INDIANAPOLIS - Larry Bird is known as one of the NBA's all-time fiercest competitors. So it was no surprise that when asked recently about his struggling Indiana Pacers, he succinctly responded, "Most people in my situation would say, 'Why would I need this?' It's a challenge for me and I want to make the best of it."
Bird won three NBA titles and three MVP awards with the Celtics, and his No. 33 hangs in the rafters at TD Banknorth Garden. "Larry Legend" also owns an Olympic gold medal, is considered one of the top players in NBA history, played in the NCAA championship game, and was the consensus college player of the year in 1979. But although his basketball résumé is loaded with accomplishments, as president of basketball operations of the Pacers he wants to build them back into a title contender.
"With all the things that went on here, one of the low points of my professional career was seeing this franchise take the hits it has in the press and the players do the things that they've done," said Bird. "Turning this around will be one of my biggest accomplishments and biggest challenges I will face."
Bird coached the Pacers to the NBA Finals in 2000 and joined the front office five years ago. And with a talented squad that included Reggie Miller, Jermaine O'Neal, and Ron Artest, the Pacers were expected to make a run at the championship in 2004-05.
But on Nov. 19, 2004, the Pacers' championship dreams were dealt a blow and their franchise endured a black eye that still hasn't gone away. Artest, O'Neal, Stephen Jackson, Anthony Johnson, and David Harrison fought with fans during a game against the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills. With Artest suspended for the rest of the season, Jackson for 30 games, and O'Neal for 25 (reduced to 15 on appeal), the Pacers went from contending to an early playoff exit. Since then, they have had numerous off-court issues, no playoff appearances the last three seasons, and averaged an NBA-worst 12,222 in attendance last season.
Forward-center Jeff Foster, who has been with the franchise since 1999, described the fight at the Palace as "a tough situation and obviously led to a downward spiral."
"[Our arena] was packed and everyone around town loved us. Over the last two or three years, things have been really bad. A lot of things have happened off the court that have turned the fans of this city against us. They haven't wanted to come to the games and support us."
Said Bird, "We're past that as a franchise. It's unfortunate it happened. Most of the guys that were involved in that are gone. We're just turning a new page and starting a new team, and hopefully, we can be competitive."
The Pacers have slowly turned that page by trading Artest (2006), Jackson (2007), and O'Neal (2008). Regarding players with off-court problems, Harrison (who received a five-game suspension while with the Pacers for violating the league's anti-drug policy) and guard Shawne Williams (arrest on a marijuana charge) are gone, and guard Jamaal Tinsley is on the trading block and not practicing with the team. Ex-Celtics coach Jim O'Brien was hired May 31, 2007, to replace the fired Rick Carlisle. The Pacers have forward Danny Granger to build around and during the offseason added guards T.J. Ford and Jarrett Jack, plus heralded rookies Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert.
"It's very frustrating," said Bird. "Some of the individuals we had were very talented. We knew we had a strong team. But sometimes you have to give up talent to get the right kind of people."
Said Foster, "Unfortunately for our team, a lot of those changes had to be made because the fans wanted to relate to those people and didn't want them around."
Another change was that Bird became the primary decision-maker when president and CEO Donnie Walsh departed in April to become the Knicks' president of basketball operations.
Walsh hired Bird to eventually become his replacement. With Walsh and Bird both on the job the last five years, Bird acknowledged teams and agents were sometimes confused about whom to talk to. The two also didn't always see eye to eye on what to do with the team. But with Walsh's departure, the Pacers are now completely Bird's challenge.
"[Donnie] was the man in charge," Bird said. "Now I have my opportunity, so let's see what I can do. Donnie had his opportunity for a lot of years. And not only was he was a great basketball man, but a great man, period. I admired him. I learned a lot from him. But we just had different styles. Now I get my opportunity to do what I want to do with the team.
"It ain't going to happen overnight. We have a plan. We have to stick to it. In two or three years, we'll have a team that is going to compete at the highest level."
In the hopes of winning fans back, Bird invited about 800 season ticket-holders to his home in the offseason. The Pacers also held their first draft-night party this year, have placed advertisements in local publications and Sports Illustrated, and rented billboard space in Indianapolis. The Pacers also didn't raise season-ticket prices and offer about 8,600 single-game tickets for $25 or less, by far the most of the teams in the Central Division.
Bird, however, knows it's going to take more than changing the roster, shaking hands, and keeping tickets prices low to get the fans back. It's going to take wins, and the Pacers aren't expected to be a playoff team this season.
"We have to win games. We know that," said Bird. "Our community has really disengaged with us. We understood our problem. We're fixing it. We're putting a team out there that plays the game the way they'd like to see it played.
"It's going to take some time. They're not going to come back overnight. But hopefully over a period of time, they'll start getting confidence in this franchise and start supporting us again."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com