Larry Bird

Is he as good a coach as he was a player?

When Larry Bird and Magic Johnson retired six years ago, they left the National Basketball Association in the capable hands of Michael Jordan. Now Bird wants it back. His Indiana Pacers face the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals in what could be Jordan’s final season. Basketball pundits think that the tough, wily Pacers are the team that can dethrone the five-time champion Bulls.

Bird, a thing of beauty and a joy forever as a player, is turning out to be a fabulous coach, too. When lured out of retirement a year ago–he was “bored to death” of fishing and golfing–the Pacers had just finished a miserable 39-43 season, had missed the playoffs, and were led by a core of aging, disgruntled players. This year, with a virtually identical roster, Bird has coached Indiana to a 58-24 record–the best in the team’s history. Tuesday, Bird was named–deservedly–the NBA’s Coach of the Year. Wednesday his team finished off the New York Knicks to advance to the conference finals.

Larry Legend’s emergence as a coaching phenom is surprising. In part it’s so because when he played for the Celtics, he used to say he would never coach in the NBA. It’s also surprising because Bird the Coach is not much like Bird the Player, at least not in the ways you might expect.

At Indiana State University and during his early NBA career, Bird gulled fans, opposing players, and the media. He played the rube. He had grown up in the small, poor Indiana town of French Lick, and he dubbed himself the “Hick from French Lick.” His redneck accent and unsophisticated clothes reinforced the impression that he was a dim good ol’ boy. So did his doughy face, blond feathered hair, and beaky nose. (The 6-foot-9-inch Bird looks, appropriately, very much like Big Bird.)

Illustration by Keith Seidel

But behind that bumpkin’s exterior lurked a man of endless guile and will. Bird may have been slow, but he was an astounding passer, an elegant shooter, a vicious rebounder, and the league’s toughest competitor. He was always busy on the court: If he didn’t make the assist, he made the basket; if he didn’t make the basket, he grabbed the rebound; if he didn’t grab the rebound, he made the steal. He was also a relentless psychological warrior. So taciturn in public, Bird was the NBA’s most notorious trash talker, mocking opponents’ attempts to guard him. (Once, when Magic rushed over to stop him, Larry stared at him, said, “You know you’re too late,” and buried a jumper.) Bird goaded and inspired his own teammates, and they heeded him: If he told a teammate to do something, he did it. Thanks in large part to Bird, the Celtics were a team, single-minded and selfless.

Bird and Magic are permanently yoked in NBA legend. They entered the NBA together, rose together, retired together. One of the greatest achievements of each is that he destroyed the stereotype about himself. Magic, the black, mouthy, “Showtime” guard, won over basketball fogies with his sound fundamentals and court intelligence. Bird, the solid white guy, won over Magic’s fans with his creative shooting and flashy passing.

So why is Bird’s coaching career taking off when Magic’s flopped? Magic’s 16-game stint coaching the Los Angeles Lakers was a disaster. He failed as a coach for the reason that other great players have failed as coaches: He thought about himself too much. He complained his players didn’t care about the game the way he did. He felt he still belonged on the court. But the 41-year-old Bird has a cranky back, and he’s accomplished everything any basketball player could ever dream of. He doesn’t want to play anymore, and he doesn’t need to show off.

As a result, Bird is a very effective, very unobtrusive leader. The player who used to be involved in every play has become a coach who is hardly involved in any of them. Player Bird was a maximalist; Coach Bird is a minimalist. His predecessor as Pacers coach, Larry Brown, hectored and nit-picked in practices and games. Bird is quiet, has short meetings, and never chews out his players publicly. He doesn’t criticize them when they make turnovers or commit fouls, and he doesn’t tell them how to play. He treats them as professionals, just as he liked his coaches to treat him.

Bird’s coaching philosophy, which he repeats over and over, is “It’s a player’s game.” He laid down a few commandments: Thou shalt be well conditioned; thou shalt be on time; thou shalt not hot-dog. Then he let his players do their jobs.

Pacers guard Mark Jackson explained Bird’s hands-off style this way to the Denver Post: “You don’t have to tell Chris Mullin how to come off a pick. You don’t have to tell Reggie Miller what to do when he catches the ball in the fourth quarter. You don’t have to teach Rik Smits how to make post moves.”

The laissez-faire philosophy has worked wonders on the Pacers. Last year, they were spooked. This season, they sense Bird’s trust. They play confidently, hustle, and never choke in the fourth quarter. They’re selfless: They have the most balanced scoring of any NBA team. It’s true that the Pacers don’t play beautiful or acrobatic basketball. They play something much rarer in the NBA these days: team basketball. The greatest tribute to Bird is that his players now play as he used to.

With typical canniness, Bird chose to coach a team that would listen to him. The Pacers are veterans. The average age in the starting lineup is 32, and the roster is filled by NBA workhorses such as Mullin, Jackson, and Dale Davis. They have only one star, Miller, and no prima donnas.

Could Bird manage a different group of players? It’s a full-time job just controlling the young hotheads on some NBA squads. Like many NBA old-timers, Bird deplores the MTVification of the league. He doesn’t like its glitz and disapproves of young players’ greed. And he has said he wouldn’t want to coach a team of youngsters.

Bird might not want to coach kids, but he surely could. The Pacer who has made the most improvement under Bird is Jalen Rose. Rose used to be the NBA head case par excellence. When he entered the NBA a few years ago, he was supposed to be the next Magic, a 6-foot-8-inch guard who could do everything. But Rose struggled, pouted mightily, feuded with coaches, and generally demoralized himself and the players around him. Under Bird, he has settled in happily as a Pacers role player. He’s playing a little more, scoring a little more, and cooperating a lot more. Bird gave him respect, and Rose reciprocated.

It would be a fitting reward for Bird if his mature, Calvinist style did catch on around the league. Maybe, just as he helped revive pro basketball as a player in the early ‘80s, he can revive the game as a coach in the late ‘90s, saving it for a generation of kids who never saw Larry Legend play.

If you missed the sidebar on Bird’s clothes, click here. This link lists the ex-Celtics now coaching in the NBA. And you can read about Bird’s punctuality fetish here.