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defordhead.gif (8k)

Bird slam-dunks conventional wisdom

Posted: Wed March 11, 1998

One of the unchallenged conclusions in sport is that great players don't make even good coaches. It was an accepted truth going back to the dawn of sports time, but it was set in stone, forever, when Babe Ruth was not even given a chance to manage.

  BIRD.jpg Bird has quickly proven that great players can become successful coaches.    (David E. Klutho)
The other side of the coin has always been that coaches are best formed out of little benchwarmers—scrubeenies, pepperpots—fellows like Dean Smith or Earl Weaver, who aren't really good enough to play, so they sit next to the coach and soak up all his wisdom. And, the fact is, this one cliché has proved pretty accurate. All the more reason that when Larry Bird was hired to coach the Indiana Pacers this year, most of the wise guys were sure it was all just a humbug to sell a few more curiosity tickets in Indianapolis, while Bird amused himself for a couple of seasons before going back to concentrate on golf.

The rationale is that great players have done it all so easily that they haven't the patience or the teaching ability to help improve—to coach—mere mortals. I also think this: a great player has so much confidence in his ability that he can be rattled when he takes on a new challenge and realizes his old superior God-given talents aren't available anymore. It's tough to develop confidence anew, in a different discipline.

But here is Bird, on a fast break for Coach of the Year, leading what was assessed as a .500 team into a dogfight with the invincible Chicago Bulls. It certainly does rattle one of the guaranteed, 100-percent absolutes of sporting life, doesn't it?

Bird's success probably, though, indicates that basketball is different from other sports. There are only five players on the court at a time, often the positions are interchangeable, and everybody has to do pretty much the same thing—dribble, pass, shoot, rebound and play defense. Nobody comes off the bench just to throw five pitches to a lefthanded hitter or to kick a field goal.

Larry Bird, like every great player, knows the whole game. Likewise, Lenny Wilkens, who has won more games than any other coach in NBA history, was a Hall of Fame player. The tradition is long, too. John Wooden and Joe Lapchick were early great players, later great coaches. And the tradition is wide. Perhaps the top sports executive in America today, any sport, is that great Hall of Famer, Jerry West, basketball vice president of the Los Angeles Lakers.

I think the same dynamic is at work to account for black coaches more easily being hired in basketball than other sports. Basketball is a small universe. Everybody gets to know one another as individuals, as people. Nobody is pigeonholed in basketball.

By contrast, Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers was that greatest of rarities: a manager who had been a pitcher. Pitchers are a breed apart; rarely do they become leaders of a whole team. Likewise, how ironic it is that good quarterbacks don't become football coaches. How perfect, it would seem. The team leader. Calling the plays. The field general. But someone like Steve Spurrier at Florida is one of a kind. Ultimately, primarily, quarterbacks are just specialists.

But Wilkens, West, Wooden, Lapchick, and all other great basketball superstars were foremost ... simply players. That's why, despite a very old reliable wives tale, Larry Bird has proved again that you don't have to be a rotten basketball player to make a good basketball coach.

Frank Deford, one of Sports Illustrated's most renowned writers, returned to the magazine on March 1. These commentaries, which appear every Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, will be posted weekly by CNN/SI.

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