Is it time for Larry Bird to take over the Pacers?
Larry Bird turns 50 years old Thursday, over 20 years since he and the Boston Celtics won their last championship. In retirement, Bird returned home and aligned himself with the Indiana Pacers, and when he signed on in July 2003 to join president and CEO Donnie Walsh in the front office, Bird figured he'd hang around "seven or eight years, tops."
Now he knows better.
"This job gets in your blood," Bird said. "I can't even describe it. When you get a call about something bad happening to one of your players, it's like it happened to one of your kids. You die over it.
"Now you do that realizing they don't feel the same way about you. That's understood. But you can't help but be involved. Donnie and I are so happy when we win, and so down when we lose. When we play horrible, we're both sick about it."
"What we do is not a job," Walsh said. "It's an obsession."
Bird and Walsh have shared this obsession for the past three-plus seasons, the most tumultuous period in Pacers history.
Both were on the job when their team and the Detroit Pistons engaged in the infamous brawl -- on Nov. 19, 2004, at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. -- that spilled over into the stands and produced the stiffest NBA penalties ever. When Jermaine O'Neal was slapped with a 25-game suspension (later reduced to 15 games), Stephen Jackson a 30-game suspension and Ron Artest a suspension for the remainder of the season, it decimated a Pacers roster that had aspirations of winning it all that June.
Indiana has yet to recover. The Pacers haven't made it out of the conference semifinals since then and were bounced by New Jersey in the first round last April. The franchise is at a crossroads, with Artest long gone, Jackson all but untradable and O'Neal wondering aloud what the future holds for him in Indianapolis.
He's not the only one pondering what's next.
Walsh is celebrating his 20th year with the Pacers and adorns the cover of the team's media guide, unusual for a team executive. But will this be his final season? Rumors of his impending retirement -- and Bird's elevation to president as his successor -- have been swirling throughout the league for months.
Walsh's contract expires in July, and he said he has not discussed drawing up a new one with longtime owners Herb and Mel Simon.
"With everything that has gone on the past two years, I wouldn't dream of asking them about an extension," Walsh said. "Besides, I'm not sure it's healthy for one person to stay with the same organization for 20 years. If you do, the same things tend to permeate. It's important for a franchise to get new ideas."
Bird, who has been Walsh's attentive understudy, has his own thoughts on how to turn it around in Indianapolis. Yet, Walsh concedes, he's never sure if the Hall of Famer defers to his boss in personnel matters or presents his honest assessment.
"If Larry wants to do something he knows I wouldn't do, I don't want him to think I'm looking over his shoulder," Walsh explained. "Larry would never say it, but I think that happens sometimes. "I really believe Larry is going to be great at this job. But as long as I'm here, it isn't his deal. I want him to have his shot."
When Walsh assumed the role of Pacers general manager in 1986, the team had been to the postseason once in its 10 NBA seasons. (The Pacers won three ABA titles in nine seasons.) He drafted future All-Stars Reggie Miller and Rik Smits, traded Herb Williams for Detlef Schrempf and later acquired O'Neal and Joe Kleine for veteran Dale Davis. Beginning in 1990, Indiana made the playoffs 16 times in 17 seasons.
In February 2002, Walsh made an acquisition he must profoundly regret, bringing the talented but combustible Artest to Indiana. Artest's role as instigator in the brawl and his insubordination the following season when he returned to the team destroyed the team's blueprint. He was traded last January to Sacramento.
Both Bird and Walsh strongly and publicly backed Artest following the debacle in Auburn Hills, a decision that was roundly criticized throughout the league. Artest's subsequent behavior proved to be, in Bird's words, "one of the most disappointing things that happened to me in basketball.''
When Bird retired as a player, he swore the one job he would never consider was coaching. In fact, he rebuffed offers from half a dozen teams before Walsh convinced him to coach his franchise in 1997. Bird said the opportunity to work with the Pacers' president is what changed his mind.
Bird submitted a 147-67 record in three seasons, taking the Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals three years in a row, including the franchise's lone appearance in the NBA Finals, in 2000 against the Los Angeles Lakers. He insisted he would coach only three seasons and kept his word, stepping down following his team's loss to the Lakers in six games.
When Bird's friend and former teammate Rick Carlisle was passed over as his successor, Bird declined to stay on in the front office. Walsh lured him back three years later, and Larry Legend's first official act was to sack coach (and former Bird nemesis) Isiah Thomas and replace him with Carlisle.
The off-the-court issues that have plagued the Pacers (including Jackson's recent late-night gunplay incident outside a nightclub) have been embarrassing both to Bird and Walsh. Their team takes a 9-10 record into Wednesday's game against Orlando, and Bird confirmed recently, "We're all feeling some heat."
Late last week the Simon family, respected within the NBA as model owners who rarely meddle, continued to express strong support for Walsh.
"I don't want to own a franchise without Donnie Walsh involved," Herb Simon declared. "If he wants to stay in basketball, I want him with us."
Simon conceded that Walsh has given him "mixed signals" about his future; the owner said he has spoken to Walsh about his desire to hand his duties to Bird when the time is right.
So is this the time?
"Honestly? I don't know," Walsh answered.
Bird insists he is neither impatient nor hankering for additional responsibilities. He also said he's amused by unsubstantiated reports that there is friction between him and his boss.
"I laugh when I read that stuff," Bird said. "There are times when we are talking about a player, or I bring up an idea about a deal, and we don't agree. But there's never any arguing or yelling about it. That's not our relationship."
Asked how he and Walsh split their duties, Bird answered, "Look, I'm smart enough to know who my boss is. Donnie is the boss. He has the final say. He should. He knows this league inside out. He sees things before they're coming."
Bird said Walsh has been the man who has made most of the trades happen the past three seasons.
"Truthfully, I'm not all that up on the NBA guys," Bird said. "Once the college season starts, I don't have a lot of hands-on contact with the day-to-day workings of the team. I'm out scouting the college kids."
Bird said there is no master plan for him to take Walsh's place once Walsh's current contract expires.
"My whole objective by getting back into this was I wanted help these guys get back to the Finals," Bird said. "I had no idea how long that would take. I still don't. If it takes another five years, will I still want to do this? Ten years? I don't know.
"Look, financially, neither Donnie or I need this. We're doing this because we love it. I don't want Donnie to quit. This is his baby. I'd worry about him if he left. This is his life.
"I don't want him thinking at all about my situation."
Walsh can't help it. He has maintained a close relationship with the Simon family for two decades and wonders aloud whether that has colored their ability to make a sound business decision on his future. After all, they have been shelling out two hefty front office contracts to Bird and Walsh for three seasons now with minimal results.
Walsh said if this is his final season, he will leave with few regrets and a debt of gratitude to the franchise that has been his home for two decades. If Walsh does walk, he would not likely work for another NBA franchise for at least one season. But if the right job came along after that, he wouldn't rule it out.
"I'd have to see," he said. "It's hard to walk away from something you love.
"I'll tell you this: you can't be mentally healthy and do what we do."
Bird knows. He is 50 years old and his players drive him crazy, but he can't wait to show up to work every day to try to make them winners. He's convinced Walsh still feels the same way.
"If he's not sure [about leaving], then he should stay," Bird said. "Then we can be sick about this stuff together."
Jackie MacMullan of The Boston Globe is an NBA columnist for ESPN.com.
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