No wonder that during Bird's playing days, Hill was often misidentified as his bodyguard. In fact, he's a longtime family friend and basketball fan who used to show up at Springs Valley High in French Lick to watch the skinny blond kid wearing number 33 shoot jumpers. Hill's frequent road-trip presence during Bird's NBA career testifies more to Hill's interest in Bird's game than in his safety.
Bird was also intoxicated by basketball. He played through dislocated fingers, bone spurs on both heels that necessitated surgery and a cranky right elbow that required numerous cortisone injections. He underwent two back operations, including fusion surgery in 1993, the year after he retired. The fusion eliminated the excruciating pain that had cut his career short. After 13 seasons, Bird walked away with 21,791 points, 8,974 rebounds, 5,695 assists, three championship rings, three MVP trophies, nine All-NBA first-team citations and a highlight reel of heroics to his credit.
Bird said he'd keep a low profile in retirement, and he was as good as his word until he startlingly decided to thrust himself back into the spotlight as coach of the aging Pacers, who finished 39-43 last season and missed the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Why did he invite this madness into his life? Because the challenge was irresistible and because Indiana is his home.
When Bird retired, he swore he'd never coach in the NBA. By his third winter in Florida, he found himself clicking on the TV to watch Miami Heat games and focusing on Heat coach Pat Riley. As a player, Bird was too immersed in the Boston-L.A. rivalry to calmly evaluate Riley's contributions as Lakers coach, but now Bird found himself fascinated by Riley's tactics. "Pat adapts to any style that suits the moment," Bird says. "I'd love to be that kind of coach, to build a team that's able to run the ball when it has the chance but can also play the kind of rough half-court game you need in this league. Pat Riley is the Michael Jordan of our profession."
Has he ever talked to Riley about coaching?
"Never!" Bird answers. "C'mon! He was a Laker!"
Like Riley, who is paid $3 million a year as Heat president and coach, Bird commands top dollar. Under his open-ended contract, he will be paid close to $4 million a season, but his decision to coach was not simply a financial one. Bird is extremely wealthy, frowns on extravagance and is certain he's never made a frivolous purchase in his life. His teammates delighted in calling him cheap. "Money is only good," Bird says, "if you really need something."
Bird doesn't need anything. He takes exquisite care of the things he does have, including the first automobile he was given for promotional work as a pro: a 1979 Ford Bronco that's in near mint condition and sits, covered with a tarp, in his garage in French Lick. Many athletes and coaches who sign big contracts say they're not doing it just for the money. In Bird's case, that's true. It's the work that drew him to coaching. A man who rises at 4:30 each morning to jog needs more than charity golf outings to challenge him. Bird missed basketball, and it rankled him when Connor asked him, "Daddy, what is your job, anyway?"
Bird is mildly annoyed when people compare him with Magic Johnson, whose foray into coaching was a disaster. Johnson, who was head man of the Lakers for nearly two months during the 1993-94 season, went 5-11 before he resigned, disgusted by the attitudes of today's young players. "The differences between Magic and me are obvious," Bird says. "When Magic coached, he thought he was the best player on his team. Magic wanted to play. He still does. Magic is also a spur-of-the-moment guy. Something looks good one day, and the next day he's saying, 'What the hell did I get myself into?' I know exactly what I'm getting into."
Bird says he has no concerns about communicating with the late-1990s athlete. He thinks criticism of players like Philadelphia 76ers point guard Allen Iverson, whose mercurial play and cocky demeanor as a rookie made headlines, is overblown. Iverson drew the ire of NBA veterans last season when he declared he didn't have to respect anybody on the court (a statement Iverson later amended by saying he didn't have to fear anyone). "I like Iverson," Bird says. "The only difference between him and guys like Magic and me when we were starting out was he said those things and we just thought them. I remember the first time I played George McGinnis. I wanted to beat his ass. I killed him, too. Of course, he was on his way out then, and I was on my way in."