Bird, Thomas good, but not for each other

Sunday, August 31, 2003

Anyone old enough to remember their bitter NBA battles knew the moment Larry Bird was hired to run the Pacers that Isiah Thomas would be fired as coach.

Back then they weren't the worst of enemies, but there was no future in pretending they'd ever be friends. The gap between them was huge to begin with and time has only widened it.

They were different sizes, played different positions, learned the game in vastly different places and were -- as Thomas once pointed out -- different colors.

That was in May 1987, right after Bird scored 34 points against Detroit to decide Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in Boston's favor. A then-young Pistons forward named Dennis Rodman groused that the media made a fuss (imagine that) over Bird just because he was white. Then Thomas, the leader of the "Bad Boys," seconded the notion.

"If he were black," Thomas said, "he'd be just another good guy."

Only Bird knows if that's the main reason Thomas just became another out-of-work coach.

It didn't help, of course, but the guess here is otherwise.

The only thing about basketball those two will ever agree on is that the ball is round. The interesting thing down the road will be finding out whose vision more clearly reflects where the NBA is headed. Plenty is at stake.

Bird's new role

Bird's latest title is president of operations, but his philosophy has never changed. He was "old school" as a player, and he didn't bother mastering any new tricks when he took over as Pacers coach in 1997 for a three-year run.

The big questions were how one of the best players ever would deal with others' shortcomings, and especially how someone who dominated the '80s with a work ethic straight out of the '50s would deal with the knuckleheads of the '90s.

More than two dozen Hall of Fame players had preceded Bird into the coaching ranks and exactly one, Lenny Wilkens, adapted well enough to the generations that followed to make it back to the Hall as a coach. Yet Bird made it clear right away who would adapt to whom.

The Pacers reached the NBA Finals once in his tenure and the brink another time. When he left Indianapolis in 2000, more interested in owning a team than coaching one, Bird gave instructions to Donnie Walsh, his predecessor as president, to promote assistant Rick Carlisle to head coach.

Three years later, after Walsh turned to Thomas instead, Bird plans to reshuffle the deck.

He called Carlisle his first choice and explaindd why.

"I think a new coach coming in, it'll bring some freshness and a new style and hopefully he can play the game the way I like it to be played," Bird said.

Thomas' handling of the team was almost exactly the opposite, but he also had completely different material to work with.

He took a young team into the playoffs each of his three years, though it never advanced past the first round. What probably worried Bird most was the possibility that the Pacers would be even better this upcoming season and the pressure to keep Thomas around for a long time would only grow.

A profitable departure

Thomas did get to keep the $5 million left on his contract, which may explain why he was nothing but complimentary about Bird this time.

"I was always a fan of his when he played. I competed against him when I was playing, and I was absolutely looking forward to working with him," Thomas said.

Had they stayed together, who knows what the partnership would have produced. Few of the current Pacers will be impressed by Bird's reputation and even fewer by his insistence that they toe the line.

Jermaine O'Neal accused the Pacers of deceiving him about Thomas so he would re-sign with the club.

"If your boss told you somebody was going to be there -- your ace was going to be there -- and once you come back, not even a month, two months later he's not there, that hurts," O'Neal said. "That hurts a lot."

And he might not be the only one in line for some pain.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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