Larry Bird dispelled the idea that it takes elite athleticism to be successful in the NBA early on. The Boston Celtics star became a 10-time All-NBA selection and three-time MVP while winning three championships. He also proved that superstar players can become successful head coaches.
Several years after his playing career ended, Bird became the head coach of the Indiana Pacers. And as you might expect, it didn’t take long for Larry Legend to prove he was the right fit for the job.
Few coaches were better players than Larry Bird
Among the list of NBA head coaches, Bird’s resume from his playing days is better than almost any. Only Magic Johnson, Bill Russell and Isiah Thomas can compare to the great Celtics head coach turned Pacers.
Bird played 12 All-Star Games during his 13-year career. The only exception came in 1988-89, when Larry was only able to play six games all season after having bone spurs removed from both heels. He also won three All-Defense accolades during his illustrious career.
When Bird called the shutdown after the 1991-92 season, he walked away with career averages of 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists. He managed to shoot 37.6% in three, including six seasons of 40% or better. He remains the all-time second in Celtics history for winning shares, behind eleven champion Russell.
Indiana Pacers wanted to hire Larry Bird after reunion
The Pacers enjoyed a successful run throughout the early 1990s, making seven straight playoff trips. But after a 39-43 record in 1996-97, Larry Brown resigned after four seasons on the job. Meanwhile, President and CEO Donnie Walsh was already contacting Bird even before Brown resigned.
Walsh was in love with the idea of Bird, a native of French Lick and former Indiana State, returning home to train. However, there were a few obstacles. First, Bird, 40, had never coached at any level before. And two, other than passing handshakes, Walsh and Bird had never met.
Still, the Celtics’ special assistant was interested enough to talk to Walsh about the opening. And it didn’t take long for the Pacers general manager to decide Larry Legend was the guy for the job (h / t: New York Times).
“We met at the Final Four [in Indianapolis] in March. After an hour and a half he was the only guy I wanted. All he told me is what he did.
He said he would fix them up, and he did. He said he didn’t like delays and would be strict, and he did. He said he would delegate authority to good coaches, and he did. He also told me that he believed in preparing his team and letting them play, and that’s what he did. He knew the team and he knew what he was missing.
Bird and Walsh’s reunion took place at the end of March. On May 9, Bird was officially announced as the Pacers’ next head coach.
Bird’s coaching career has been brief but excellent
From the jump, Larry knew his time on the bench would be short. Bird planned to coach for three seasons before moving to greener pastures. And that’s exactly what he did, but not before leading the Pacers on a productive three-year run.
“Larry established things and stayed with them,” Walsh told the Boston Herald. “He trained at the same time every time. Our team left for the plane [at] the same time each time. … It created a routine, and the players, without even knowing it, started playing like this. He made them understand what they had to do and he made them do it out of habit – and that carried over to the floor in games. They knew what to do.
In his first season, Bird took a declining 39-43 team and turned them into a 58-24 powerhouse who missed a game to beat the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pacers returned to the ECF the following year, but fell in six games against the New York Knicks. Then, in his third and final season as a coach, Larry Legend guided the 56-26 Indiana Pacers to the NBA Finals, which ended in a six-game loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
If Bird decided to remain a coach for more than three years, the Pacers could have won their first NBA championship. But even though it only lasted three years, hiring the great Larry Bird worked out perfectly for Walsh.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.
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