The real reason why Larry fired Isiah

Larry Bird saw no urgency from his head coach to improve the Pacers. That's why he fired Isiah Thomas.

Updated: August 29, 2003, 5:51 PM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

The what-goes-around-comes-around crowd -- also known as the Payback-is-a-B---- Posse in less polite circles -- will be delighted with new Pacers president Larry Bird firing old Pacers coach Isiah Thomas on Wednesday.

Popular thinking had it that Isiah's days were numbered once Bird was hired nearly two months ago. How, after all, could Bird stomach working with a man who supported Dennis Rodman's assertion back in the mid-80s that Larry's legend was largely due to his skin color? Or how could he not axe the guy who got the job at the expense of one of his best friends and former assistants, Rick Carlisle? And what better retribution than to not only dump Zeke but wait until all the other coaching jobs are filled so he has nowhere else to go?

Isiah Thomas
If Xs and Os were the reason for Isiah Thomas' firing, he would've been let go long ago.
This scenario is so neat and tidy that it almost seems a shame to allow reality to muck it all up.

Thomas was let go, various sources say, because Bird sensed no urgency from him or his coaching staff to make sure last year's embarrassing first-round playoff choke to the Celtics wouldn't happen again. In Bird's view, that meant staying on the Pacer youngsters to dedicate their summers to improving, which would require the presence of assistants to work with players and Thomas to check in with players about their offseason programs. This is the same Bird, after all, whose work ethic was so revered it inspired Pacers players to report to Indianapolis and hold their own full-bore practices during the owners' lockout in '99.

None of that, the sources say, was happening. Thomas spent the three weeks before his firing hanging with Team USA, supposedly at the request of coach Larry Brown. But if his absence from Indy was grating on Bird, his presence wasn't sitting well with the Team USA assistant coaches, who saw Isiah's presence as a distraction.

Bird waited until last week to tell CEO Donnie Walsh that Thomas needed to go for two reasons -- to give Isiah and his staff a chance to show they were working on a solution for last season's dismal ending and to gauge the players' commitment to Thomas. Had it been about Xs and Os, for which Thomas was highly criticized last season, the decision would've been made much sooner. In the end, apparently not enough influential Pacers felt as strongly as Jermaine O'Neal, who said he re-signed this summer with the assurance that Isiah would be back.

"It hurts a lot," said O'Neal, who was awakened from a pregame nap by a phone call from Thomas informing him of the firing.

O'Neal is Team USA's starting center and the one Pacer who has seen a lot of Thomas in recent weeks.

"Without saying too much, bottom line, am I happy about it? No," O'Neal said. "If it wasn't for Isiah Thomas, I wouldn't be here. He's the reason I'm not only the player I am, but the father I am and the son I am. I don't care who you get to coach the team. If you don't get players who play hard every night, you're not going to win."

Larry came in with an open mind. He just didn't get the sense that we were going in the right direction.
Donnie Walsh

Walsh and Bird would agree. Their belief is that Carlisle, who is expected to sign a four-year deal in the next day or so, can get the current Pacers to play hard every night. Meanwhile, Thomas gets paid this season's salary -- $10 million, according to one source -- and walks away having taken a nucleus of young ballers to three consecutive playoff appearances. He also steps off to the sound of O'Neal singing his praises, in the same way Damon Stoudamire, his best player as Raptors GM, did. Those factors, Walsh said, convinced the Pacers to cut Isiah loose now rather than do what Memphis did to Sidney Lowe by dropping him after the season has opened.

"Isiah can point to a good record and be proud of it," Walsh said. "That should help him get another job more easily than if he went into the season and it didn't go well and then we let him go. Larry came in with an open mind. He just didn't get the sense that we were going in the right direction."

Believing Thomas' demise came because of what he did (or didn't) do this summer, rather than what he said nearly two decades ago, seems a lot more plausible. It just doesn't make for such a juicy story.

And Ones
The best move by Detroit to get back to the conference finals may already have been made. The Blazers talked to Detroit about acquiring Cliff Robinson with the hope of packaging him with Rasheed Wallace for Kenyon Martin and Dikembe Mutombo, a swap the Nets would have gladly made to give them a fearsome forward combo to go with Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Alonzo Mourning. But the Pistons sidetracked the deal by moving Robinson (and Pepe Sanchez) to Golden State instead for Bobby Sura. ... After hearing the news about Thomas, O'Neal became the first American to foul out in the Olympic qualifying tournament, which is seven games old now. If O'Neal felt the referees were out to get him, he had reason -- at one point, while he was sitting on the bench with his third foul, one ref tried to give him his fourth, signaling a No. 7 to the official scorers. Made aware O'Neal was not in the game, the referee then credited the foul (correctly) to No. 13, Tim Duncan.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ric.bucher@espnmag.com. Also, send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer

ALSO SEE