Donnie Walsh: Landing Larry Bird was a Coup

May 10, 1997

Pacers president Donnie Walsh leaned back in his chair in his spacious office at Market Square Arena and pondered the question. "Do I consider it something of a coup?" Walsh said, referring to the hiring of Larry Bird as the Pacers' coach. "Yeah, I do. I mean, if you had said that you could get Larry Bird out of Boston anywhere in the last two or three years, people would've thought you were crazy."

Call him crazy. Call him what you will. But definitely call Walsh the architect of a blockbuster deal that resulted Thursday, as one local columnist wrote, "in one of the greatest days in Indiana sports history."

Larry Bird was Back Home Again in Indiana. And Celtic fans all over were green with envy. If there were any hopes that Bird would remain in Boston as part of Rick Pitino's regime, they were dashed when Larry Legend ended his 18-year association with the Celtics as nonpareil player and antsy special adviser by going home to start his NBA coaching career.

"I think the way things developed, it was best for both franchises," Walsh said. "I do think that Boston was probably at a stage where they had to clean house. I do think Larry Bird could've been a part of what they have there now, but I think it was time for him to move on, too, and to take on a new challenge and start a new career. So my real feeling is that it worked out well for our franchise and it worked out well for Boston."

When news of Bird's return to replace Larry Brown circulated Thursday, it brought to an end two weeks of breathless anticipation and speculation about the French Lick native and former Indiana State star.

Local sportscasters first reported the news from pit row at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the throaty roar of the Indy car practice tempered the reaction of the crowd when Bird's return was announced. Yesterday's editions of the Indianapolis Star and News bumped coverage of the Indy 500 time trials from Page 1 to herald Bird's homecoming.

"The only other time I've ever seen something like that happen was when we made it to the Eastern Conference finals," Walsh marveled. "Usually in May around here, the race is the big story. But Bird did it today."

Bird was the word yesterday, especially around the Pacers' offices, where phones were buzzing with season ticket inquiries.

"I'd say about 90 percent of the calls have been about season tickets," said Nancy Duffin, a longtime receptionist who cheerfully fielded a flood of calls. "I think people here see a future, a bright future. We've all been holding our breath about whether or not he was going to come. Excitement was building, but we all had the feeling that he would come, because as much as Boston is a part of him, this is his home."

Mike Henn, the Pacers' director of ticket sales, said there was no way to gauge the immediate impact of Bird's arrival upon season tickets, but he spared no alliterative adjective in describing the long-term impact.

"We're enthralled . . . we're highly enthusiastic . . . we're elated," Henn said. "I'm elated over two things. Number one, he's the best possible candidate from a season ticket sales standpoint. The second thing being, following the line of what Donnie Walsh has said, the guy will be a great coach. I firmly believe it is the best thing we could've done. And yeah, I'm elated. E-l-a-t-e-d."

While some fans contended it was a gamble to assume a great player could be a great coach, Walsh dismissed that notion by citing a list of former NBA stars who made a successful transition. Bird, Walsh said, will not be the first to take over as coach without experience.

"Neither did Pat Riley, neither did Billy Cunningham, neither did Lenny Wilkens, neither did Don Nelson, neither did Danny Ainge," he said. "So, I mean, the saying that great players don't make great coaches is all a cliche. If you check it out, it's exactly the opposite."

David Padric, 33, arrived at the Pacers Gift Shop in search of a fitted Pacers baseball cap, but was told there were none in stock. Still, his enthusiasm about Bird was not diminished in the least. "People at work have been talking about it all day long," said Padric, a salesman at a local masonry supply company. "They think he's going to do a good job because he was a good basketball player and he played by the fundamentals, and that's an important part of coaching and they think he can transfer that to the players here.

"Being from Indiana, Larry Bird has the value systems that we believe in," he added. "He worked hard to be a good basketball player, and Indiana basketball fans appreciated that. I think there'll be a lot more people at the games next year."

Now that Larry Bird is Back Home Again in Indiana.


Lex said...

Pitino was 36-46 in year one, and hovered around that spot for the rest of his tenure. He did draft paul pierce. Waltah Mccatty was fun to watch. And Obie's Chuck da 3 and Play D mantra was entertaining. Not a great period in celtics history, but not an uninteresting one either.

FLCeltsFan said...

The Celtics dropped the ball when they didn't beg Larry to coach the team. There were some dark periods in all the years of my Celtics fandom since 1969 but I can honestly say none were unineresting. Always some fun players and always hope.... Maybe it was just all the green koolaid running through my veins.

Lex said...

yeah, they underestimated larry.

dumb hick from french lick

I suspect that was part of the perception

can play basketball, but not smart enough to coach or manage

big mistake

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