There has been a lot of conversation—mostly, locally—about the Indiana Pacers’ Frank Vogel being a worthy choice as the NBA’s coach of the year.
However, despite the Pacers’, as of this writing, being 18 games over .500 and owning the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, it’s likely the honor will go in another direction.
Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks and San Antonio’s venerable Gregg Popovich are among those deemed more worthy candidates.
So be it, I suppose, though homer that I am, if I had a vote it would go to Vogel. Really, has there been a more surprisingly successful team during this chaotic, shortened season? He’s done a masterful job of managing his men and their minutes, and every time it looked as if they’ve hit the wall, they’ve come back stronger. Now they are in the stretch run to the playoffs as the league’s hottest team.
Yet Vogel is not a glamour guy and this is not a glamour market. The Pacers have attracted little attention and, thus, Vogel’s work will not receive the examination it deserves.
As for player honors, well, it’s an accepted fact that the Pacers are a team devoid of flashy, attention-grabbing (and, unfortunately, seat-filling) superstars. So don’t look for a Pacer to be among those chosen to the all-league teams, or mentioned as sixth man of the year.
That’s to their credit, however. The Pacers have truly shown to be the sum of their parts.
Which brings us to Larry Bird.
The Pacers’ president of basketball operations, Larry Legend could have been dubbed Larry Lumps from the pounding he’s taken the last five years as he set about remaking a roster short on character and long in bad contracts.
As the losses piled up, Bird’s critics piled on via angry letters to the editor and talk-radio vitriol. Bird was anything but a favorite son. I’m guessing he had more haters as the Pacers’ president than he did when he was a Boston Celtic routinely kicking the Pacers’ behinds. His legacy as the only coach to get the Pacers to the NBA Finals was largely disregarded.
Through it all, with the help of General Manager David Morway and the unwavering support of owner Herb Simon, Bird stayed the course.
He stuck with Danny Granger when many were demanding (and some still do) that Granger be traded. He drafted Roy Hibbert, Paul George and Tyler Hansbrough, none of whom came with a universal seal of approval. He dealt for Darren Collison.
And then came this year. Oh, my.
Bird landed free agent David West, who has brought leadership to the locker room and toughness to the playing floor. He traded for Indianapolis’ own George Hill, who has inspired both as backup and, recently, as fill-in starter for Collison. He brought in a lumberjack, Lou Amundson. And for off-the-bench scoring punch, Bird acquired Leandro Barbosa just before the trading deadline.
West. Hill. Amundson. Barbosa. Each a contributor in ways large and small. That’s four-for-four, folks.
And so, if there is any justice, there will be at least one member of the Pacers organization to be recognized this spring. Bird should easily be acclaimed as the NBA’s executive of the year. That’s a no-brainer and would be an apt stuff-it to the knuckleheads who thought Bird had no brain when it came to front-office wheeling and dealing.
The irony would be, of course, that Bird’s mentor, Donnie Walsh, never was named executive of the year even though he was deserving on several occasions.
All the way back to his days at Springs Valley High School, Bird has been underestimated only to ultimately overachieve. To be recognized as executive of the year would complete the cycle that includes NBA coach of the year, NBA most valuable player and college player of the year.
Bird, of course, has never been into individual honors. He has one motivation: winning. The rebuilding process has been slow and painful. Now the team that he has put together has positioned itself to take the next step in the process.
Bird is wavering on whether to pack it in and retire to his spacious spread in Brown County. Let’s hope he sticks it out for at least another year, to see the results of his efforts come to full fruition, to make this a town where Bankers Life Fieldhouse is again the place to be.
He’s proven once again that the legend didn’t end when his playing days did.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.