The boys in French Lick had grown used to rooting for the Celtics, but changing allegiances to the Pacers won't be an issue. The main thing is, they're figuring they'll see Larry a little more often now, which makes Rex happy, because he has a fresh batch of rhubarb-and-dandelion wine waiting on his porch.
For Bird, switching loyalties won't be so easy. A tinge of green pride lingers. That was plainly evident when he was asked how he felt when he heard Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf declare, while discussing breaking up his aging championship team, "I don't want to end up like the Celtics." The reference was to the waning years of Bird's career when Boston was in decline yet was unwilling to trade its veteran stars—Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish—for younger players or draft choices. "I find that pretty amusing," says Bird, his lips tightening. "He [Reinsdorf] sure wanted to be us when we were kicking his ass all over the place."
The Bulls are in Indiana's division, the Central, and Bird considers Jordan even more remarkable than the player he competed against. Beating Chicago, Bird recognizes, will require negating the mental games that Jordan plays and that Bird knows so well. Like His Airness, Bird, too, delighted in toying with opponents, informing defenders precisely how he planned to burn them and then doing it. "The league is a lot more watered down than when I played, so if you have a star like Michael Jordan today, you rule the league," Bird says. "Once he leaves, things will level out. But if the league had more guys like him, and I don't mean his talent as much as his attitude, then we'd be a lot better off."
Does that mean Jordan and the Bulls are unbeatable?
"The thing with Jordan is, you can be ahead by 10, and two minutes later the game is tied," Bird says. "I'm going to tell my guys if they can stay close until the last two minutes, then we have a chance. Who knows? Michael might actually come down and miss a shot. I doubt it, but he might."
The Pacers have been told that Bird will not tolerate tardiness or players who are not well conditioned. Bird will use an up-tempo style and wants small forward Chris Mullin, newly acquired from the Golden State Warriors, to take some of the offensive load off shooting guard Reggie Miller and center Rik Smits. He has promised not to scream at his players and hopes—but has not guaranteed—that the Pacers will be in the playoffs. Bird is unsure how he would react to a prolonged losing streak, since the most consecutive games he ever lost as a player was four, and that only happened once.
Of course, if things get hot, there's comfort in knowing that refuge is only a couple of hours away, down State Road 37, over to U.S. 150 and then onto State Road 56. French Lick will be there if coach Bird should need it.