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Bird may look to slow pace

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 27, 2011

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There was a phrase Red Auerbach used to swear by that Larry Bird wound up adopting. A year, Auerbach would say, isn’t a very long time.

In 1997, with Bird five years into retirement and itching to get back into the game, he and Pacers president Donnie Walsh had a conversation.

“On Day 1, he told me exactly what he would do if he coached our team,’’ Walsh said. “He knew our whole roster. He did this specifically in detail. He took it from the first day in training camp to the Finals and told every single thing he would do.’’

Walsh hired Bird, and the Pacers won 58 games that season and took Michael Jordan’s Bulls to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals.

“When I look back on it after Larry finished the three years as head coach, that’s exactly what he told me the first day he would do,’’ Walsh said. “That sums up exactly the kind of guy he is. He tells you what he wanted to do, then he went out and did exactly what he told you he was going to do. I wish all people were like that.’’

To this day, Bird, now the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, uses the same expression.

“I tell my owner that all the time when he talks about players or how they’re developing,’’ Bird said. “I’ll say, ‘It might take him a year, but a year’s not very long in this business.’

“Once you start playing the games, the season’s over before you know it. Then people start realizing that a year’s not very long.’’

Now, though, Bird is the one on the clock. He’s been the Pacers’ top executive for eight seasons, but said that after next season he’s considering stepping away. He took the Pacers to the Finals as coach in 2000. But he’s spent the last six seasons trying to rebuild a franchise stained by the brawl with the Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

With Indiana coming off its first playoff appearance since 2006, the franchise is at a turning point. Bird and Pacers owner Herb Simon agreed that Bird would continue to guide the franchise on a year-to-year basis.

“It’s a handshake deal,’’ said Bird, who will be honored tomorrow at TD Garden as part of the Sports Museum’s The Tradition. “I don’t want a [long-term] contract.’’

But they both know a year isn’t a very long time.

“It’s at a point now in my life where I think it might be time to really reconsider and see how long I want to do this,’’ said Bird, now 54. “They asked me to stay another year through the lockout season, the owner did, for a favor. I was leaving, but he asked me to stay, and I will and I’ll get the job done.

“I just think the franchise is in a good position right now, and I want to leave it in a good position for the next guy to do some good things. Sometimes you just look at it and say, ‘Hey, I’ve done enough. I’ve got it in the position I want to get it in,’ and you move on. I’ve got another year here and I’m going to try to do the best I can to get this team back to winning.’’

Favorable choice Nothing ever made more sense to Bird than playing.

“Playing the game I loved and playing on championship teams and playing in a city that adored their players, that was the ultimate,’’ he said.

Coaching was never a consideration until 1997.

“I had no interest in it,’’ said Bird. “I sort of did it as a favor for Donnie Walsh and it turned out pretty good.’’

But the thought of a front-office job intrigued Bird, mostly because of the challenge. After coaching the Pacers for three seasons, Bird took three years off to address a heart condition and otherwise decompress. He also made ownership bids for the Celtics and Bobcats that fell short. Then, Walsh called again.

“Donnie asked me to come back, and I was thinking at the time, ‘Boy, I’ve come full circle. I’ve been in every situation you could be in in the NBA,’ ’’ Bird said. “I thought it was a great experience, a learning experience. It’s something I should do just to learn the ins and outs of the league.’’

The Pacers named Bird president of basketball operations in June 2003, working alongside Walsh, who for more than two decades had personified the Pacers’ front office. The next season, with Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, and Al Harrington as the team’s young core and Reggie Miller its veteran leader, the Pacers won 61 games and went to the Eastern Conference finals. The Pistons prevailed in six games, but the biggest blow the Pistons dealt them didn’t come until a year later.

The brawl at the Palace in November 2004 led to nine players being suspended or facing legal repercussions. Six of them (Artest, O’Neal, Miller, Stephen Jackson, Anthony Johnson, and David Harrison) were Pacers. Five of them — all Pacers — were charged with assault and battery and sentenced to probation. By almost every projection, the Pacers were supposed to compete for a title that season. Instead, they won 44 games. The incident blew a hole in the season and in the blueprint Walsh and Bird had crafted. More off-court episodes tarnished the team’s image locally. The franchise was backed into a corner.

“We had to move forward and break the team up,’’ Walsh said. “You don’t want to do it, but we had to do it. That set Larry back, because those guys were talented.

“You go through those periods where your team is up there, then it comes down, but in that case we had a very good team and then all of a sudden, these things happen, and we had to break it apart and rebuild it. It wasn’t foreseen. It was all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ ’’

Artest was traded to Sacramento in January 2006. Jackson and Harrington were shipped to Golden State the next year. O’Neal was dealt to Toronto in July 2008. After losing to the Nets in the first round in 2006, the Pacers missed the playoffs four straight seasons, never winning more than 36 games.

“Larry thinks if you don’t win a championship, you fail,’’ Walsh said. “So if you’re not making the playoffs, I’m sure that was very, very hard for him. That’s hard for everybody that takes a GM job. Even when you take it and you’re not expected to make the playoffs, once the season begins you don’t want to be losing games and going through that period where you almost know you’re going to be losing games.

“It takes a toll on you. You know it’s up to you. You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to get the team back up again. And in that sense, there’s pressure. Larry, his whole life in basketball there’s been pressure on him, and he’s got a unique ability to put that out there. He doesn’t allow it to affect how he feels, at least as far as I know. I wish I was as good [at that].’’

It’s in his blood Bird has spent time away from the game, but never for long. He doesn’t expect the next time he steps away to be another hiatus.

“It’s tough after a while to not be involved, but I’m a little bit older now,’’ he said. “I’ve been in this league for 31 years, so it’ll be tough, but we’ll see what happens.’’

It takes a certain type of player to want to get into coaching, and a certain type to want to go into the front office. It’s rare to do both.

“There are others who have done it,’’ Walsh said. “Pat Riley has done it, Jerry West has done it, and Larry Bird has done it. But that’s the kind of company he’s in. I think he deserves to be in that company, which is why I think he should keep going, because I think he’ll have great teams there if he stays there.’’

Walsh, who when his contract expires at the end of the month is leaving as president of the Knicks, wants Bird to see it through. The Pacers have a new core of young talent, last week picking up the team options on point guard Darren Collison and their last two first-round picks, Tyler Hansbrough and Paul George.

On draft night last week, Bird acquired Spurs guard George Hill, saying, “We’re a better team tonight than we were yesterday.’’

This past season, the Pacers made their first playoff appearance since 2006. They were eliminated in five games in the first round by the top-seeded Bulls, but all but one of those games was decided by single digits.

Making the playoffs, Walsh said, “I think it meant everything to him.’’

Walsh is in Bird’s ear, reminding him this is the turning point.

“As a guy who works in the game, I want to see him stay because I know how hard it was to go through the periods he went through, and he did it with grace and he did it with dignity,’’ Walsh said. “Now all of a sudden he’s on the verge of having a very good situation and I’d like to see him get some enjoyment out of that before he goes.

“I hope he rethinks all that. I told him I hope he stays in Indiana, because he’s come through the tough things and now it’s perched to have good things and I hope he’s around to enjoy them because he deserves it.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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