By Peter May
Special to ESPN.com
All Rick Carlisle wanted was maybe 10 minutes of Larry Bird's time. The Indiana Pacers were starting a new season with a new coach in Carlisle and a new basketball honcho in Bird.
When the team convened for training camp, Bird agreed to Carlisle's request to address the team. Bird, a man of few words, needed four minutes to get home two basic themes:
The Pacers will not be an "excuse" team.
Everyone is accountable.
That was it.
But by establishing those basic ground rules, Bird effectively told the team that he was not going to tolerate the kinds of things that happened last season. He wanted no talk of how young the Pacers were, a frequent Isiah Thomas homily topic. He wanted no talk of injuries, or personal problems, or chemistry issues, or Ron Artest's multiple explosions.
Nope, these Pacers were going to be crafted in Bird's own image of determination and no b.s. He himself sent that clarion call to one and all in the organization with the firing of Thomas, the hiring of Carlisle and the brief chat to the team.
"I told them we have a lot of talent in this room and if we can stay together and stop all the nonsense and get better as the season goes along, we can win a lot of games," Bird said. "I thought they'd win 55. They won 61. I think it's incredible."
Geez, whatever did he mean by "nonsense?" Take your pick.
Would it be Artest's weekly williwaws? Jermaine O'Neal's whining about the firing of Thomas? Jamaal Tinsley's family problems? Rotations run rampant? Bird is your basic, cut-to-the-chase kind of guy; he once left two Pacers players standing on the tarmac and ordered the team plane to leave because the players were a few minutes late.
To Bird, being a few minutes late is "nonsense." So too was all the aforementioned stuff, which resulted in the Pacers getting upset in the first round of the playoffs by an inferior Celtics team. As he put it, "a lot of things went on here the past few years that I didn't agree with. I told them, 'It's time to start playing basketball. You get paid to play. You get paid to put on a show for your fans. It's all about winning in this league.'
"I don't know these players that well. I haven't been around them that much. They're held accountable for being on time, playing the game the way it should be played, playing together," he said.
He would not single out Artest, who last year was the Poster Child for a Player on the Verge.
"It's everybody," Bird said. "A lot of our players are very young, and they're going to do things we don't agree with. But, overall, I think our coaching staff and our leaders have come to grips with the fact that we're going to have problems and we've got to eliminate them as soon as they happen. Ronnie's maturity (has) been great, on and off the court."
Indeed it has. Artest's conversion from Dennis Rodman to Cary Grant this season was one reason why a lot of people thought his one-game suspension for leaving the Indy bench in the Boston series was over the top. Last year's Artest would have entered the fray and then God knows what would have happened. This year's Artest turned around when he realized the error of his ways, but league generalissimo Stu Jackson still whacked him anyway.
Oh, and did we mention that Artest has turned into one of the league's most versatile threats in the process, copping third-team All-NBA honors as well as winning Defensive Player of the Year?
O'Neal was spitting bullets all over San Juan last summer when he heard the news about the firing of Thomas. He accused Bird of lying to him and said he'd have never re-signed with Indiana had he known Thomas was not coming back. Bird's response to that: Live with it, kid. This is how it's going to be.
All O'Neal did was deliver an MVP-type season while at the same time wondering how anyone could doubt the Pacers' chances in the playoffs. Said Bird, "Jermaine has matured a lot. At the start of the season, we didn't know which way he would go because he was disappointed in the changing of the coaches. Right now, everything is good. We'll see what happens."
But the single best move that Bird made was bringing in Carlisle, the man he wanted to succeed him three years earlier. Management didn't want Carlisle at that point, so Carlisle eventually went to Detroit and took a mediocre team to two divisional titles. He then was fired for being prickly.
Carlisle can be prickly. So can Bird. But Carlisle also is the consummate, no-nonsense coach. He doesn't care about the clothes, or the car, or the TV gigs. He sat out one year waiting for a job and was prepared to sit out another (on the Pistons' dime) when Bird came calling. The two had been teammates in Boston and Carlisle had worked under Bird for three years as an assistant in Indiana. Bird said he would have fired Thomas even if Carlisle had not been available. But having Carlisle out there made it a lot easier and smoother.
Asked about his coach, Bird said, "It's a no-nonsense approach." There's that phrase again. "It's about playing basketball together and winning."
"I know Rick. He's very organized," Bird went on. "He's very detailed at the offensive end. Rick likes to stick to the game plan. You know when he's going to call timeout. You know basically everything he's going to do. He's got to prepare this team to play and play at a high level. When I hired him, I told him the only thing I cared about was wins and he's done a good job so far."
Bird and Carlisle both have won Coach of the Year honors. Bird was asked if Carlisle reminded him of himself?
"No, he's better than I am," Bird said. "He knows what he's doing."
So, too, does the boss. Maybe Indiana would have gotten its act together had Bird remained in Florida hitting 60-degree wedges in 90-degree heat. Maybe the Pacers would still have had the best record in basketball had Thomas remained and had Carlisle gone elsewhere. Maybe Artest would have morphed into a Gentleman Forward and O'Neal into an MVP candidate.
We'll never know. What we do know is out there for everyone to see. Larry Bird, mainly by being Larry Bird, has changed the face, direction and focus of the Indiana Pacers.
He knows exactly what he's doing.