INDIANAPOLIS – Larry Bird can again lay claim to something that has always defined him: winning.
After years of struggles and sharp criticism from an Indiana fanbase that once worshipped him as one of the state’s most prominent natives, the Pacers president has his team back near the top of the NBA’s Eastern Conference standings.
“There’s places we want to go with this team,” Bird said in a telephone interview. “We think we’ve got talent to do it. It’s just how we compete every night, and if we’re going to get better from now to the end of the year. We feel if we get better, we have an opportunity to do something special.”
Last season, the Pacers were 17-27 when Bird fired coach Jim O’Brien. Interim coach Frank Vogel then took a young team with core pieces Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough and Darren Collison and guided it to the playoffs. The Pacers challenged the Chicago Bulls before losing the first-round series 4-1.
After the season, Bird met with team owner Herb Simon, and the team announced it would keep him as president. Indiana then added George Hill in a draft-day trade, hired Vogel as the full-time coach and added free-agent forward David West.
Though things have changed, Bird might not stick around. He’s only committed to run the team through this season, and says he will talk with Simon about his future at season’s end. Amid recent reports that he wouldn’t return, Bird said no decision has been made.
“It’s the same thing as exactly what happened last year,” he said.
Bird was hired as team president in 2003 and shared the basketball decisions with then-CEO Donnie Walsh. The infamous brawl between Pacers players and Pistons fans took place in 2004, shaking up a perennial title contender and prompting the team to make talent-depleting trades.
Bird took full control of basketball decisions after the 2007-08 season, when Walsh left to become the New York Knicks’ president. Financial restrictions slowed his progress, and the Pacers went 36-46 in 2008-09 and 32-50 in 2009-10.
Dealing with losing was a challenge for a man who won three championships with the Boston Celtics, was an Olympic gold medalist and coached the Pacers to the NBA finals in 2000. Through it all, he stuck to his plan.
“My job was to change the culture, change the outlook of this team, bring in the players that I like, really revamp this whole organization,” he said. “Criticism comes as part of the job. I understand that.”