September 16, 2009

They line up, single file and singular in purpose, between quarters of every Indiana Pacers game at Conseco Fieldhouse during the season. They all want the signature of the dapper executive sitting a few rows up in Section 2, in the seat closest to the tunnel leading to the Pacers' locker room.

Larry Bird dutifully fulfills every autograph request until the game resumes, but it is the autograph of Larry Bird, the legendary player, they want. Or, perhaps, the Larry Bird who was the NBA's Coach of the Year in 1998 and directed the Pacers to the NBA Finals for the only time in franchise history two years later.

The current incarnation of Larry Bird, who labors as president of the Pacers? Fans aren't sure about him. Some, in fact, probably would put their signature on a petition to have him removed.

Stepping into the harrowing domain of front-office leadership is a great equalizer for former players and coaches. No reputation is secure enough to survive the vitriol of today's fan base, which wields the sharp edges of anonymity, a world-wide forum and the absence of fact checkers. It doesn't matter how legendarily you played, doesn't matter how cannily you coached, doesn't matter how many twists of fate you encounter. Every fan with an Internet connection knows more than you know -- or can at least make the claim.

That has been true in Indiana even for a local legend such as Bird. Starting with the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills in November 2004, the Pacers were hit with a sudden rash of off-court issues after nearly 40 years of blotter-free behavior. Not coincidentally, they also missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons after participating in 16 of the previous 17. Somebody had to take the blame for the sudden downfall, and who better than the largest figure in the front office, figuratively and literally? The man who had shown up at the house not long before it caught on fire? The one who had escaped the public's wrath throughout his playing and coaching careers, and therefore was due for a comeuppance?

As the Pacers floundered, some local talk-radio hosts and their callers were shouting for Bird to be fired and invoking his unwanted nickname, Larry Legend, with sarcasm. Bloggers and message-board visitors were delighting in the open season on the icon. While some expressed outrage, others felt betrayal.

"I have given him fair consideration the past five years as president of the Pacers' organization, but now I have decided his judgment is impaired," a reader wrote to the Indianapolis Star after one of former point guard Jamaal Tinsley's club incidents had left another stain on the franchise. "Truthfully, I feel like I am looking for a new friend."

The antipathy has begun to dissipate, as Bird's roster moves from last summer showed promise during the 2008-09 season. The bad vibe was still evident after this year's draft, however, when Bird invested the 13th pick in Tyler Hansbrough. It hardly seemed a stretch. Hansbrough was a four-time first-team All-America at North Carolina, led his high school team to two state championships and his college team to a national championship, was the ACC's all-time leading scorer and his school's all-time leading rebounder. Most players drafted 13th over the past decade haven't amounted to much, so expectations should rightfully be modest. Still, the choice was widely panned by Pacers fans.

Bird has responded to the criticism with characteristic stoicism. He's that rare genuinely thick-skinned sports figure who shrugs off most of what's written or said about him. It's a trait he developed in Boston, where a hard shell was a crucial part of his skill set.

"I went out there when I was 22 years old," he said recently. "I mean, it's brutal out there.

"I just never let anything bother me. I don't know if that's good or bad. Maybe I'm so stubborn I think I know how to do everything. Maybe I do, maybe I don't. I know the job will get done. I don't worry about what people say. A lot of things people say I don't like either, so it goes both ways."

The job didn't start out this way for Bird. Called back during the summer of 2003 by former team president Donnie Walsh, who was voluntarily backing off and seeking a graceful transfer of power, Bird had just one difficult decision to make. Isiah Thomas had coached in the All-Star Game the previous season when the Pacers started 37-15, but his team had floundered down the stretch because of injuries and off-court calamities. Bird had decided to go along with Walsh's recommendation to keep Thomas, but changed his mind six weeks after taking office and replaced him with Rick Carlisle -- primarily because Thomas wasn't returning his phone calls or working with the players in the offseason, according to sources.

The Pacers proceeded to ring up a franchise-record 61 wins and reach the conference finals in 2004. If not for Tayshaun Prince's freakish block of Reggie Miller's breakaway layup in Game 2, a highlight that will live forever in NBA lore, the Pacers might have defeated Detroit and grabbed the championship the Pistons went on to win over a dysfunctional Lakers team.

Take a snapshot of that fleeting moment, and Bird has the look of a savior. His arrival had led to an immediate and major step forward, just as it did as a player and coach.

