"We want Reggie," the Garden faithful screamed last week, frothing at the prospect of yet another playoff visit from their decade-long Indy antagonist. All right, they've got him. But aside from ignoring the clichéd, be-careful-what-you-ask-for (Reggie Miller destroying the Knicks in '95, with 8 points in the final 19 seconds, anybody?), now delirious MSG fans have overlooked the larger, scarier picture of the veteran, well-rounded Pacers, a group morphed over the past two years into a composite mold of their iconic coach, the immortal Larry Bird. As Miller himself put it earlier this season, "We're not pretty. We move the ball, we dive on the floor, we play together. We're a Larry Bird team."
That Miller would so casually shed his colossal ego says worlds about Bird's inscrutable coaching talent. When the Celtic legend was hired before the 199798 season, skeptics doubted his ability to step back from his own superstar standards and guide an aging bunch that had just finished out of the playoffs with a 39-43 record. Pacers management was thought to be investing $4 million per on a homegrown hero solely to boost ticket sales. The notion that Bird would ultimately stretch the Bulls to a seventh-game conference final in his rookie (and, ultimately, coach-of-the-year) season seemed about as likely as Pavarotti sending a Juilliard master class onto the La Scala stage.
But the Hick from French Lick proved to be a far more sophisticated motivator than anyone expected. With calm resolve (and the coolest sideline manner in NBA history), he went about relating to his players with a minimalist yet highly supportive aesthetic. As the wins piled up, he communicated belief in his team, without demanding the impossible. "It's not a perfect game," he'd tell the press. "I expect them to make mistakes."
According to one former NBA player and head coach, Knicks assistant Don Chaney, the hard slide from playing to coaching involves a switchover from the "selfish act of you and the guy you're battling" to taking in the "broader picture." Chaney continues: "As a player, you control your own personal destiny. As a coach you can prepare them, but you can't will 12 guys to win."
Chaney recalls how simple gaffes undid Jerry West in his early days as a coach: "When players couldn't finish a three-on-two break, he'd be pulling his hair out." Chaney adds that he's "surprised" that Bird, a perfectionist as a player, has "maintained his sanity. He's had to find out that all players are not created equal."
TV analyst (and former Jersey Net) Reggie Theus marvels at Bird's success. "One of the biggest things for an NBA player," he says, "is to believe that the coach believes in you. I didn't know if Larry would be able to communicate that, but obviously he has. Superstars of his stature are used to everybody being their friend. They're not used to reaching out to 11, 12 players, and Larry never was the most social guy. You can't say anybody would know more about the game, but you have to be able to transmit it."
From his arrival on the Pacers scene, Bird took a humble approach to on-the-job training, asking for input from both assistants and players. "He told me he needed someone to organize things," says assistant coach Rick Carlisle, who arranges practice schedules and covers the Xs and Os. "It's a unique job, and great experience in preparation to be a head coach. Larry doesn't have any problems with authority. He's empowered his players with decision making and given them responsibility. With a veteran team, that's a powerful tool."
Bird's players have to like the way he's handled Jalen Rose, who languished under previous coach Larry Brown. Today, under a variety of offensive looks, Rose flourishes as a prized swingman. "He approached Jalen with an open mind," says Pacers GM Donnie Walsh. "People tend to judge because of a player's dress or body language, and Jalen's got a hip-hop act. But Larry [Bird] only worries about what you do. Larry told him he was a hell of a player, that he had a hell of a future, and that he was going to play him a lot. And he has at three different positions."
If there's any signature to Bird's courtside presence, it's the mind-boggling serenity with which he takes care of business. Watching him during crunch time doesn't yield much, other than that he wears a good suit (who would've thunk?). TV loves those game-ending close-ups wild-eyed coaches, euphoric or pained but Bird gives up zilch. When once apprised of his Zen-like bench style, Bird retorted that he didn't even know how to "spell Zen."
"That's his nature," says Walsh on Bird's reserve. "But I had no idea to what extent." Walsh tells the story of Miller hitting a trey with less than a second left to stun the Bulls in Game 4 of last year's Eastern Conference Championship, and of the ensuing pandemonium at Market Square Arena with one notable exception. Watching a locker-room TV replay of his coach frozen and poker-faced against the chaotic backdrop of ecstatic fans, Walsh turned to Bird and said, "Larry, you got to be wired differently than the rest of us." "Well the thing was," replied Bird, "I knew Jordan could still get off a shot." Walsh realized then that Bird had "total focus, even if you don't see anything in his face."
All this restraint and calm plays very big with adult pros, many of whom have been getting yelled at ever since they first hit the hardcourt as teenagers. Bird had his own problems long ago during a brief stay at Indiana University (before he moved on to Indiana State) under Bobby Knight, his coaching antithesis. "I've played for screamers," he told a reporter last season without naming names. "I didn't like it, so I don't do it. If you don't think a guy can play, it's better to get rid of him than to bury him on the bench or scream at him in front of everybody."
Some observers feel that it's because he's been blessed with the ideal cast that Bird has never had to raise his voice. By contrast, Magic Johnson momentarily lost his sunny ways in a miserable, short-lived attempt to run the Lakers in '94. "He [Bird] made a great transition," says Magic. "But he picked the right situation, and that was smart. I got in with guys who were losers. That team [the Pacers] is committed."
Hard to imagine Bird ever expressing such sour grapes, even if the Pacers had remained mediocre. But Atlanta Hawks president Stan Kasten concurs that Bird's inheritance was better than it looked. "They'd had an off year," he says, "but they weren't a bad team. They'd just grown tired of the same message. Larry [Bird] was able to skip a lot of the crap. They gave him a lot of extra tread on the tires."
Such observations tend to neglect a significant, if subtle, team-personality enhancement. Collectively, these Pacers which Bird and Walsh left intact from last year have managed to absorb the myriad skills Bird brought to the floor as a player. Miller's movement without the ball, Chris Mullin's shot selection, Mark Jackson's passing, Derrick McKey's doubling on defense, Rose's (and even Rik Smits's, lately) driving the lane, the Davises' rebound positioning all critical components to a harmonious fit. Says Carlisle, "Balance is a key to whatever success we have."
And free throws too, to some degree. Which raises the question, what's up with Antonio Davis and Dale Davis, the unrelated former bricksters who are now actually finding all net at the line? Another Bird rub-off? "Larry made it very clear," says Walsh, "that he can't play you at the end of the game if you can't make free throws. Dale went and hired a shooting coach. He improved, and now he plays at the end."
Another turnabout during Bird's brief tenure is the marked absence of posturing, until recently a calling card of the Pacers backcourt. Garden fans won't likely be greeted anymore by Miller's choke sign or Jackson's shimmy-shake (even as the resurgent Knicks indulge in their own chest-bumping swagger). Such provocations have been replaced by a darker menace, the espousal of the all-business Celtic ethic from glory days past. "Larry's body language," says Carlisle, "is part of the process of telling players that until we really win something, we can hold off on the dancing and celebrating."
Shortly after landing the Indiana job, Bird said that what he enjoyed most about coaching was watching players break stereotypes (i.e., this one can't shoot from there, this one can't handle the ball) and "proving people wrong." The Davises and Rose may be obvious cases in point, but win or lose from here on out, Bird has thus far laid to rest one longtime NBA myth: superstars can't coach.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.