Larry Bird: Doer and Teacher

Those who can't do, teach.

We see this long-in-the-tooth truism validated every day and everywhere. We see it, for example, in colleges where too often English literature professors are white hot in their criticisms of Faulkner or Hemingway or Shakespeare but whose own published credits total zero.

Making a mud pie is an entirely different proposition from describing how to make a mud pie.

This is why Indiana Pacers coach Larry Bird is stunning the basketball world as the NBA playoffs command our attention. Bird, who in his first year as a coach was named the league's coach of the year, is a joy to watch.

The ultimate doer may be the ultimate teacher, thus putting the lie to the bromide.

It's easy to make the case that Bird was the best example of an all-around basketball player who ever lived. To review Bird's accomplishments is to besmirch his honor. Suffice it that when he was chosen by the Boston Celtics as the sixth pick in the 1978 draft, he immediately resurrected that proud but deflated franchise.

If you saw him play during his 13-year career, you still smile at the memories. All he could do was shoot from the field and from the free-throw line, play suffocating defense, rebound at both ends of the floor, and pass, think, and be his best at the crucial moment. He was a specialist in willing victory. At a time when the NBA was eliciting yawns, he, along with Magic Johnson, combined to wake up, then add vigor to, the game.

Above all, Larry Bird tried like crazy.

The thought that Bird might coach in the NBA always seemed foolish. That's because truly sensational athletes very often make horrendously awful coaches. It's too frustrating. They know what needs to be done and how. They convey that message to their players, whereupon the athletes come up woefully short - at least in comparison with their coach.

Magic Johnson was a disaster as the coach, briefly, of the L.A. Lakers. He just couldn't function with mediocrity all around him. Sitting courtside and watching became too painful. For Johnson, it was the sports equivalent of the Chinese water-drip torture.

We were sure that if Bird ever tried to coach, his would be a similar fate. We were dead wrong.

What Bird brings to the job is a minimalist approach. He doesn't use 200 words when three will do. In a time when too many coaches disgrace themselves routinely with their screaming and their antics - Bob Knight at Indiana University somehow comes to mind - Bird brings a quiet resolve. "I cannot believe this guy is my coach," marvels Pacer star Reggie Miller.

It's popular in sports for people to say they lead by doing. In Bird's case, he leads by being Bird. As such, he brings leadership and a calming effect to the Pacers. He also brings perseverance. After all, he played in a game where the Bulls' Michael Jordan scored 63 points - and the Celtics still won.

What Bird grasps is that it's hard for anybody to do anything if someone is yelling at them. Too, Bird's philosophy is that even if a player isn't very good, he can at least try: "I love to watch players compete when they're really playing."

The Pacers, who failed to make the playoffs last year, were 19 games better this year. Perhaps it's true that when the students are ready, the teacher will appear. But it's unlikely the Pacers will advance to the NBA finals, even with this teacher, since they currently are dealing with Jordan and the Bulls in the semifinals. The Bulls are better. But that doesn't minimize Bird's accomplishments.

Bird keeps things simple. Given the mentality of many of the NBA players, this is very smart. He is in charge. At the start of the year, he left two team members behind at the Indianapolis airport because they were late. Be on time, he said. Simple concept. Try at all times. Simple. Play as a team. Simple, even though with most teams what they need instead of one ball are five balls. Says Bird, "I hate to lose more than I like to win." Simple.

Coaching, says Bird, is "not something I want to do the rest of my life, but while I'm here, I want to make the most of it." In fact, it won't be long and Bird will walk off into the sunset, quietly, a doer and a teacher all in one body. Amazing.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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