Jones will never forget the result of his exchange with Larry Legend: Bird came up with a bucket, and the Celtics won. "Larry was right," says Jones. "He knew exactly what to do. He was a coach on the floor every night he played."
Boston went on to win the 1984 NBA title and another in '86. They were the second and third of Bird's three championships with the Celtics. In '92 he was forced to retire after 13 seasons with Boston because of an ailing back and swore he would never coach in the NBA because of the rigors the traveling would entail. (He particularly resisted the idea of coaching the Celtics, with whom he wanted his image to remain untarnished.)
But time—and the Pacers' lucrative financial package—changed his thinking. On Monday, Bird was formally, introduced as the Indiana coach, with a contract that will enable him to move into the front office in four or five years, when Pacers president Donnie Walsh is expected to retire.
Snagging Bird was a coup for the Pacers, who plan to build a new arena and want to guarantee that there will be fans aplenty to fill the seats. The return of a native son (of French Lick) and a local hero (for his storied career at Indiana State) is expected to provide a boost at the box office for the Pacers, whose attendance fell to 15,530 per game this season from 16,438 in 1995-96.
A celebrity coach may give ticket sales a quick surge, but over the long run it's how a coach's team does on the floor that determines fan enthusiasm. Bird has no coaching experience on any level, which leaves his qualifications for success open to question. "He's a natural," says Los Angeles Clippers coach Bill Fitch, who coached Bird in Boston from 1979 to '83. "He's got a love for the game, and he doesn't need the money, and that's a good thing."
Great players have not generally made great coaches (chart, above). The Atlanta Hawks' Lenny Wilkens, former 76ers coach Billy Cunningham and Bill Sharman, who coached three NBA and ABA teams, excelled. Magic Johnson's brief stint with the Lakers three seasons ago was a disaster. Similarly, Wilt Chamberlain's brief time on the bench produced a 37-47 record with the ABA's San Diego Conquistadors during the 1973-74 season. Bill Russell's coaching record was 341-290 (.540), but if his three seasons as player-coach for Boston are discounted, his numbers drop to 179-207. Another Celtics I Hall of Famer, Bob Cousy, who enjoyed little success as coach of the Cincinnati Royals and the Kansas City-Omaha Kings from 1969 to '74, has a cautionary tale for Bird. He says the pressure on him as a pro coach was so intense, he would retreat to his hotel room and guzzle glasses of scotch. "And I wasn't even a drinker," Cousy adds.
Yet the men who coached Bird insist he has the right tools for the job. Jones recalls an incident during Game 1 of the first round of the 1988 playoffs, when Pitino was coaching the New York Knicks and wreaking havoc with his trapping defense. According to Jones, Bird signaled a timeout, grabbed the clipboard and diagrammed where his teammates should pass the ball to avoid New York's pressure. "It's instinctive with him," says Bucks coach Chris Ford, who played with Bird from 1979 to '82 and coached him from '90 to '92. "It's a God-given gift that enables him to see things and process them quickly."
As evidence, Ford points to Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons. With the series tied at two games each, the Celtics trailed by one with five seconds to play, and Detroit was about to inbound the ball. As Pistons guard Isiah Thomas prepared to put the ball into play, Bird turned and ran up the floor with his head down, seemingly not focusing on the action about to unfold. But the instant Thomas inbounded the ball, Bird reversed direction, stole the pass and fed driving guard Dennis Johnson with a textbook pass for a layup. Boston won the game and the series. "You couldn't have diagrammed that situation any better," says Ford. "You can't teach guys to be that aware." And that may be Bird's biggest obstacle to coaching success: He, like some other Hall of Famers who have coached before him, simply may not be able to understand that his players, no matter how hard they try, are unable to play the game as well as he did.
Then there's the matter of how well Bird will relate to today's athletes. "Larry was never very patient with guys who didn't work hard," says former teammate Robert Parish, who at 43 is still playing center for Chicago. "I can't see that part of him changing, and that could be a problem." So could the Pacers' first long slump; as a Celtic, Bird never lost more than four games in a row.
Fitch claims Bird played with enough teammates who took the easy way out that the Generation X player won't be a shock. He also points to Bird's use of psychology to motivate his teammates. In the 1980-81 and '83-84 championship seasons, Bird publicly heaped praise on Boston forward Cedric Maxwell and guard Gerald Henderson, key players who often went unnoticed. He did the same in 1985-86 with Dennis Johnson, who felt underappreciated in the long shadows of Bird, Parish and forward Kevin McHale until Bird proclaimed him "the best I ever played with."