Thomas out with one year left on contract

Updated: August 29, 2003, 5:50 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

INDIANAPOLIS -- Evidently, it didn't take long for Larry Bird to find a replacement for Isiah Thomas.

Sources have told ESPN's David Aldridge that Bird, the Indiana Pacers' president of basketball operations, has decided to hire Rick Carlisle as the club's next head coach. An announcement could come as early as Thursday.

Thomas was fired by the Pacers on Wednesday.

Carlisle spent the past two seasons as coach of the Detroit Pistons before being fired in May. Carlisle spoke with Bird on Tuesday night and said he was interested.

"He's my first choice," Bird said.

Carlisle told Aldridge on Wednesday that "nothing's done, but hopefully we can work something out."

Sources now indicate things have been worked out.

Carlisle and Bird's relationship dates to the 1980s when the two were teammates with the Boston Celtics. Carlisle also was an assistant for Bird during 1997-2000, but was passed over by current Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh in favor of Thomas.

Carlisle earned 2001-02 NBA Coach of the Year honors during his brief tenure in Detroit.

As for the firing of Thomas, Bird insisted that he took his new job less than two months ago with an open mind about Thomas' future.

But he wasted little time in making his first major move, firing Thomas.

"I just had a gut feeling this wasn't going to work," Bird said of a surprise move that came only two months before the start of the season.

Thomas told Aldridge that the Pacers called him Tuesday night in San Juan, where Thomas was attending the Olympic qualifying tournament, and asked him to return to Indianapolis to meet with Pacers management.

"I definitely still want to coach, and I know I can coach," Thomas told Aldridge. "I guess I'm disappointed that Larry and I didn't get a chance to work together. I'm disappointed he didn't give that a chance, for us to work together."

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 arrived in Indianapolis early Wednesday and went straight to Conseco Fieldhouse, where he met with Bird.

"I said I'm disappointed he didn't give himself an opportunity to know me," Thomas told the Associated Press about his conversation with Bird. "I think he would have liked me had he got to known me."

Bird said he would have fired Thomas even if Carlisle was not available.

Bird and Thomas were contentious rivals from their days of leading the Celtics and Pistons to NBA titles in the 1980s.

When he was hired July 11, Bird walked off the podium at a news conference and shook hands with Thomas -- but neither smiled.

The Pacers were 131-115 in the regular season under Thomas, making the playoffs all three seasons but never advancing past the first round. Speculation swirled toward the end of the season that Thomas would not be back for the final year of his four-year contract.

Walsh, however, said Thomas would return, though they wouldn't discuss an extension. Walsh said on Wednesday he agreed with Bird on the decision to fire Thomas.

Walsh said Thomas would "possibly" have remained on if Bird had not been hired, though he had similar concerns the Pacers wouldn't regroup under Thomas.

"I would have been very worried about going into the season because I would agree that I think that it could blow up early," Walsh said. "And if it did, then we'd be in a worse situation."

The team said it would honor the final year of Thomas' contract.

Bird guided the Pacers to the 2000 NBA Finals and had the best three-year record in their NBA history during his time as coach.

"I've always said, three years and you need a new coach," Bird joked.

Indiana had the best record in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break this past season, making Thomas the All-Star coach, but went 14-19 the rest of the season and lost in the first round of the playoffs to Boston.

Pacers players had continued to voice support for Thomas. Jermaine O'Neal said before he re-signed with the team last month that he would not play for anybody but Thomas with the Pacers.

The re-signing of O'Neal and free-agent Reggie Miller, along with the trade of All-Star Brad Miller all fell on Walsh as he eased out of his role as head decision maker.

This one was Bird's.

"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.

Bird said the new coach would likely bring in his own assistants.

The biggest criticism of Thomas was his inconsistent rotations. While most players preferred a set role, Thomas made his decisions on his own feelings for a particular game and team matchups.

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 titles in 1989 and 1990.

He then became vice president and part-owner of the Toronto Raptors and later worked as an NBC analyst on NBA games before joining the Pacers.

"Now we have to look at our team and see if we have the chemistry on the team that can win together and work together," Bird said. "This is just starting."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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