Larry Bird had no idea what to do with his hands. Should he fold them across his chest? No, too stern looking. Jam them in his pockets? Nah, too casual. Clasp them on one knee? Maybe. But which knee?
It was an odd sight, the obvious discomfort of Bird, who had never before had to pause and consider what to do on a basketball court. Bird's hands aren't attractive—the knuckles are fat and the fingers gnarled from years of basketball abuse—but what they delivered when Bird slipped on a Boston Celtics uniform were marvels to behold: ferocious rebounds, pinpoint lookaway passes, three-pointers that fell through the strings as softly as raindrops.
Last Thursday evening Bird was not wearing a jersey. His uniform was a pair of chocolate slacks, a matching chocolate sports shirt and dress shoes, yet the reception was familiar: a standing ovation as he walked across the court, trailed by an array of fans, young and old, pressing closer, snapping photos, begging him to autograph their hats, their notebooks, their arms. "Not right now," Bird said softly. "I'm coaching."
Bird's debut as head man of the Indiana Pacers occurred at the Atlanta Summer Shootout, a three-day round-robin event among four teams made up mainly of rookies and fringe veterans from four NBA franchises. (The Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers were the others.) While Atlanta's Lenny Wilkens, Boston's Rick Pitino and Cleveland's Mike Fratello entrusted their entries to assistants, Bird called his own shots, including his decision to clasp his hands and place them in his lap, as a theater critic might. It was a pose that will require some seasoning, but then, so does Bird the coach. "Sometimes," Bird said before the tip-off, "I want to walk onto the court because I think I'm still playing."
A ravaged back that required two operations forced Bird to retire in 1992. How ironic that his first game as a coach on any level would be at Life University, the largest chiropractic college in the world. During the Pacers' afternoon shootaround, students offered Bird free adjustments for his signature. While he declined the back treatments, he signed, then signed some more, including an autograph for one of his players, Alonzo Goldston, whose chances of making the Indiana roster are slim and who wanted a consolation prize.
Goldston's teammates resisted the same temptation. "You know you're fighting for your life and nothing else should matter," said former Kentucky star Mark Pope, "but then Coach Bird is working with you in the post, and you find yourself saying, 'Hey, Larry Bird is guarding me!' "
When he took the Pacers' job, Bird promised that he would not scream at his players. He kept his word in his first outing. In fact, when he summoned a point guard to the sideline to call a play, he whispered instructions. The only ones to draw Bird's ire were familiar targets: the officials.
Although spectators squealed with delight when Indiana's Darvin Ham rattled through a fast-break tomahawk, a more fundamental move—Pope's backdoor screen—brought Bird to his feet. He clapped encouragement for transition baskets and muttered disappointment over broken plays. "If I've got a problem with a guy, I'll pull him aside the way [former Celtics coach] K.C. Jones did," said Bird. "I'll tell 'em, 'You've got to set the pick, 'cause if you don't. I'll get someone who will.' "
After one hour and 49 minutes of calling for pressure, for entry passes to the post and for his troops to run! Bird walked off the court with an 88-75 victory over the Hawks and a slightly stiff back from all that sitting. He told the media that he would not be wearing Italian suits when the ball goes up for real in November. "When I played, I never watched the coaches," said Bird. "I don't want anyone watching me."