INDIANAPOLIS -- Rick Carlisle was passed over by Indiana when the team was looking for a coach three years ago and hired Isiah Thomas. It turns out Carlisle will likely get another chance to lead the Pacers.
Carlisle is the top choice of Larry Bird, who, in his first move as Pacers president of basketball operations, fired Thomas on Wednesday and paved the way for the return of his former assistant.
"He's my first choice," Bird said. "We've got other guys on the list, so if we can't work anything out with Rick, we'll just move on."
The relationship between Carlisle and Bird dates to the 1980s, when the two were teammates with the Boston Celtics. Carlisle also was an assistant for Bird's Pacers from 1997-2000 before Thomas was hired by current Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh.
Carlisle spent the past two seasons as coach of the Detroit Pistons before being fired in May -- despite winning two straight division titles and the 2002 NBA Coach of the Year award.
Bird spoke with Carlisle on Tuesday and Wednesday about the vacancy. Numerous phone messages were left for Carlisle.
"I think a new coach coming in is going to bring some freshness, a new style and hopefully he can play the game the way I like it to be played," Bird said.
Carlisle, in his first head coaching job, helped turn Detroit from a lottery team into one of the top teams in the East. He led the Pistons to a 100-64 regular-season record and a 12-15 postseason mark.
Like Carlisle, Thomas was abruptly fired after three seasons and a 131-115 regular-season record. The Pacers made the playoffs all three years, with one of the youngest rosters in the league, but never advanced past the first round.
At the end of the season, Thomas received a public vote of confidence from Walsh. When Bird was hired as president in early July and Walsh became CEO, the power shifted.
The Walsh era is done. This is Bird's team now.
"I was disappointed that Larry and I didn't get a chance to work together," Thomas said. "I truly felt we would have been good together. I'm disappointed we don't get a chance."
Thomas, who was in Puerto Rico with the U.S. men's basketball team at the Olympic qualifying tournament, arrived in Indianapolis early Wednesday and went straight to Conseco Fieldhouse to meet with Bird.
"I said I'm disappointed he didn't give himself an opportunity to know me," Thomas said of the conversation. "I think he would have liked me had he got to know me."
Pacers players have continued to voice support for Thomas. Jermaine O'Neal, then a free agent, said before he re-signed with the team last month that he would not play for anybody but Thomas with the Pacers.
O'Neal, in Puerto Rico as part of the U.S. team, said he wouldn't have re-signed with Indiana if he had known Thomas was going to be fired.
"Am I disappointed? Hell, yeah. I'm extremely disappointed for multiple reasons," O'Neal said. "I was told he would be here before I re-signed.
"If your boss told you your ace is going to be there for you if you come back, and once you come back not even a month later he's not there, that hurts. That hurts a lot. He was more than a coach to me. He was like a father."
Bird said he didn't feel comfortable with the Pacers' direction after a second-half swoon that knocked them out of first place in the Eastern Conference and into third.
Bird also said there were other problems with Thomas.
"I spoke to him one day in a meeting, and I talked to him one day on the phone. The communication wasn't really there," Bird said.
Thomas described their conversations as "positive" ones about the players and the direction of the franchise.
Thomas was hired in July 2000 following Bird's resignation. Bird guided the Pacers to the 2000 NBA Finals and the best three-year record in their NBA history during his time as coach.
Bird, however, said he had a "gut feeling this wasn't going to work" after only seven weeks on the job. He said he would have fired Thomas even if Carlisle wasn't available.
Bird also said the respect he had for Carlisle as a coach outweighed any personal baggage that led to his firing in Detroit.
"I don't know everything that went on there," Bird said. "I was at his training camp and it looked like his players respected him. He works them hard, he's fair with them."
The team said it would honor the final year of Thomas' contract. Bird said the new coach would likely bring in his own assistants.
Thomas, who led Indiana to the 1981 NCAA championship, retired as a player after the 1994 season, averaging 19.2 points and 9.3 assists over his 13-year NBA career, all with the Pistons. He won NBA championships in 1989 and 1990.
He then became vice president and part-owner of the Toronto Raptors and later worked as a television analyst on NBA games before joining the Pacers.
Thomas said he'd continue to live in an Indianapolis suburb where his children are enrolled in school.
"I'm very proud of what I accomplished here in Indy," Thomas said.
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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