Larry Bird praises Dirk Nowitzki
That's mostly because of his longtime friendship with Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, but also because Bird is an unabashed fan of Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki.
"I've always admired the guy," Bird said.
Carlisle has gone to great lengths during Nowitzki's playoff surge to dismiss longstanding and increasingly frequent comparisons between the two, noting that Nowitzki is nearly three inches taller and plays mostly as a power forward, while Bird operated as a small forward for the bulk of his career.
Bird, though, acknowledged in a phone conversation Tuesday before Game 1 of the Finals that he does see "a lot of similarities."
"He's had a great run (in the playoffs), but I've always been very impressed with him," Bird said. "His work ethic, his loyalty to his country. It's really an honor for me to have people compare us.
"He rebounds. He plays at his own pace. He sort of controls the tempo on offense. It'd be nice to be 7 foot and when they run plays and switch (defenders) on him, it doesn't bother him at all. He can see over everybody.
"He's got the step-backs. He gets to the rim. The difficulty of some of the shots that he makes ... one thing about him is that he's always got great balance. His shot looks like he's falling away, but he's got a lot of balance when the shot goes up.
"I understand (the comparisons). I've always felt it's an honor when they compare anyone to me, because I haven't played ball for 20 years."
Asked how much he would have enjoyed the opportunity to take Nowitzki on in one of his legendary post-practice shooting games, Bird said: "I would have loved to compete against all these young guys: LeBron (James), (Kevin) Durant, Dirk. When you play this game, you want to go up against the very best. But I can't even beat Magic (Johnson) in a H-O-R-S-E game any more. That's how far I've fallen."
In an ESPN Radio interview last week with "Mike and Mike," Carlisle said: "I played with Larry Bird for three straight years when he was the undisputed best player on the planet. But he had four Hall of Fame guys to play with. I don't believe that anybody in the history of this game has had to shoulder as much responsibility to score the ball, to get rebounds, to faciliate and try to get other teammates involved as much as Dirk has. And if you think about the nature of his game, to me, it's even more remarkable."
In another interview, Carlisle added: "These two guys are very different. As much as people want to compare Larry and Dirk, Larry was a small forward and he was 6-9. Dirk is close to 7-1 and he's a power forward. There's never been a guy 7 feet, 7-foot-1, that has developed a game to play this style of basketball. Dirk is an absolute original, really, in every sense of the word. He's not like anybody who's ever played in this game. And to me that's one of the things that makes historically good and just unbelievably special."
Bird's passing ability is the area where Nowitzki will never be able to match him, but the 55-year-old lauded Nowitzki's improvement as a playmaker, which was a key element of Dallas' 12-3 march through the West playoffs.
"He keeps his guys involved," Bird said. "He finds his shooters when he's double-teamed. Something that really helped me out is every time I got in trouble, I always had big men to throw it to. I always thought that took a lot of pressure off me.
"Dirk plays the game like Mully (Chris Mullin). He plays it at his pace. You can think the game out a lot easier if you're going at your pace."
Bird employed Carlisle for five seasons as the Pacers' head coach from 2003-07. Carlisle also served as one of Bird's top assistant coaches when Bird coached the Pacers to the 2000 NBA Finals.
"I'm so happy not only for Dirk, but for Rick to get an opportunity to win the ring," Bird said. "A lot of people think Miami's going to win (comfortably), but I think (the Mavs) got a great chance."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.