HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Eight years are a mere blip in time, but it seems like an eternity in the NBA.
It’s certainly rare for executives and coaches to last that long.
So when you read that Larry Bird is eight years deep into his tenure as the boss of the Indiana Pacers, it seems a bit strange. I was there for the start, standing in the crowd at Bird’s introductory news conference and wondering, like most in that surprised sea of faces staring at him, how long the man known as “Larry Legend” would last as an executive.
Now, eight trying years later for Bird and the Pacers, Bird appears to be at the crossroads. The Pacers finally recovered fully from the infamous brawl at the Palace, making their first playoff appearance since 2006 earlier this year and pushing the top-seeded Chicago Bulls in all five games of their first round series.
In a thorough and wide-ranging piece on Bird, Julian Benbow of the Boston Globe touched on not only Bird’s lingering connections to the Celtics but also his tumultuous journey running the Pacers and how much longer he plans on doing so:
He’s been the Pacers’ top executive for eight seasons, but said that after next season he’s considering stepping away. He took the Pacers to the Finals as coach in 2000. But he’s spent the last six seasons trying to rebuild a franchise stained by the brawl with the Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
With Indiana coming off its first playoff appearance since 2006, the franchise is at a turning point. Bird and Pacers owner Herb Simon agreed that Bird would continue to guide the franchise on a year-to-year basis.
“It’s a handshake deal,’’ said Bird, who will be honored tomorrow at TD Garden as part of the Sports Museum’s The Tradition. “I don’t want a [long-term] contract.’’
But they both know a year isn’t a very long time.
“It’s at a point now in my life where I think it might be time to really reconsider and see how long I want to do this,’’ said Bird, now 54. “They asked me to stay another year through the lockout season, the owner did, for a favor. I was leaving, but he asked me to stay, and I will and I’ll get the job done.
“I just think the franchise is in a good position right now, and I want to leave it in a good position for the next guy to do some good things. Sometimes you just look at it and say, ‘Hey, I’ve done enough. I’ve got it in the position I want to get it in,’ and you move on. I’ve got another year here and I’m going to try to do the best I can to get this team back to winning.’’
Leaving now, just when things are starting to look up, probably doesn’t make sense to some. If you’ve seen it through to this point, grinding it out through all the drama of the past eight seasons, why bounce when everything seems to be in place for sustained success?
The coaching staff, Frank Vogel with Brian Shaw flanking him, is set. There’s a young talented roster in place, headlined by Danny Granger, Darren Collison, Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough and HT favorite son Josh “McBob” McRoberts.
Bird and Pacers’ general manager David Morway nailed it on draft night, adding point guard and Indianapolis native George Hill in a deal with the Spurs, a move that tugged at the Hoosier hearts of the Pacers’ faithful. For years since The Brawl the Pacers have had to battle to get some of the home folks back on their side.
In a more cynical world, it could be said that Hill’s public introduction was a bit over-the-top for a 30-minute-per-game player. It’s not like Dwight Howard or Eric Gordon just walked through the door.
And yet . . . why not? Why not celebrate what’s right now about the Indiana Pacers? Hill represents what the Pacers are becoming, a civically responsible organization that will no longer embarrass the city on the floor or off.
Hill is not a star, not even close, and yet, he’s the embodiment of a franchise that has finally shed the yoke of “The Brawl” and all the other nonsense that had Pacers beat writers on 24-hour police-beat alert.
“I grew up a Pacers fan,” said Hill, who grew up on the city’s Northside and graduated from Broad Ripple High School. “I was heartbroken when things went bad for them. I hated seeing what happened here. But give the organization credit: They moved out a lot of those guys and they’ve rebuilt. And I’m glad to be a part of that.”
Surely, some people are wondering why Bird wouldn’t want to continue to “be a part of that.”
But I can see where Bird is coming from. He brought the Pacers back from the abyss. That could take the starch out of anyone, but especially someone who walked into the organization with an eye toward finishing what he started as a coach. The Pacers were on a championship track when The Brawl happened and the bottom fell out.
Getting back to this point is a victory in itself.
Bird could be greedy and keep grinding and see how much more ground the Pacers can cover with him at the helm. The only problem with that theory is Bird has no desire to prove himself to anyone, nor should he. Whatever criticism, warranted or not, levied at Bird and former Pacers boss Donnie Walsh for the way they handled things after The Brawl is history now.
Bird can exit the stage whenever he wants knowing that he helped resuscitate the franchise.