For such a low-key, unassuming legend, Larry Bird sure does like to go the unorthodox route. In the latest in a lifetime of moves that took him away from the well-worn path, Bird is deciding to walk away from his job running the Indiana Pacers, just a month and a half removed from winning the NBA's Executive of the Year award for his work with the team.
This strangeness is nothing new. Remember, as a teen Bird was the guy who decided to walk away from the biggest basketball school in the land at the time, Indiana University, because the pace just wasn't to his liking. Already of drafting age in the NBA's eyes, he was selected a full year before even playing a game with the Boston Celtics, a rarity for an NCAA player. After retiring in 1992, his presence in NBA circles was extremely limited, making the five-year gap between his walk away and hire as Pacers coach in 1997 feel like a generation removed. Then, weeks after leading the Pacers to the 2000 NBA Finals, Bird made good on his promise to leave that job. Now, eight years after working as a personnel maven amongst several in the Pacer front office, he's leaving the team.
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None of this should feel like a shocker, but it does add quite a bit of intrigue to an outfit that appears to want to shun it at all costs. The Pacers had made minor waves in the offseason by letting cap guru-ish exec David Morway go, after Bird found it unsettling that Morway couldn't swing deals for a swingman to put Indiana over the top. Recently, Bird's former Indiana boss Donnie Walsh was brought back on board after his tumultuous turn with the New York Knicks; and, as first reported by Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star, Bird is stepping down to let Walsh and Bird deputy Kevin Pritchard run the show.
Wells points a finger at undisclosed health concerns also having a hand in the Hall of Famer's decision, and he expects a final resolution soon.
Bird is "100 percent sure" he will not return as president of the team, a person with direct knowledge of the situation told The Star on Monday.
Bird, 55, is expected to meet with owner Herb Simon today to finalize his departure.
Bird's departure will end what had become annual speculation about his future. He and Simon operated under a yearly handshake agreement because Bird was not interested in a long-term commitment.
Wells also goes on to point out the most surprising aspect of all, even more than Bird's recent award-winning work, is the way that every public comment made by Bird about his status with the team seemed to point to a return for 2012-13 and beyond. Usually when players, coaches, or executives walk away from a team it's due to exhaustion following a long season — not five weeks after a shortened season ends.
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And certainly not right before you get to plunge into the draft and eventually dive into a free-agent market that you smartly set money aside for years ago. Those sorts of perks — the only real time a control freak like Bird has any sort of direct sway over how a franchise is run — are what keep personnel bosses in the fold. It's the only time they get to take off the warm-ups and check in.
It's not enough for Larry, though, who might see the writing on the wall with this team.
Walsh and Pritchard are more than capable on their own, to say nothing of working together, so it isn't as if Bird is leaving the Pacers in less than capable hands. But at the risk of sounding like a downer, this is a team still working with a superstar. Forwards David West and Danny Granger work hard, and they have All-Star appearances to their names, but the Pacers lack a dynamic franchise-type in a conference full of them. Yes, Indiana put together the NBA's fifth-best record in 2011-12, but what if that was it?
Even with the ability to add a needed point guard this summer? Even as a player in the trade market, able to take on someone else's big contract?
Or maybe Bird, coming off a bit of a whirlwind of "look at me" stuff that was out of his control (in the last two years a much-hyped book, Broadway play, and HBO documentary were pitched around his relationship with Magic Johnson; along with a book and documentary detailing his time with the 1992 Dream Team, on top of the award-winning exposure for his work with the Pacers), just needs another one of those breaks. Like the ones he presumably enjoyed until the boredom got the best of him, from 1992-1997, and 2000-2003.
Whatever the case, it's surprising as always. Bird-like all the way. Here's hoping Larry's next NBA nap is a short one.
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