The Pacers' roster, meanwhile, was loaded. Jermaine O'Neal, then 25, had finished third in the MVP voting. Ron Artest, then 24, had won Defensive Player of the Year honors and, like O'Neal, had played in the previous All-Star Game. Tinsley, although showing hints of his injury-prone nature, was coming off a solid season at point guard. Al Harrington had finished second in the Sixth Man Award balloting. Fred Jones was blossoming as a player. Miller, still viable at 38, had one more season with a 14.8-point scoring average in him.

The only order of serious business was to find a down-the-road replacement for Miller, which Bird seemed to address by trading Harrington to Atlanta for Stephen Jackson that summer. From there, it seemed, the team could be put on cruise control and allowed to glide toward continued title contention.

Or so it seemed. In short order, however, a seemingly endless string of challenges fell into the laps of Bird and Walsh: the historic brawl at the Palace, which resulted in a season-long suspension of Artest and shorter but significant suspensions of O'Neal and Jackson; the retirement of Miller, a future Hall of Famer; a trade demand from Artest, eventually granted; former lottery pick Jonathan Bender's retirement at 25 because of injuries; a nightclub incident in which Jackson fired a gun into the air in self-defense, which eventually led to a roster-rocking eight-player trade with Golden State; three club incidents involving Tinsley, two of which brought no charges, but all of which soured the ticket buyers; a league-imposed suspension of David Harrison for marijuana use; two legal incidents involving Shawne Williams, who ultimately wasn't charged in either; and the oft-injured O'Neal's wish to be traded, also eventually granted.

Pacers' fans needed a depository for their ire over all that was going wrong, which included the on-court results, and Bird was the most visible target. They forgot the inconvenient truths that the team had improved dramatically in the first season after his arrival, that he had tried to trade Artest before the brawl but was unable to find a deal that would allow it to remain a contender, and that he hadn't exactly encouraged his players to hit the clubs. They also ignored the fact that Walsh had resumed personnel involvement after the brawl, essentially working in tandem with Bird until Walsh left for the Knicks in 2008, although Bird retained control of the draft in those years.

Now, six years into Bird's run as president, the Pacers' roster belongs to him. He traded O'Neal and Williams last year, and let Harrison's contract expire. He sat Tinsley out all of last season to appease the mutinous fan base, and the Pacers bought out his contract this summer. He is responsible for acquiring every player on the roster except 1999 draft pick Jeff Foster, and he retained Foster with a contract extension last year.

In retrospect, Bird's mistakes have been few. His biggest was drafting Williams with the 17th pick in 2006, passing on Rajon Rondo. The successes have had more impact. Danny Granger, drafted 17th in 2005, became an All-Star last season, when he averaged 25.8 points. Mike Dunleavy, acquired in the trade with Golden State, was the team's best player by a wide margin according to plus-minus rankings two seasons ago, when he averaged 19.1 points, and should be healthy again after sitting out most of last season following knee surgery. Troy Murphy, who arrived with Dunleavy, became the first player in NBA history last season to rank among the top five in rebounding and three-point shooting. Center Roy Hibbert and shooting guard Brandon Rush, acquired in draft-related trades last summer, showed promise as rookies and likely will start this season. Former lottery pick T.J. Ford, acquired in the trade that sent O'Neal and his big contract to Toronto, has yet to fully adapt to coach Jim O'Brien's offensive system, but has provided stability at the position.

And this summer, Bird used his limited financial resources to sign free agents Dahntay Jones, Earl Watson and Solomon Jones, all with an eye toward improving the team's defense. Bird's expectation for the next two seasons is to gain playoff experience while adding more draft picks, and then dive into the free-agent market in 2011 when the Pacers will have salary-cap room.

Regardless of how it turns out, one thing is certain: He's no drive-by executive in the mold of Michael Jordan. He grinds it out in the office, tending to all the mundane tasks of the position. He has taken an occasional Friday off this summer, but no vacations. He has met with potential season-ticket holders at 7:30 a.m. breakfasts and afternoon lunches. He has participated in all budget discussions for the basketball operation. He even donned an orange T-shirt to cut a promotional spot for the WNBA Fever as they headed into the playoffs.

The same sincerity that was evident as a player and coach is unmistakable in this job as well.

"My goal is to get this thing right before I get out," Bird said, refusing to speculate on when that might happen. "This thing is going to be put together the way the fans of Indiana perceive basketball [should be played]."

Meanwhile, he can be found in his familiar place in Section 2 once the season begins. Ready to sign, until his plan is sealed and delivered.

You May Like