In addressing a throng of reporters upon his return to Boston recently, Larry Bird slipped in a startling offhand remark about his feelings as a new coach.
"I don't know how much longer I'm going to do this," said the rookie mentor of the National Basketball Association's Indiana Pacers. "I may not make it through the season. You never know."
A beleaguered coach with a struggling team might be expected to make such a comment, but the Pacers are cruising along with one of the NBA's best records (29-12 at press time). Bird is showing flashes of being a coaching natural, so why the hesitancy? While acknowledging this has been a "great experience" so far, Bird never longed to try his hand at coaching.
When he released his last jump shot in 1992, calling it a career after leading the Boston Celtics to three championships during 13 years as a perennial all-star, he seemed perfectly content to push back, perhaps to help evaluate players but certainly never coach them.
Great players, the record shows, seldom make good coaches, presumably because there's no direct-line correlation between the two roles and a superstar can find it difficult to deal with athletes less skilled and dedicated than himself.
Among the NBA's 50 greatest players, only four have ever gone on to coach NBA champions (Bill Sharman, Lenny Wilkens, Billy Cunningham, and Bill Russell, and Russell did it by utilizing his own considerable playing talents as a player-coach).
Suited up but not in sneakers
Bird has no intention of slipping into a Pacers jersey. Instead, he abides by the dress code for league coaches, although not any more than he has to.
He wears a suit, provided as part of a clothing contract, but keeps his collar open until game time, then strips off his tie en route to the locker room afterward.
A grinning Bird is pictured wearing a sports shirt on the cover of this season's Indiana Pacers' media guide, which exclaims that Bird is "Back Home Again."
The former "hick from French Lick" has returned to his roots, to where he was a high school and college star, first at Spring Valley High School in French Lick, Ind., and then for the Indiana State University Sycamores in Terre Haute.
Since retiring, Bird had served the Celtics as a special assistant, a vague role that allowed him to keep one foot in and one foot out of the game.
He didn't miss the spotlight or the adulation that goes with it, and he enjoyed life with his wife and two young children, spent in family residences in Indiana and Florida. Still, he sensed something was missing and succumbed to the Pacers' pleas to give coaching a try.
"The competition of the game was always something that I looked forward to," he explains, "and when I got out of basketball and retired, I really missed being around it. I get a lot of enjoyment out of this. I get a lot of enjoyment bringing my team into an opposing arena and seeing if they can meet the challenges."
Many observers have watched the Bird experiment with considerable interest. Could he impart his knowledge and work ethic to a group of players who made the Eastern Conference finals in 1994 and '95, yet failed to reach the postseason last year?
Rather than come in with lofty aspirations, Bird decided to keep it simple.
"We set a goal to try to get back to the playoffs," he says. "That's all we are trying to do - to win enough games to get to the playoffs and we'll go from there."
Bird's team has been more than a little better, however, a development that presented him with an unexpected dilemma. This became apparent in Boston when he initially shrugged off talk of coaching in the Feb. 8 NBA All-Star Game. That honor goes automatically to the coach of each conference-leading team.
The Pacers had a slightly better winning percentage than the Chicago Bulls on the Jan. 25 cutoff date, but Bird said he'd already made plans to be in Florida during the All-Star break .
"They were made back in October," he said. "I have no desire to coach an all-star game. I have no desire to ever go to an all-star game again."
Bird was never big on these individualistic showcases. This week, however, he reluctantly agreed to coach the Eastern stars in New York, reasoning that the exposure would be good for his small-market franchise even if he personally could do without it.
Coaching is no ego trip for Bird, says Pacer guard Jalen Rose. "Larry appreciates and welcomes the accolades, but he doesn't wake up each morning to hear everybody calling his name," Rose says. "I think that is what we all respect about him."
Rick Carlisle, a Pacers assistant coach, says Bird is a man of few but effectively delivered words. "Larry understands that if one guy is talking to the players all the time - and there are about a thousand timeouts each season - they're going to tune him out."
Carlisle says that Bird is willing to let his more-seasoned assistants devise the basic offensive and defensive schemes. "He sits back and says, 'I'll watch you guys, interject ideas, and learn along the way.' Any notion that he's not involved is crazy. He works at it, watching film for hours."
That old team spirit
Bird neither overcoaches ("I don't get into details with these guys every day about shooting basketballs") nor does he hold players to an impossible standard ("It's not a perfect game. I expect them to make mistakes"). What he does expect, though, is that they win as a group.
Earlier in the season, Bird held his tongue until one especially galling loss dropped the team to 2-4. He laid it on the line, Carlisle says, in a firm yet constructive manner. "He said this is the problem and this is what we need to do," Carlisle recalls. "From that point on we've had a phenomenal record."
Bird was smart enough to step into a situation that suits him, namely coaching a team with a strong nucleus of motivated veterans like Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, and Rik Smits, which he enhanced by acquiring Chris Mullin.
It helps that Bird has players he can trust because not having the ball in his own hands is a new, challenging experience. "I was always making decisions and they were easier decisions because I had control of the game, I had control of the ball," he says. "As a coach you sort of put the ball in other player's hands and let them make decisions for you. But I still get a kick out of winning basketball games and that's what I'm in this for."