Bird brings word to Sweden

Updated: September 12, 2003, 5:34 PM ET
By Marc J. Spears | Special to ESPN.com

STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- Ah yes, sports in Sweden. It's the home of tennis great Bjorn Borg. And the Swedes rank soccer first, hockey second and bandy, a game in which the skating is like hockey, strategy is like soccer and shooting is like golf, third.

Basketball? After skiing, handball, racquetball, golf, cycling, roller blading, swimming, kayaking, canoeing, sailing and 10-pin bowling, basketball lands somewhere.

Bird On Pacers
I couldn't help but ask Bird about already making a major decision in his short term in Pacers upper management. Although he wasn't hired long ago, he recently fired Pacers coach Isiah Thomas and replaced him with Bird's former Pacers assistant Rick Carlisle.

"Tough decisions are tough," Bird said. "It's a tough decision. I've made some tough decisions the first couple weeks I've been (back with the Pacers). It was the right decision, but it's tough."

And once veterans arrive at training camp on Oct. 2, Bird may have to deal with another tough situation with Pacers all-star forward Jermaine O'Neal.

O'Neal loved Thomas, who was a major reason why O'Neal re-signed with the Pacers for seven years in July. The news of Thomas' firing definitely bothered O'Neal as he got wind of it while playing for the United States during the Olympic Qualifying Tournament of Americas last month in Puerto Rico. Then add to the fact that the Pacers lost all-star center Brad Miller during the summer, too. After helping USA win a gold medal, O'Neal displayed his affection for Thomas by giving him a shot-out while being interviewed live by a television crew.

How big or little a deal this conflict between O'Neal and Bird is over the Thomas firing remains to be seen. By the sounds of things, a stern Bird expects the situation to blow over.

"I've talked to Jermaine," Bird said. "I think he will be fine over time. I'm not trying to be his best friend. Obviously, we need Jermaine O'Neal.''

Once the press conference concluded, Bird slowly walked out the lecture hall. As I slowly followed behind him, I was almost run over by my fellow media members. I quickly wondered what the big rush was.

As I walked back into the hotel lobby, many of the media members that were just asking questions were know asking Bird to autograph their Eurobasket 2003 media credential. Some asked to have pictures taken, too.

Such a thing is far from a norm for American media, who could be fired for asking for an autograph from someone they are interviewing. The only time I ever saw media members get autographs or pictures from a person they were reporting on was when I was working for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., and covering an awards banquet in which Muhammad Ali was named Kentucky's Athlete of the Century.

It's not every day that people get to shake hands with "The Greatest." And it's not every day that "Larry Legend" drops by Sweden either. So in a sense, I understood.

"That was cool," said a European reporter, following the press conference.

Marc J. Spears

So when Sweden landed the 2003 Eurobasket basketball tournament, many other basketball-loving countries nearby which would have loved to maybe host it and probably appreciated it more were shocked. The Swedes couldn't even advance to the quarterfinals in their own tournament.

One local paper, DAGENS NYHETER, showed just how much love it has for this Olympic qualifying tournament in their town by displaying a short story on Thursday about the competition in the middle of page 6 in Sport with a small headline. AFTONBLADET, another local paper, was more disinterested showing no story at all in its 16-page sports section.

For this country to take notice of basketball, something out of the ordinary has to happen. You know, something like Larry Bird showing up.

Bird did show up, in fact. He spoke on Wednesday afternoon with the media. And AFTONBLADET actually did have a story on Thursday about the former Boston Celtics superstar.

The meeting with the media came at the Nordic Sea Hotel, in the central part of town. The room looked more like a lecture hall and was so packed that reporters had to stand on the side. Tucked in the back corner were two interesting looking media members -- or maybe they were fans. One wore a throwback green Boston Celtics Starter jacket; the other had on an ancient Celtics T-shirt that looked like a freebie he received the opening night of the old Boston Garden.

Swedish press chief Keijo Liimatainen, who has also worked with track and field during past Olympics, donned a smile similar to someone meeting a boyhood idol.

"Meeting Larry Bird was a fantastic experience," Liimatainen said. "He's a living legend and an ambassador to the sport. Larry Bird is a person whose presence makes Sweden and the rest of the world know how good USA basketball is. It was a great joy to have him at the press conference. I think he enjoyed it. It was a press conference I will always remember."

As Bird walked into the room, there was silence as if the Pope had arrived. For over 20 minutes, the new Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations held court. It was sort of like a Basketball 101, shall we say, from Professor Bird. And the students paid close attention.

Bird explained his reason for being here.

"I'll be scouting a lot of players,'' he said. "All I am trying to do here is learn some names and see who can play a little bit in European basketball... I am trying to find a diamond in the rough."

The three-time NBA MVP showed that he is still a tough competitor, even when it came to scouting.

When asked about the tourney's top prospects, Bird said: "I can't get into that. If I give you a name of a person, ya'll will know who it is."

Bird also used some comedy before giving Sweden some sound advice on how to become better in basketball.

"Stick to soccer," Bird joked. "That is best thing to do. When I was young I had good coaching. You got to get coaches at a young level and throughout. If you get good coaches when you're young, the good players will get better and better. You have to have good coaching at all levels."

Bird also spoke about the influence that the original 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team had on the rest of the world.

"The Dream Team was the best thing that happened to basketball,'' he said. "Every team that played against them and every coach that coached against them knew that to compete against the United States they had to get better in every aspect&

"There have been improvements in European basketball and improvements around the world immensely," he said. "Could they beat the Dream Team? Hell no they can't beat the Dream Team. I'm talking about the real Dream Team, not the stuff they have now."

Sweden still has a long way to go before basketball becomes a major headline in the DAGENS NYHETER or AFTONBLADET. But with the likes of Larry Bird in town, who was announced as an NBA legend and received rousing applause during Wednesday's quarterfinals, the game of basketball did become important for a day while in the land of soccer, hockey and even bandy, too.

"It was great getting an award from Larry Bird," said France and San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker, who received a player of the game award from Bird after France's win. "It's not every day you see Larry Bird."

Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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