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IF THIS were, say, a quarter century ago, the decision to put the fate of a franchise in the hands of Larry Bird would be a no-brainer. But asking a 26-year-old Bird to carry a team on the court is a little different from entrusting a 51-year-old version to rebuild it from the front office, which is what the Pacers did last week when they announced that longtime CEO Donnie Walsh was stepping down at the end of the season and that Bird, the team's president, would assume total control of basketball operations. "Now it's one voice," says Bird. "It's mine."
Since Walsh hired Bird as his heir apparent in 2003, Indiana's record has declined every season, attendance at Conseco Fieldhouse has plummeted from 15th to last in the league and the roster has been stripped of anyone resembling a cornerstone. "There is no question Larry was calling the shots," says an Eastern Conference executive. "But Donnie had to buy into everything." Says coach Jim O'Brien, "Larry has been biting at the bit to be the sole guy."
The Pacers (30--43 through Sunday) are still in the playoff hunt despite being without forward Jermaine O'Neal and point guard Jamaal Tinsley for a combined 74 games. Still, there are fundamental flaws with the team, beginning on D. Indiana was giving up 106.1 points per game at week's end, fourth worst in the league, and ranked 18th in field goal defense (45.9%). "We are a very soft defensive team," says O'Brien. "We do not have mental or physical toughness across the board."
Off the court the Pacers have been the NBA's version of the Cincinnati Bengals. In December, Tinsley was involved in an early-morning incident in which his SUV was sprayed with bullets from an assault rifle. On March 17 charges against Tinsley and swingman Marquis Daniels from a 2007 bar fight were dropped, provided they stay out of trouble for two years. "A lot of our problems stem from things that have happened off the court," says Bird. "That's one of the things we're going to go after and clean up."
Moving Tinsley, a talented but enigmatic playmaker who has been a source of frustration throughout his seven years in Indy, will be one of Bird's off-season priorities; according to league sources, the Pacers were among the most active teams at the trade deadline, though they made no deals. "The only guy they wanted to hold on to was [leading scorer Danny] Granger," says a Western Conference G.M. "They were willing to blow things up and trade everyone else. The problem is, they don't have anything anybody wants."
To unload the likes of O'Neal (two years, $44.3 million remaining), forward Troy Murphy (three years, $33.1 million), swingman Mike Dunleavy (three years, $29.3 million) or Tinsley (three years, $21.4 million), Bird may have to settle for little more than expiring contracts. But the entire organization is in agreement that significant changes are necessary. Now it will be on Bird to make the right ones. "I've been doubted since the first time I stepped on a basketball court," says Bird. "I think I've dealt with it pretty well in the past, and I'm sort of looking forward to it."
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