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Taking Wing New coach Larry Bird has used a low-key approach to get the Pacers flying high again

Jan. 12, 1998
Jan. 12, 1998

Table of Contents
Jan. 12, 1998

Faces In The Crowd

Taking Wing New coach Larry Bird has used a low-key approach to get the Pacers flying high again

It was just like old times. Larry Bird's team needed him to make
a clutch shot. The Indiana Pacers have a tradition of holding a
shooting contest from half-court before practice every season
when they visit San Antonio, so when the Pacers arrived to play
the Spurs last month, each of the Indiana players, coaches and
trainers dropped the customary $20 into the pot and began taking
turns heaving shots. When forward Derrick McKey became the first
to sink one, the pressure kicked in. If no one else made a
basket, McKey would walk away with the cash, but if someone
canned a shot, the game would begin again.

This is an article from the Jan. 12, 1998 issue Original Layout

After everyone else had missed, Bird, the Pacers' rookie coach,
was the final shooter. You may recall that he was asked to take
an important shot or two during his playing days with the Boston
Celtics and that he had more than middling success. The money he
made in competitions such as this one probably paid for the
house in Naples, Fla., where he spent much of his time after he
retired as a player in 1992 and before he signed on with Indiana
last spring. "You don't want me to get in," he had told the
Pacers players. "Because if I do, I'll win, and it'll tick you
guys off so much you won't practice hard." But he relented, and
now, with several hundred dollars on the line and everyone but
McKey cheering him on, Bird took a couple of dribbles, released
the shot and....

"Missed everything," says center Rik Smits, laughing. "I mean,
he missed bad. It was terrible, not even close."

It would be natural to guess that Bird was trying to impart some
kind of message to his players with that miss. Maybe he was
attempting to erase the image of Larry Legend from their minds
and make sure they saw him as Coach Bird. Or perhaps it was his
way of telling them that he was no miracle worker, that his mere
presence would not transform them back into title contenders
after their lifeless 39-43 performance last season under Larry
Brown. Reasonable conclusions, but just as off-target as the
shot. If Bird wanted to say those things, he would have said
them, because one thing that's already evident about Bird the
coach is that symbolism isn't his style. "He keeps things simple
and direct," says point guard Mark Jackson. "You never have to
wonder if there's some hidden meaning. People like playing for
him, and that's one of the reasons this team is playing the way
it's playing."

Which happens to be about as well as any team in the NBA. If the
Pacers continue at this, well, pace, Bird will have to clear a
space in his crowded trophy case for a Coach of the Year award.
After a 2-5 start, Indiana won 19 of its next 24 games, and with
a 21-10 record at week's end the Pacers were just a half game
behind the first-place Chicago Bulls in the Central Division.
With the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing gone for the season with
a lunate dislocation and torn ligaments of the right wrist, and
the Bulls appearing to hold psychological mastery over the Miami
Heat, the Pacers could emerge as the strongest challenger to
Chicago in the East, but do them a favor and keep that to
yourself. They would like to continue to improve just as they
have so far--unobtrusively. "We don't want any headlines," says
Jackson. "We want to sneak up on people, hit 'em over the back
of the head and stuff 'em in the trunk."

It's hard to keep a low profile with Bird as the coach, but he's
not the only reason Indiana has played well. The Pacers have
been relatively injury-free: They had the same starting lineup
for their first 29 games this season, a streak that was broken
when forward Dale Davis missed their 99-81 win over the
Washington Wizards (the first time the Wizards had been beaten
in their nine games at the new MCI Center) last Friday with a
sprained left ankle. Furthermore, the Indiana bench,
particularly point guard Travis Best, forward Antonio Davis and
swingman Jalen Rose, has been far more effective than it was a
year ago. "That's a solid team they've got over there,"
Washington coach Bernie Bickerstaff said after watching the
Pacers dismantle his Wizards with the kind of crisp, rapid ball
movement that Bird's Celtics used to feature. "They're
experienced, and they're well-coached. What they're doing is no
fluke."

