BIRD, A MAN OF HIS WORD, WILL BE MISSED

LATE MONDAY night, while most of America was watching the coronation of the Lakers — or the “Set a Fire If You Love L.A.” party — I was more interested in a tall, gangly figure quietly leaving the arena.

Bye, bye, Bird.

Larry Bird departed the game he loves just as he said he would. Few words were wasted. His Pacers may have lost the series, but he won my eternal admiration with this one simple statement:

NBC: “Will you come back?”

BIRD: “No. Three years is enough. I’m not cut out to be a coach.”

Wow! How often do you hear that? A guy saying, “I’m not cut out to be a coach”
— after he just coached a team in the NBA Finals? After he nearly pushed a huge favorite to a seventh and deciding game?

Bird wasn’t quitting over sour grapes. This wasn’t some spur-of-the-moment outburst forged in the heartbreak of defeat.

No. Bird took the job in 1997 and told his bosses he would coach for three years. He did his time. He said good-bye.

Never mind that he was this close to the brass ring. Never mind that if he came back, many of his players would, too, and the likelihood of them returning to the Finals next year would be good.

Never mind. He gave a timetable. He stuck by it. He’s moving on.

Bye, bye, Bird.

Bird could spot talent

Now, remember: Bird didn’t slide down the chute and land in Shaquille O’Neal’s and Kobe Bryant’s lap — the way Phil Jackson did. The talent Bird inherited three years ago was good but not overwhelming. He had one superstar, Reggie Miller, with a reputation for shooting out the lights — except when it mattered most. The rest of his roster was workmanlike — guys like Dale Davis, Antonio Davis, Rik Smits, Mark Jackson, Derrick McKey.

They were men used to playing hard — and exiting in the third round. They appeared to lack “championship” breeding.

Then along came Bird.

Bird, with all those titles as a player, clearly knew how to get the most out of his roster. He pushed the Pacers to three conference finals, one conference title, one NBA Finals, and earned a Coach of the Year award in his first season.

His work with Jalen Rose was a thing of beauty. Here was Rose, who had sunk to the bench in Denver, who couldn’t find middle ground with Indy’s Larry Brown, who had a reputation of not working hard in practice and wanting to do things his way — and yet Bird, once the ultimate team player, saw through all that and handed him the reins.

You know what you call that? Recognizing talent. I doubt Jalen and Bird have a lot to talk about. But in their hearts they speak the same language: basketball.

Which is how Bird coached — the game first, all the noise and money and puffery second. Watching him in these Finals, you saw something that is almost extinct in the NBA: a coach benching star players when they weren’t in the groove.

Bird did it to Miller. He did it to Rose. He did it to Smits. In doing so, you could see Bird the player, peering out through the eyes of Bird the coach; after all, players know to get the ball to the guy with the hot hand. They don’t worry about who’s got the biggest contract.

Yes, it’s true, in the end, there was no way on earth to stop O’Neal. If there were, I believe Bird would have thought it up. Instead, the Pacers lost, and Bird’s best and only chance to win a ring as a coach disappeared.

He didn’t breathe a word of regret. Just shrugged, thanked his players, thanked his assistants.

“It’s been a great experience,” he said.

Bye, bye, Bird.

On court or bench, he did his best

Now, you know and I know, very few coaches can walk away from the game. Even the best of them get lured back. Jackson left the Bulls, wandered around in the mountains, and answered the Lakers’ call. Chuck Daly left his championship Pistons, but came back with New Jersey and then Orlando.

Bill Parcells? Jimmy Johnson? They are, as Daly once said of himself,
“lifers,” addicted to the action of their sports.

Bird is not addicted to anything, it seems, except following his own mind. And that’s worth celebrating. He leaves the game now saying he has “nothing really to do.” He just knows what he wants and what he doesn’t.

I remember a story when Bird was in his prime as a player. His agent called his house over the summer. He was told that Bird was playing basketball on an outdoor court with his buddies and wanted to know if this was important. The agent said yes.

So Bird came in and picked up the phone. The agent, all excited, told Bird about a huge endorsement deal he had just procured. And Bird responded this way:

“Aw, I thought you said this was important.”

Here’s to a guy who makes up his mind, sticks with it, and walks away from the spotlight, confident that he did his best. Bye, bye, Bird. We knew, years ago, when you left the court, that we would not see many like you.

Who knew you would break a mold on the bench as well?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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