Larry Bird didn’t have the polish of many corporate CEOs. He wasn’t an eloquent, inspiring speaker, and he had a way of punctuating his sentences with grammatical miscues.
So, as great as Bird was as a player for the Boston Celtics, it was easy to underestimate him in the front office, as president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers.
His departure, announced June 27, triggered a litany of retrospectives about one of the most remarkable careers in NBA history. His resume has it all—NBA championships as a player, as well as coach-of-the-year and executive-of-the-year honors with the Pacers.
But what’s perhaps most remarkable about Bird’s post-Celtics career was his patience and long-term view. For a guy with a legendary competitive streak, he was remarkably willing to sacrifice losses in the short term as part of his larger strategy of rebuilding the franchise.
That strategy began paying dividends in the past season, as a nucleus of young, disciplined Pacers nearly took the eventual champions, the Miami Heat, to the brink in the second round of the playoffs. There’s reason to think the squad will be even better next year.
To be sure, the path to the team’s new prosperity has been anything but smooth. Bird stayed out of the bidding for pricey older players who could have helped the team quickly. The result was some painful seasons with forgettable players and a lethargic fan base.
Public company executives often say the routine of quarterly earnings reports is unrelenting. Many feel driven to make decisions that pump up those numbers at the expense of long-term prosperity.
For NBA executives, the moment of truth comes even more frequently—at least 82 times during a typical season. And after watching their teams get pummeled a few times, it’s tempting to change course and try plans B, C or D.
But there is nothing typical about Bird, who has seemed guided more by a quiet confidence than by the team’s win-loss record at any given time. If he were like everyone else, he wouldn’t be quitting when the Pacers appear on the cusp of great things. Nor would he have given up the job of Pacers coach in 2000 after guiding the team all the way to the NBA Finals.
In the wake of Bird’s departure from the front office, Donnie Walsh is returning to the franchise as president, and Kevin Pritchard is becoming general manager. Both men are cut from more conventional NBA cloth—hard-chargers who’ll want immediate success on the court. Thanks largely to the groundwork laid by Bird, they’ll probably get it.•
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