Bird has a team that must remind him of himself: The Pacers are
more likely to dazzle you with a pass than a dunk; they have
minds that are quicker than their feet; they are tough; and at
least in the cases of Smits, guard Reggie Miller and forward
Chris Mullin, they're outstanding shooters. Bird inherited a
team that was experienced and intelligent but one that after
four seasons under Brown had gone stale. "I thought it would be
a good situation for me, and it's turned out to be exactly
that," Bird says. "I think I brought some leadership and maybe
got them in a little better condition, but other than that, the
players have been the ones responsible for what we've done."

One of the reasons Indiana has risen so quietly is also one of
the signs that the Pacers might be able to sustain their early
success: None of their players are having career years. Miller,
Indiana's best player, is putting together another
All-Star-caliber season, averaging 19.9 points at week's end,
but because Bird has doled out a lot of playing time to
reserves, Miller has only played about 34 minutes per game.
Jackson, with his 8.5 assists per game (sixth in the NBA), is
the lone Pacers player in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding,
assists, blocked shots or steals. At week's end, Miller, Mullin
and Smits were the only Indiana players averaging more than 10
points per game, but 10 Pacers had averaged more than 15 minutes
per game. "I figure we've got 12 players getting a paycheck,"
says Bird. "We might as well get our money's worth."

That's typical Bird, the commonsense coach. He hired only two
assistants, former Celtics teammate Rick Carlisle, who has
"future head coach" written all over him, and 67-year-old Dick
Harter, who has had five head coaching jobs in college and the
NBA. "There's not enough work for four or five guys," Bird says.
"I don't know what other coaches do with all those assistants. I
think the communication is clearer if you have only two or three
voices."

He seems intent on becoming the kind of coach he would have
wanted to play for. For instance, he hated long sessions of
tape-watching when he was a player, so Indiana's sessions rarely
last more than 10 minutes. "He'll have the tape edited so that
everything is right on point," says Pacers president Donnie
Walsh. "He doesn't waste his players' time. That seems to be one
of his guiding principles." That principle extends to the way
Bird runs practices. "Everything moves," says Smits. "We don't
spend a lot of time standing around listening to lectures. Coach
Brown was a good teacher, but there were times when you'd work
up a sweat and then stand around listening to him talk for so
long, you would cool off and get stiff. Coach Bird doesn't let
that happen."

Another thing Bird disliked as a Celtic was seeing a coach yell
at a player in front of his teammates. "I've played for
screamers," he says. "I didn't like it. So I don't do it.
Nobody's ever going to be in my doghouse, because I don't have a
doghouse. A player can't believe in himself if he thinks his
coach doesn't believe in him. If you don't think a guy can play,
it's better to get rid of him than to bury him on the bench or
scream at him in front of everybody."

Of course, Bird is blessed with the kind of team that doesn't
give him much cause to yell. Indiana is mostly a veteran
bunch--only one starter, 28-year-old forward Dale Davis, is
under 30--and has no Young Turks with entourages and cell phones
to test Bird's patience. The Pacers are also particularly hungry
to win after last season, when they missed the playoffs for the
first time since 1989. "There comes a time in every game when
you have to have the feeling that you're going to win," says
Jackson. "Last year we didn't have that. You could see it in our
eyes, in our attitude. This is no knock against Larry Brown, but
Coach Bird has brought the confidence back. Sometimes it's not
what he says; it's what he doesn't say. He doesn't have to tell
you he has confidence in you. He shows it by not jumping up out
of his seat when you turn the ball over, by not telling you that
you made the wrong cut when you already know you made the wrong
cut."

Carlisle and Harter--respectively, the offensive and defensive
coordinators--have helped Bird improve Indiana at both ends of
the floor. Despite a lack of quickness, which keeps them from
forcing many turnovers, the Pacers were allowing only 88.7
points per game through Sunday, fourth fewest in the league (and
down 5.7 points per game from last season), while their
opponents' field goal percentage of .426 placed Indiana sixth in
that category.

