SPORTS: Here's Bird's take on the Pacers' fall from grace

March 5, 2007

Timing is everything, which meant I was in the caboose of the media train that rolled through Larry Bird's office recently. So by the time I sat down with the Indiana Pacers' president of basketball operations, Bird had pretty much heard, and answered, every question with regard to the frustrating state of our NBA franchise.

There's no pretty picture to be painted: The off-court incidents, first at the infamous Club Rio during training camp, then at the Eight Seconds Saloon; then indictments handed down and trials and hearings scheduled for (since-traded) Stephen Jackson and current players Jamaal Tinsley and Marquis Daniels.

On the court, things are not much better. It's difficult to tell who's played the worst defense: the Indianapolis Colts of December or the Indiana Pacers of February. In any case, a promising February schedule was all but flushed down the drain. In the meantime, the predominant color in the Fieldhouse has been the green of all those empty seats.

Oh, and by comparison, the Colts won the Super Bowl. Even Dominic Rhodes' DUI arrest barely moved the public disfavor needle away from the Pacers.

So, with this backdrop, the Pacers went pro-active, making both Pacers' CEO Donnie Walsh and Larry Legend available to the media. To their credit, both dined on humble pie, offered up mea culpas, made no excuses, and vowed to do better on behalf of their fans and the city.

Here are excerpts from my conversation with Bird.

On the series of incidents beginning with the brawl in Detroit:

"The [bleep] that's gone on here the last three years? You've got to be kidding me. If I was a paying customer, and I was putting up $20,000 a year for tickets, I'd be disappointed, too."

On whether he has demanded good behavior from players:

"Hell, yes, we talk to our players. We say, 'Hey, we can't have this.' This is an organization that's been looked at as a model in the NBA. Donnie's done a hell of a job here for 20 years. Yeah, we talk to them, but players do their own thing. But that's not Indiana and that's not what we want."

On people doubting whether he's up to the task of leading the franchise:

"I understand that, and if you look at the last three years, I would doubt anybody in this position. But I know what I'm capable of doing. I know talent. I know the type of team I want out there, and I just want an opportunity to do that. If I can't do it, I'll be the first one to say it."

On whether he's displayed enough public disapproval of what's gone on:

"I've been upset more these last three years than I ever have in basketball. I know people look at me and expect me not to put up with any of that. Well, I don't. I didn't when I played and I didn't when I coached.

"But I'm in a different position now. I would love to be able to say, 'Let's send this guy off.' But I've got owners, a boss and a lot of people involved in these decisions. Maybe I could have done things different, I don't know.

"I know that in this latest incident, if these guys tell us that they didn't do anything and then they go to a court of law and they're found guilty, we have to do something. But you've got to let it go through the courts and let it play out first.

"It's wild. It's not what I signed up for. But it's part of that job."

On what can be done to right the ship:

"First, you've got to clean up the messes. Second, you've got to get the kind of people in here that you know-night in, night out, even if they win only 40 games a year-the fans know they're going to get a maximum effort out of everybody. They don't want to see anybody crying and whining in the papers. They want to see them play at a high level, and I agree with that.

"I've been on teams I knew weren't going to win a championship. That didn't matter. You still play like you're a champion."

On being knocked off his pedestal, in Indiana of all places:

"I never was on a pedestal.

"When I was in Boston, they'd build you up one day and take you down the next. I'm too tough for that. I've been around. People can take their shots, but when all is said and done, we'll have a happy ending. Believe me."

We want to, Larry. We want to.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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