NBA Finals: Bird looking to exit on familiar stage
He started out as The Hick from French Lick and ended as The Legend. The
evolution of the sobriquets applied to Larry Bird who, during the course of a 13 season playing career in the National Basketball Association, sparked the league's growth from small-time operation to global marketing mammoth.
That fate ushered another fellow by the name of Earvin Johnson onto the
same stage twenty years ago with the Los Angeles Lakers still represents
the defining moment when the NBA grew up, riding on the back of a rivalry which rarely failed to captivate the imagination. Bird, the skinny white guy from small town Indiana, versus the glitzy skills of Magic. Blue collar against Showtime was the stuff bar-stool debates are made of.
As a player, apart from providing highlight-reel slam dunks, there wasn't much Bird couldn't do. That was the primary reason why he, and the Boston Celtics, picked up three NBA titles during his stellar career in the famous green jersey.
Add to that a hat trick of Most Valuable Player awards, an Olympic gold medal and countless other honours however and you're still only scratching the surface of the impact which the 6'9" forward had on basketball and sport in general during his spell on court.
Back problems eventually forced Bird to the sidelines in 1992, having taken his swansong bow as a member of the United States Dream Team in Barcelona. There was nothing left to prove, no accomplishment unfulfilled for the man who Johnson describes "as the only player he ever feared". The fact that the average salary in the NBA increased five-fold during his career left a legacy which today's crop of astonishingly paid superstars have gladly reaped.
"I always thought I played the game at a level I was pleased with," Bird once replied when asked how he felt he would be remembered. "I always tried to play as hard as I possibly could and I always prepared myself to play. Everybody always talks about how long the season is, but I always felt if you prepared yourself before the season started and during the season, that you would play at a level you would be satisfied with and that's all I tried to do."
That was Bird The Player though. Bird The Coach has not had it quite so easy since assuming the reins of the Indiana Pacers three seasons ago. Although he was awarded the Coach of the Year title at the close of his initial campaign, and taken his team to the Eastern Conference finals each time, Bird by his own admission has not yet totally grasped the nuances of his present role, often delegating crucial decisions to his assistants on the bench.
Such has been the strain of engaging a steep learning curve that all season long, Bird has told everyone who would listen that come what may, the curtain would be pulled down on his coaching career at the close of this campaign. Trying to make himself better through relentless practice was one thing. Transforming other, lesser mortals is quite another.
"Every coach I had, I felt that three years were the max," rationalised Bird. "The players get a little stale, and it's hard to motivate them because you basically do the same thing over and over. I always felt that as a player, three years were the max for any coach. So when I got into this, I thought three years would be plenty. And it is, because it's a little different now than the first year I was here."
Before all that though, a fresh yet familiar challenge awaits. Bird will back in the NBA Finals this week but this time in a suit, as the Pacers pay their first visit to the ultimate round since their days in the old ABA. After closing out their Eastern Conference series with the New York Knicks with a 93-80 victory on Friday night, Bird's return to the fairways of Florida was postponed by at least two weeks more.
"Two games ago players were questioning what I was doing, and all I told
them, you got to believe and you got to get up and play harder and if you lay it on the line, it will work," he said. It is a great opportunity for these guys, a good chance to play for a World Championship. You know, that's what the NBA is all about, having an opportunity to win. And they had no idea what they got themselves into."
Could the acquisition of a fourth championship ring yet tempt Bird back for more ? Officially he has been offered, and declined, the role of team president, leaving the door slightly ajar for a change of heart should his competitive instincts lure him back for more.
Alternative rumours even suggest that Bird is involved in a clandestine bid to
purchase the Celtics, setting the scene for a return to the place where his personal legend was written into the sport's Hall of Fame.
If French Lick's most famous son does indeed depart after the Finals, at
least he will be taking his bow on his most familiar of stages.. against the Lakers. Win or lose though, he still has nothing left to prove.
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