Carlisle has taken advantage of Smits's return to health
(surgery on both feet to correct nerve damage limited him to 52
games last season) and the addition of Mullin, who was acquired
from the Golden State Warriors during the off-season and has
Birdlike passing skills and court sense, to revamp the Pacers'
offense, which last season degenerated into little more than
running Miller off an endless series of picks. The Pacers now
have a much more fluid attack, predicated on ball movement that
at times is dazzling. On one sequence against the Wizards, the
interior passing between Mullin, McKey and Smits, which led to
Smits being fouled on a dunk attempt, was reminiscent of Bird's
Celtics days with Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.

When Bird is at his most self-deprecating, he makes it sound as
if he's simply along for the ride, while his assistants do all
the work. "I'm learning a lot from them," he says. "I think I
know basically what we're trying to do." But the truth is that
he is so fully in control that rarely does a player refer to him
as anything but Coach Bird, and he has committed himself
completely to the job, long hours, sleepless nights and all.
Moreover, Bird shows a quality not often seen in a coach who was
a superstar player--an ability to empathize with those not as
talented as he was. It's no coincidence that young reserves like
Rose and third-year guards Best and Fred Hoiberg have blossomed
under him. Bird has shown a particularly sure touch with the
6'8" Rose, who had floundered under five coaches in his four
years in the league with the Denver Nuggets and Pacers, unable
to find steady playing time at any of the three positions (both
guard spots and small forward) he's capable of playing. Bird has
given him more minutes off the bench, mostly at forward, and
more confidence, and he has made it clear that he thinks Rose is
capable of much more than he has shown. "Jalen's probably never
going to be completely happy unless he's starting," Bird says.
"He's not ready to do that yet, but down the line, I can see him
running this team."

Bird's affinity for reserves and young players doesn't surprise
Carlisle. "I was a very marginal player when I was with Boston,
and Larry always had a way of making guys like me and Greg Kite
feel we were a part of the mix," he says. "We would come out of
a timeout and he'd make a point of saying to me, 'When they
double me, I'm coming to you so you can knock that shot down.'
It was his way of letting you know he had confidence in you. And
you'd think, If Larry Bird sees something in me, it must be
there. He's doing the same thing with some of the people on this
team."

Bird can see big things for the Pacers, including a
championship. That might seem further in the distance to most
observers than it does to Bird, but then, he's always had better
vision than almost everyone else. "I don't think he'd be here if
he didn't think we could take the whole thing," says Jackson. "I
don't think Larry Bird does anything if he doesn't think he has
the chance to win big." That could be why he missed that
half-court shot so badly. Maybe $20 a head doesn't get his motor
running. You get the feeling that Larry Bird has his sights set
on higher stakes.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Thanks to the encouragement of Bird (lower left), previously underachieving Pacers like Best have done better. [Larry Bird watching Travis Best in game]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN F. GRIESHOP/NBA PHOTOS Pivotman Smits has gotten a lift from his renewed good health and Bird's more efficient practices. [Overhead view of Rik Smits in game]

Pointing Upward

One measure of the Pacers' gains under Larry Bird is the
increase from last season in their scoring, in an average game,
compared with their opponent. At week's end only the San Antonio
Spurs, bolstered by forward Tim Duncan (the first pick in the
draft) and the return of center David Robinson from a back
injury (SI, Nov. 10, 1997), and the Boston Celtics, under new
coach Rick Pitino, had improved as much as or more than Indiana
in this category.

AVG. DIFFERENCE AVG. DIFFERENCE
TEAM '96-97 '97-98 IMPROVEMENT

Spurs -7.9 +2.7 10.6
Celtics -7.3 -1.4 5.9
Pacers +1.0 +6.9 5.9
Nets -4.6 +1.0 5.6
Lakers +4.3 +8.0 3.7