One of the most sacred tenets in all of sport is this: Superstars can't coach. The theory always has been that the ultra-successful player always lacks patience when dealing with lesser mortals. The theory has been that the ultra-successful player has no way of connecting with anyone but himself. The theory has been that the ultra-successful player may not even know the minutiae of the game, because people at such a lofty level never have to deal with same.
In a league of overcoaching zealots, Bird
has been the anti-Riley. Oh, he has taken the job very seriously. He
does the work in the gym. He looks at the tapes. He goes over the
scouting reports. But that stuff isn't why he has been one of the great
coaches in the league these past two years. He has been the NBA's most
intriguing coach because he has been able to cut through the bull and
reach players on a level beyond the scope of the average mentor.
In just one training camp, Bird
turned this ancient theory on its head. He demonstrated that he could
relate to Reggie Miller. He demonstrated that he could relate to Antonio
Davis. He demonstrated that he could relate to Fred Hoiberg. He
demonstrated that he knew, in a very K.C. Jones kind of way, what
mattered and what didn't matter when it came to the winning and losing
And when the time came to get tough in order to
make a point, he demonstrated that he had picked up a trick or two from
another coach he admired, the somewhat autocratic Bill Fitch. You do
remember him leaving Dale Davis and Travis Best on the tarmac when they
arrived seconds too late for an Indiana airplane excursion, don't you?
Even Ann Landers weighed in on that one.
demeanor is Old School. He stands up at times, but he probably spends
more time on the bench, allowing his players to play, than any other 10
coaches combined. He knows what he knows, but he doesn't pretend to know
everything. Very often there is a timeout in which Dick Harter or Rick
Carlisle does all the talking.
That's another thing. The Pacers have two assistant coaches. Just about everybody else has three. Bird's reasoning?
"I'd rather have two assistant coaches and pay them better than
three, than just to have three," he said after taking the job. "If I
find I'll need another coach, I'll hire one."
Perhaps more than anything else he did, this one move of Bird
got the positive attention of his players. It showed them that he
really was different. They all knew the self-indulgent nonsense of
having three assistant coaches in the NBA. Having three assistant
coaches is merely a way of making the job seem more complicated than it
really is. It's just another excuse to have a guy holding a clipboard. Bird wasn't going to contribute to the farce, and the players immediately loved him for it.
The NBA needs Bird
out there where everyone can see him. He is a reminder of better days
on the court and evidence that not every coach in the league has lost
his mind. It remains an event when the Pacers come to town. People may
not pay to see a coach, but when this coach shows up, the people get on
their feet and put their hands together because they recognize him as
But, hey, how about this heart stuff, huh?
You got used to Larry's laundry list of physical ailments. If it wasn't
his elbow, it was his heel. If it wasn't his heel, it was his back. And
always there were the mangled fingers. The truth is, he spent most of
the final five years of his playing career in the hands of doctors and
physical therapists hoping to get one more day on the court. We all got
used to the idea that his body had its imperfections. A year after he
was through, the guy needed major back surgery just to be able to lead a
pain-free, somewhat normal life. Throwing a heart problem into the mix
seems to be piling on.
The fact that he wants out of coaching
has nothing to do with the heart. He never had any intention of being a
coaching lifer. He took the Pacer job because it made sense for him at
the time. It was the right team in the right city for the right
management at the precise moment in Larry Bird's life when he was ready to coach. He made it clear he wasn't going to be around very long.
That's before we saw him in action. Every day he coaches is a good
day for the NBA. Let me be the first to address the 1999-2000 season: Go
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