all that would flow out is purple and gold. He recalled the 1984 NBA Finals, which capped off Bird’s fifth year as a professional.
Entering Game 7 in the old Boston Garden — a memorable venue that lacked air conditioning — the Celtics were fresh off a disheartening loss in Los Angeles at The Forum that allowed Magic and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to tie the series at 3-3. Three years removed from winning his first championship, Bird was as locked in as you’ll ever witness an athlete. The intense focus he had for this 1984 series rose above the deranged temperatures both teams had to suffer through in the Garden. Fans had the joy of watching Game 5 in 97-degree heat, which you can imagine formed great stenches for the 14,890 capacity. The game for all the marbles wasn’t much more tolerable, as Bird and company were asked to operate under 91 degrees in a contest that always sucks every ounce of energy out of a player.
It was Game 7, and Bird was willing to suffer a heat stroke as long as it placed him alone in the NBA’s greatest rivalry. Label that Bird vs. Magic or Lakers vs. Celtics; you can’t go wrong with either.
Apparently, Larry Legend activated his own version of Jordan mode before the most anticipated game of his career. The atmosphere within the Celtics’ locker room reached the point where it nearly made you sick trying to fight through the tension. It wasn’t tension within the team but anxiety as the players strived to block out distractions, fight nerves, and overcome thoughts of negative outcomes.
The room remained silent as long as Bird wanted it to.
Kevin McHale, among the most formidable low-post threats in history, implied that you better have health insurance if you came to Bird with anything but preparation for winning. Not a word was muttered in K.C. Jones’ locker room until the time was right. Bird was one that ate, breathed, and slept the sport, and teammates weren’t blind to the matter.
Propose something out of line or get on his crotchety side, and you’d be quick to remember why the three-time MVP got the Indiana State Sycamores to their first NCAA Tournament finals.
“Don’t [expletive] …. this up for me,” would be Bird’s reaction, with flames in his eyes, sweat dripping from the smoldering air, and a no-nonsense attitude that very few players exemplify today.
The acceptance and respect you then gave Bird better have translated to on-court performance, or his death-dealing stare would glare a hole through your body after a hideous turnover.
Without the makeup of a bonafide victor, Bird wouldn’t have sent Showtime back to Hollywood empty-handed. Instead, it became another shining moment, his character earning a second ring for his finger. One more was to come, but none revealed the man behind the grin quite like 1984.
Thirty years later and 950 miles west, Bird is steering another franchise toward paradise with a comparable psyche.
After a successful tenure coaching the Indiana Pacers from 1997-2000, Bird returned from a hiatus to take the position of President of Basketball Operations, hoping to restore the Pacers to a team capable of not only reaching the NBA Finals again, but dethroning any Western Conference force standing in its path. The combo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant was too much firepower for Bird to control as a coach in 2000 and, correctly, nobody faulted him for the shortcoming.
Since the days of Jermaine O’Neal and Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest), Indiana has inched closer and closer to owning a complete roster, one considered increasingly potent due to the Eastern Conference transforming into comedy central due to a lack of elite players.
Handfuls of credit can be thrown to Bird, Kevin Pritchard and Donnie Walsh, who ranked fourth on ESPN’s 2014 NBA Management List for “Top Executives.”
The three organizations finishing above Indiana — San Antonio, Miami, and Oklahoma City — all have viable reasons to be considered higher in prestige, so don’t jump the gun and overreact. The Spurs, which just notched their 15th consecutive season with 50 or more wins (excluding the lock-out shortened 1998-99 season, during which their 0.740 winning percentage extrapolates to 60 wins), are given praise for writing the word “consistency” in the English dictionary, and anyone that prematurely writes them off continues to beg for forgiveness. It’s less difficult to succeed and have a championship window by retaining core assets for a decade. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker. There’s your assets that allow chemistry to carry them through an historically grand Western Conference.
Miami was highly expected to show up on any management list, because what would you expect when their heart and soul is a guy with nine combined championships: Pat Riley. President Riley, owner Mickey Arison , CEO son Nick Arison, and high-ranking executive Andy Elisburg have worked wonders in South Beach by assembling the “Big 3,” ensuring they’re happy and content with surrounding role pieces, and by being the home to the most freakish athlete in league history, LeBron James.
Oklahoma City, on the other hand, is gaining more critical acclaim by the year for excelling in the Western Conference despite owning one of the league’s smallest markets. How do you possibly manage that? By putting on a drafting clinic with selections of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka. Granted, the bearded one had to re-locate to Houston, but General Manager Sam Presti’s eye for talent has this franchise in the title mix as long as those contracts are on payroll. For that, you can thank the Portland Trail Blazers, who passed on Durant for … no, it’s too close to playoffs for depression.
