Why would Indiana Pacers President Larry Bird even think about leaving now?
That's a question only Bird can answer, and right now, Bird doesn't have any answers.
"Honestly, it's not even a debate around my house," he said the other day. "I'll sit down with Herbie (team owner Herb Simon) when it's all done and we'll move from there. Herbie will ask me about it every once in a while, but I don't want to be a distraction. Right now, it's the furthest thing from my mind."
It doesn't make sense for Bird to leave now, but, then, it didn't make sense for Bird, as the coach, to walk away after he led the Pacers to the NBA Finals in the 2000 season.
Now, here he is, having put together an exciting, growing young team, on the cusp of maybe winning the Executive of the Year award, and there are whispers he may walk away at season's end.
I asked him the pros and cons of staying and leaving.
"Like I've told Herbie, this is a great job; there are only 30 of them and I've learned a lot," Bird said. "We had a plan, I told Herbie it would be rough sailing and I didn't think we'd win 35 games for a couple of years and we'd make the playoffs last year. Not that I don't like the job. I really like it. But it's a lot of hours. A lot of hours. And I'm not real good at sitting in this chair because of my back. At the same time, I've got access to the trainers, so that's good."
That should clear up everything, right?
One minute, Bird talks about what he has built, how he can continue to build, how this team has overachieved this season. The next minute, same conversation, he talks about how the next general manager will be in prime position to take the Pacers to the next level of competition.
Here's my plea:
Larry, please stay.
There have been some mistakes along the way but, by and large, Bird has done a masterful, if understated job moving the Brawling Pacers into this new era.
First he got rid of all the problem players.
Then he got rid of the nice guys who couldn't play.
Look at this current team and look at how it was assembled:
He got Roy Hibbert out of the draft, trading away Jermaine O'Neal's onerous contract in the process.
He drafted Danny Granger, Paul George and Tyler Hansbrough.
He signed David West to a salary cap-friendly two-year free agent contract.
He got Darren Collison for a song.
He got Lou Amundson, George Hill and Leandro Barbosa this season for next to nothing.
And there's money available for further additions. The Pacers have the 21st-highest payroll out of 30 teams and don't have a single player whose salary ranks among the league's 35 highest.
"Well, all I can say is, I held up my end of the bargain," he said of guiding the team from The Brawl of Nov. 19, 2004, to third position in the Eastern Conference. "I know it was tough back then, one of the worst patches in the history of the NBA. Believe me, I was as pissed as the fans were. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, and that was a championship-level team. It took a long time. But now we're headed in the right direction."
So why leave now?
It's like building a house from the foundation up, getting it done and then deciding to go live in somebody else's basement. Bird has done all the heavy lifting. Now it's time to enjoy the fruits of the labor, to use the financial freedom still at the team's disposal to continue growing around a young nucleus.
"I love my players; we've got one of the best locker rooms I've ever been around," Bird said. "I thought we'd win 34 to 38 games this year (in a 66-game schedule) and we've already done that (40 wins) with a few games to go."
But there are frustrations. Not that those frustrations would have anything to do with Bird deciding to leave, if that's what he chooses to do, but the frustrations linger. Among those concerns: The Pacers are second-to-last in the league in average attendance.
"I wish our fans would come out and watch our games more," he said. "Look, revenues drive everything. It's easy to sit here and say, 'We'll go get this guy,' but if the revenues aren't there, you can't compete with teams that have $80-90 million payrolls. We just can't be where we were three, four years ago when we were losing $20 million a year.
"We're in a good place. I want to tie up the guys we like for a long time, and I can still keep this together for under $60-65 million (the Pacers' current payroll is $57 million and change). But as far as going out and getting a Dwight Howard, we just don't have it."
So the question will linger: Will he stay or will he go?
Nobody seems to know at this point.
Least of all Bird himself.