There's a very good argument to be made that Larry Bird is the most famous name in Indiana basketball. That's not a lightly-populated list, either. Others gunning for that title would have to be John Wooden, Gene Keady, Bob Knight, and Oscar Robertson. Throw in a few more contenders like Joe Barry Carroll and Isiah Thomas, and yeah, Indiana has probably the most top-tier names of any state. Which is how it should be. There aren't many states that care about basketball the way Indiana does.
So when Larry Bird first came back to the Pacers as a coach in 1997, there was much rejoicing. The Pacers were a perennial contender looking for what it was going to take to make that next step. Donnie Walsh (who, probably-not-coincidentally) decided the next level had a distinct Larry Bird-shaped hole in it. So he filled the void. Bird told the world he was only going to stick around for three years. He wrote the reason in his autobiography, Bird Watching. "I believe coaches need to move every three years if they are going to be effective. Athletes get tired of listening to the same voice. I’m not sure I’m going to make it three years."
Long story short, he did make it three years. And in that third year, the Pacers finally took the step they needed to get to the finals. I've written about it before, but the Pacers were pretty well doomed from the start against that Laker team. But, it was a more competitive series than I think most people remember now. After that run,* Larry Bird was not forced out by any means. In fact, he was begged to come back for another year. But, he had all he wanted and left on his own terms.
*Although, let's be honest. Things would have to be going pretty badly for anybody in Indiana to want to fire Larry Bird.
After taking a couple years off, Bird joined the front office in 2003, and fairly quickly found himself more or less running the team. This took him through some pretty lean years with the Pacers, which can be directly attributed to the brawl. That was a Pacer team on the brink of making a return engagement to the finals the year before,* and this year's team looked even better. There was no doubt in many Pacer fans minds, or the Pacers themselves, that this was the year. All blown apart because Ron Artest, well, is Ron Artest.** But, in the heart of darkness that was those lean years, Larry Bird stood up and said "We will be in the playoffs in five years." He cleaned house, and things initially got worse. The payroll went way down. The fans stayed away in droves. But, Bird worked his magic through the draft, made some shrewd trades, and five years later, there they were playing the Bulls in the most evenly matched 4 games to 1, 1 seed versus 8 seed playoff you will ever see. The core was there, the team was ripe, and Bird knew it.
*And really should have. The Pacers pretty well laid in egg in the last game against the Pistons, and were a dunk away from beating them the first game. Unfortunately, as Pacer fans can surely recall with a groan, Reggie Miller decided to lay that ball up, and Tayshaun Prince hustled back to block it. I've wondered if that still haunts Reggie, or if he has the good sense to focus on all the success he had in Indiana.
**He can call himself "Metta World Peace" or whatever, but that elbow he landed on James "The Beard" Harden pretty well sucked away any goodwill he had built up. How that didn't turn into another ugly brawl, I'll never know. Maybe because that game was in LA and not OKC.
He struck while the iron was hot, landing David West in free agency. This was the first big free agent signing since the brawl, and I think sent the message that the Pacers were back. And were they ever. After rolling to a three seed in the playoffs and easily handling the Orlando Magic, they had the eventual-champion Miami Heat throttled. They blew the first game, won the second, beat the Heat's ass in the third, and continued that beating through the first half of game four. Then, the wheels came off. They were only blown out in one of the resulting games, but the Pacers couldn't quite finish what they started. Maybe it was the James-Wade connection waking up, maybe the Pacers were just too young and didn't quite have the stamina to keep up that level of play for that many games just yet. But the dream ended there. Still, as a Pacer fan, you had to take heart in what the future held. And I'm sure Larry Bird knew this team was on the up-and-up.
He expressed interest in coming back. I had every thought he was coming back, even after David Morway resigned. That seemed odd to me, but I didn't give it too much thought. Because, hey, Larry Bird was really the one pulling all the strings here, right? And this Pritchard guy, he was supposed to be the next wonderkid in Portland. There's nothing bad about this. But then, the next morning, I saw on the Pacers' Facebook page that there was another press conference called. I think everybody knew what was about to happen then. And, sure, enough, Larry decided he had enough.
Herb Simon came right out and said it. Larry could have stayed as long as he wanted to. But, just as with coaching, he decided he was done right when it looked like the best was about to come. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised with this. But, I can't say I'm too broken up about it. I'm sure Bird will continue to hang around in some capacity if he wants to. But, the franchise is in good hands with Donny Walsh. He built the great Pacer teams of the '90's, and he's paired with (allegedly) a brilliant GM in Kevin Pritchard. And, well, I think Frank Vogel was absolutely robbed of Coach of the Year this year. The Pacers will continue to grow and improve, and this core will continue to make noise. But, I think we all have lost a little part of our blue and gold hearts w