That leaves us with the Pacers, which have improved each season since Bird drafted Fresno State sophomore Paul George in 2010.
Before the NBA’s glorified “two-way player” found his way to Indianapolis, the Pacers didn’t give Bird or the fans must to smile about. Danny Granger, the team’s leading scorer from 2007-2012, turned into a gem from New Mexico who gave fans the star performances. But team-wide inconsistency in all areas — front court, back court, bench pieces — prevented the team’s from finishing higher than sixth in the East. Missing the playoffs in four of Granger’s first five seasons, the Pacers failed to sell their fans on the idea of season tickets, thus hovering around the bottom in attendance for majority of his career.
The 2008 Draft may not have seemed stupendous at the time for Indiana, but it was one of the beginning stepping stones for building the Pacers into what they’re known by today; defensive irritants. Selecting 7’2″ Roy Hibbert out of Georgetown was critical to that development.
For the past two seasons (with Hibbert’s name appearing in Defensive Player of the Year conversations), the Pacers have had the best defense in the NBA, accumulating defensive ratings of 99.8 (last year) and 98.7 (this season). Defense is a collective effort, but there is no rim protector out there comparable to Hibbert in terms of utilizing verticality with the officials. Once again, Bird was the leader in making an intelligent basketball decision.
Building became the process — and obstacle — that Bird would need to overcome from 2008 forward. Taking a gamble on the fiery Lance Stephenson in 2010, who had raw skills as a freshman out of Cincinnati, and snatching veteran David West off the free agent market in 2011, Bird and the Pacers now had their core group to make a run at the Eastern Conference brutes that just settled in Miami. Whether he knew it at the time or not, Bird had built, not bought, his way back to relevancy within the organization.
Unexpected matters occur within a process, as we all know.
Locker room voice and on-court leader, Granger, battled a left knee injury that put a spin on the Pacers’ plan. Bird, who had stepped down prior to the 2012 NBA Draft, looked as if he threw in the towel due to health concerns and a bitter semifinal defeat to Miami in the 2012 Playoffs. He would not be around — officially, at least — for the moment which Indiana returned to the playoffs and gave Miami all it could chew in the conference finals. Granger played in just five games of the 2012-13 season, leaving many uncertain if he could be the piece that lifted Indiana to a place they haven’t been since 2000.
Bird wasn’t certain about Granger, and 29 games into this season was all he needed to see before pulling a trigger. Missing the first two months of the season due to a calf injury unrelated to his knee, Granger never once illustrated promise to returning to old form. Bird could evaluate this better than anyone in the media, as he spent an extensive amount of time around the nine-year veteran through the years.
At the 2014 trade deadline, Bird may have furthered his case for one of the top executives in the game. In part, because of the willingness to trade Granger. Larry shared how difficult making that deal was with Shaun Powell for Sports on Earth.
“Trading Danny was the toughest thing I ever had to do,” Bird said. “He’s the last guy I thought I’d trade. About 20 minutes before we made the deal, I told Kevin Pritchard that I gotta wait. I didn’t know if I could do it.”
In explaining how he was able to pull the trigger on the trade, Bird alluded to his Celtics’ days.
“I remembered what Red (Auerbach) taught me. The franchise is always first. He said he had great players leave and people would say the franchise was going to fold and all of that. Well, that didn’t happen. The franchise is the most important thing and so in this case I had to do what’s best for the franchise.”
The trade, which brought over fourth-year wing, Evan Turner from Philadelphia, was an “all-in” move by Bird that seemed a bit uncharacteristic from what we’ve been accustomed to in his role as president.
Bringing together this Pacers’ roster was a slow, gradual process. Therefore, eyes flew wide open when the long-time Pacer leader was sent away for better, younger, fresh talent. Combine that with the low-risk investment in center Andrew Bynum, who asserted himself as this team’s best low-post talent in 36 minutes of play before suffering knee-swelling, and you get a Bird-led front office that may have lost a little patience in re-claiming summer gold.
Neither Turner nor Bynum have been able to give us a definitive answer as to if these Pacers pose a stronger threat to Miami. It’s appearing like that ship has sailed due to Turner looking clueless how to be effective as third/fourth option, and Bynum’s arthritic knees keeping him in street clothes.
Nonetheless, sit back and ask yourself: Do you blame Bird?
The building resulted in two heartbreaking playoff losses to the only team on your radar. As the league’s King only seems to get richer and stronger in Miami, something had to be done to improve offensive efficiency. It hasn’t worked out since February, but who are we to say it won’t work out for Bird?
This season, Bird has acted with a sense of urgency, and immediate championship mindset. At the end of the day, that’ the only type of action he knows at heart, and it’s worked out for him before.
Only this time, he’s the not the one wearing the name and number.