Larry Bird had no idea what to do with his hands. Should he fold
them across his chest? No, too stern looking. Jam them in his
pockets? Nah, too casual. Clasp them on one knee? Maybe. But
It was an odd sight, the obvious discomfort of Bird, who had
never before had to pause and consider what to do on a
basketball court. Bird's hands aren't attractive--the knuckles
are fat and the fingers gnarled from years of basketball
abuse--but what they delivered when Bird slipped on a Boston
Celtics uniform were marvels to behold: ferocious rebounds,
pinpoint lookaway passes, three-pointers that fell through the
strings as softly as raindrops.
Last Thursday evening Bird was not wearing a jersey. His uniform
was a pair of chocolate slacks, a matching chocolate sports
shirt and dress shoes, yet the reception was familiar: a
standing ovation as he walked across the court, trailed by an
array of fans, young and old, pressing closer, snapping photos,
begging him to autograph their hats, their notebooks, their
arms. "Not right now," Bird said softly. "I'm coaching."
Bird's debut as head man of the Indiana Pacers occurred at the
Atlanta Summer Shootout, a three-day round-robin event among
four teams made up mainly of rookies and fringe veterans from
four NBA franchises. (The Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland
Cavaliers were the others.) While Atlanta's Lenny Wilkens,
Boston's Rick Pitino and Cleveland's Mike Fratello entrusted
their entries to assistants, Bird called his own shots,
including his decision to clasp his hands and place them in his
lap, as a theater critic might. It was a pose that will require
some seasoning, but then, so does Bird the coach. "Sometimes,"
Bird said before the tip-off, "I want to walk onto the court
because I think I'm still playing."
A ravaged back that required two operations forced Bird to
retire in 1992. How ironic that his first game as a coach on any
level would be at Life University, the largest chiropractic
college in the world. During the Pacers' afternoon shootaround,
students offered Bird free adjustments for his signature. While
he declined the back treatments, he signed, then signed some
more, including an autograph for one of his players, Alonzo
Goldston, whose chances of making the Indiana roster are slim
and who wanted a consolation prize.
Goldston's teammates resisted the same temptation. "You know
you're fighting for your life and nothing else should matter,"
said former Kentucky star Mark Pope, "but then Coach Bird is
working with you in the post, and you find yourself saying,
'Hey, Larry Bird is guarding me!'"
When he took the Pacers' job, Bird promised that he would not
scream at his players. He kept his word in his first outing. In
fact, when he summoned a point guard to the sideline to call a
play, he whispered instructions. The only ones to draw Bird's
ire were familiar targets: the officials.
Although spectators squealed with delight when Indiana's Darvin
Ham rattled through a fast-break tomahawk, a more fundamental
move--Pope's backdoor screen--brought Bird to his feet. He
clapped encouragement for transition baskets and muttered
disappointment over broken plays. "If I've got a problem with a
guy, I'll pull him aside the way [former Celtics coach] K.C.
Jones did," said Bird. "I'll tell 'em, 'You've got to set the
pick, 'cause if you don't, I'll get someone who will.'"
After one hour and 49 minutes of calling for pressure, for entry
passes to the post and for his troops to run! Bird walked off
the court with an 88-75 victory over the Hawks and a slightly
stiff back from all that sitting. He told the media that he
would not be wearing Italian suits when the ball goes up for
real in November. "When I played, I never watched the coaches,"
said Bird. "I don't want anyone watching me."