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.
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
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
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
The Pacers proceeded to ring up a franchise-record 61 wins and reach the conference finals in 2004. If not for
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.
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
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
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
In retrospect, Bird's mistakes have been few. His biggest was drafting Williams with the 17th pick in 2006, passing on
And this summer, Bird used his limited financial resources to sign free agents
Regardless of how it turns out, one thing is certain: He's no drive-by executive in the mold of
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.