|From a Bird's-eye view|
By Jason Whitlock
Page 2 columnist
Larry Bird won't be the first team president to try to win a championship fueled by ego and deception. That doesn't make it right or comforting. Basketball fans aren't used to seeing Bird as a devious conniver.
But it appears now that Bird can connive with the best of them.
In the process of buffaloing Jermaine O'Neal into re-signing with the Pacers a month ago, Bird sat courtside while the organization assured O'Neal that Thomas would be his coach. Now, Bird and the franchise assume Bird's status as an NBA legend, along with O'Neal's new $120 million contract spread over seven years, will square things with the star forward, who views Thomas as a father figure.
"I think (O'Neal) will be disappointed," Bird told an ESPN reporter Wednesday. "But I also think that he'll sit down and talk to us, and we'll have a conversation with him about why it was done.''
Translation: "We gave Jermaine his money. He'll shut his mouth and like it because I'm Larry Bird, the larger-than-life Indiana State, Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers legend. And if he doesn't learn to like it, we'll give Jermaine's minutes to my main man Austin Croshere."
You think that last line is a joke?
In his three years as coach of the Pacers, Bird had two pet projects: assistant coach Rick Carlisle, and Croshere.
Before walking out on the Pacers after their NBA finals run, Bird told then-team-president Donnie Walsh two things:
1. Make Carlisle the next coach.
2. Fatten Croshere's contract.
Walsh ignored the Carlisle suggestion and hired Thomas instead. And Walsh bought into the hype that Croshere is a poor man's Larry Bird and gave him $51 million over seven years. You could argue that he regrets both decisions.
There's no arguing that those decisions are the fuel propelling Bird's ego and deception as it relates to Isiah. Oh yes, it's personal. Bird and Thomas don't like each other. There is little mutual respect. This is a Chicago city kid vs. a hick from French Lick. In terms of basketball core values and culture, this is Palestine vs. Israel, "Hoosiers" vs. "Above the Rim," pick-n-roll vs. get-n-go.
Bird and Thomas could never co-exist. Bird couldn't afford to let Thomas stay on because the Pacers could be good this season. Thomas was in the last year of his contract. If the Pacers won, Thomas could command a fat, long contract extension. Bird would miss out on his chance to hire Carlisle.
So Walsh and Bird used Thomas. They needed Zeke to re-sign O'Neal.
Now that they have O'Neal, Bird can go about the business of proving that he was right about Croshere and Carlisle. When Bird took over the Pacers seven weeks ago, he immediately referred to Croshere as one of the Pacers' outstanding young players. Never mind that Croshere has been a flop in the three years since Bird departed. Never mind that the Pacers have shopped Croshere around the league and found that no GM will touch him or his $51-million contract. Never mind that Croshere is too slow to guard small forwards and too weak to bang with the Chris Webber crowd.
Bird blames Thomas for Croshere's failure. Bird believes the right system, Carlisle's system, will hide Croshere's weaknesses.
Croshere's contract has handcuffed the Pacers, financially. He was the 10th or 11th man in Thomas' rotation. He isn't good enough to steal minutes from Al Harrington, Jonathan Bender or Ron Artest.
Somebody is getting traded to make room for Croshere.
I hope Bird is right about Carlisle and Croshere. My gut feeling, though, is that Bird screwed this up. He should've tolerated Thomas for a season or had the courage to fire him seven weeks ago. I'm not a Thomas defender. His game strategy is questionable, and he failed to corral Artest.
The Pacers are a young, petulant bunch. Thomas did a solid job developing O'Neal into a star and transitioning the offense away from Reggie Miller. He was given a difficult assignment. Bird, as his predecessor as head coach, worked with a veteran Pacers' team. Thomas showed up just as Dale Davis, Mark Jackson and Rik Smits were leaving.
The old, easy-listening Motown Pacers that Bird led are gone. The 50 Cent group he's inheriting as team president won't be all that impressed by Bird's reputation. His rep won't carry any weight when it comes to correcting the chemistry problems that wrecked the second half of last season. You don't build winning chemistry by misleading your best player, particularly one armed with a $120-million contract.
If Thomas is as conniving and ego-driven as Bird -- which I'm sure he is -- then the Pacers will have trouble controlling O'Neal over the next few years. I wouldn't want to be the Three Amigos -- Bird, Carlisle and Croshere -- when O'Neal turns to Isiah, his father figure, for advice during key stretches of the season.
Jason Whitlock is a regular columnist for the Kansas City Star (kcstar.com) and a regular contributor on ESPN The Magazine's Sunday morning edition of The Sports Reporters. He can be reached at email@example.com.