Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Pacers and NBA

BENNER: The basketball legend leaves us, as always, wanting more

June 30, 2012

As a young scribe for the local daily, I first encountered Bird in 1974 when he was a member of the Indiana All-Stars for the annual high school basketball doubleheader with Kentucky.

All-Star coach Kirby Overman barely played the pride of Springs Valley High School in a blowout win over Kentucky in Hinkle Fieldhouse. Bird, ever prideful even then, departed with tears of disappointment but vowed to eventually prove his worth.

Well, did he ever. Larry Benchwarmer evolved into Larry Legend. With his foil-turned-eventual-fast-friend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the two gave college basketball a shot of vitamin B-12, saved the National Basketball Association from itself, and captured both repeated championships and Most Valuable Player recognition.

But then Bird did something Johnson didn’t. He returned to the game with the Pacers and became the only person ever to pull off the NBA trifecta of being an MVP, coach of the year and executive of the year.

And now, just as he did when his aching back cut his playing career short, just as he did when he left coaching in 2000, Bird is abruptly walking away—this time, presumably, into prolonged retirement.

What’s the old Hollywood line? Always leave the audience wanting more.

Bird, in fact, does leave us wanting more. Ironically, in his absence, we might get it. Because of his steadfast leadership, the Pacers are on the ascent, rising from the ashes of The Brawl and a roster replete with immature knuckleheads.

During the long and painful rebuilding process, many of the home-state fans turned on Bird, said he wasn’t up to the task.

All Bird would say was, have patience. Once again, he’s stuck it to his doubters. But he won’t be able to see the plan to fruition. Health reasons—that bad back that ended his playing career has not gone away—is the reason being given. I hope that’s all it is.

In any case, those of us who have been along for the ride from French Lick to the executive suite at Bankers Life Fieldhouse should revere the privilege of witnessing one of the most extraordinary careers in the history of the game.

The only regret is that the Boston Celtics’ Red Auerbach pulled one of the greatest draft coups ever and got Bird, in 1978 and then a junior at Indiana State, as a “future” pick for the next year under the rules of the time. The Pacers and then-Coach/General Manager Bobby “Slick“ Leonard, desperate for immediate help, had selected the University of Kentucky’s Rick Robey. Plus, the cash-poor franchise didn’t have the cash to pay Bird.

Of course, Bird and Leonard—now the Pacers’ longtime radio analyst—are kindred spirits and the closest of friends. But Bird never has let Slick forget that the Pacers had a chance to keep him in Indiana.

Whatever his reasons for stepping down, I will miss Bird as the voice (with that distinctive southern Indiana twang) of the franchise, but also as one of our Mount Rushmore faces of Indiana basketball.

On this, the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Olympic basketball Dream Team, I recall that, even on that star-laden roster that included Michael Jordan, there were two who most captured the imagination of the crowds: Bird and Magic. Indeed, this would prove to be the last time we would see Larry in action. His back was aching, his minutes were limited, and—shortly after the Games—he announced his retirement as a player.

But I remember being in a crowded Barcelona subway en route from the downtown Olympic stadium wearing an “Indiana” T-shirt and sitting next to a Spanish man.

The man looked at my T-shirt and said, “Indiana?”

I nodded. “Yes, Indiana, in the USA.”

And he said, smiling, “Ah … Larry Bird.”

Yes, I replied. Larry Bird.

Nothing more needed to be said.

Player. Coach. Executive. Larry Bird has left no doubt.•

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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 bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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