7.13.2013

Word on Bird: He's off to Indy

May 1997

If Rick Pitino comes to Boston to coach the Celtics, he could bump into Larry Bird at the airport on his way out of town.

According to a source in Indiana, the Pacers are prepared to name Bird their new head coach early this week, which is the time frame during which Pitino will decide whether he'll accept a lucrative offer to coach the Celtics.

"I think Indiana has a commitment that he is coming," said the source, who did not know the terms of Bird's deal. "It's probably going to happen the first of the week."

A second source in Indiana said the contract Bird would receive from the Pacers is in the neighborhood of $ 4.5 million per year, a figure widely reported in recent days. It would make him the highest-paid coach in the NBA, pending Pitino's much-anticipated decision.

Bird, at home in Naples, Fla., did not return messages left by the Herald. He told the Globe on Saturday: "Indiana has made me a good offer - no, a great offer. I've known the owners since college, through mutual friends, and I have great respect for (Pacers general manager) Donnie Walsh.

"We are definitely talking, and if I decide to do something (other than remain with the Celtics in some capacity), it would definitely be there."

For the Indiana-bred Bird, who has drawn interest from other NBA teams, it would mark a celebrated homecoming certain to be accompanied by a hero's welcome. His departure from the Celtics would also close the book on a peculiar chapter in the storied history of the franchise.

Bird, who in his role as special assistant drew up a list of coaching candidates for Celtics owner Paul Gaston, denied part of a Herald report that Gaston had offered him the head coaching job and the top basketball operations post. He said Gaston offered him the coaching job a few weeks ago, which he declined, and "everything else is bull."

Gaston, according to a high-level team source, is still clinging to a flickering hope he can keep Bird in the front office. Gaston, unavailable for comment yesterday, could not reach Bird at his home on Friday. It is unknown whether they spoke yesterday.

Meanwhile, Pitino, taking in yesterday's Kentucky Derby, did nothing to dispel the idea that he is leaning toward accepting Gaston's offer to coach the Celtics. Even the Celtics' considerable struggles in recent years, thought to be a major stumbling block for the success-driven Kentucky coach, did not appear to be a concern.

"That would only entice me to pursue the job," said Pitino. "In a situation like that, there's more upside if you're successful. For a person who would be looking for a challenge, it's a great situation."

Pitino, who has kept his recruits on hold until he makes a decision, plans to meet with Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton on Tuesday. Newton has said he would like to extend Pitino's contract, which has three years remaining. But he did not sound like a man overly confident he could dissuade his coach from departing the Bluegrass State for Boston.

"I think he does not want to leave the University of Kentucky - I think that first and foremost," Newton said. "He genuinely likes the place. He likes the job. He likes the winning that goes with it. He likes the players.

"(But) he's being presented a career change with a job that's always fascinated him. That makes it very difficult for him to automatically say, 'No, I won't go.' That's the dilemma he's in."

The Celtics are faced with a dilemma of another kind. They appear to have burned their bridges with Larry Brown, who had briefly become the team's top choice to replace M.L. Carr as head coach. The former Pacers coach, who resigned on Wednesday, wanted the Celtics' job and appeared ready to be presented with it as early as last weekend. But Gaston's renewed interest in Pitino put him on hold.

"I haven't heard anything from the Celtics since," said Brown, reached yesterday at his home in Malibu, Calif. "I have no way of knowing what happened there."

Brown, who interviewed with Philadelphia on Wednesday, said he had a "great meeting" with 76ers owner Pat Croce. He said he also intends to speak with Golden State officials about their coaching vacancy, but a source in Philadelphia yesterday said Brown could be named 76ers' coach within 48 hours. The job would include considerable power in personnel decisions.

Brown would not comment on whether a job offer from Philadelphia is imminent. But it appears a good bet he'll be out of the loop by the time Bird and Pitino make their moves. And should those moves fail to end happily for the Celtics, Gaston would be left with a secondary list of coaching candidates that includes current C's assistant Dennis Johnson and ex-San Antonio Spurs coach Bob Hill.

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