Q + A with Larry Bird
He faces some of the toughest challenges of his career.
by Jim Johnson
Everyone knows Larry Bird. Sometimes better known as Larry Legend. Now, as President of Basketball Operations for the Indiana Pacers, Bird is facing some of his biggest challenges. He’s still rebuilding a program and a franchise that took a major hit on November 19, 2004 after The Brawl against the Pistons. Bird said he saw, “It all come to a halt in less than 30 seconds in Detroit.”
Bird has done it all. He had three NBA Championship rings. He’s a three-time NBA MVP, two-time NBA Finals MVP, 12-time All-Star, made the All-NBA First Team nine times, was named Rookie of the Year in 1980, named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all time, earned an Olympic Medal, and, as a coach, took the Indiana Pacers to the finals to fall short to the Lakers in the ‘99-00 season.
Can he truly overcome everything? It’s been 30 years now since he started his career in the NBA. If he can turn the current Indiana Pacers team around to eventually become a title contender, Bird will be able to say he’s overcome every kind of adversity in the League.
SLAM: With 1979 being your rookie season, you’re in your 30th year of being involved in the NBA in some way and being in the spotlight. How are you feeling after 30 years? Are you still having fun? Is it still exciting for you?
Larry Bird: Well it is exciting. I love the games, I like the practices, at this stage I like to put the team together. You know, over 30 years, I’ve seen a lot of things happen. I’ve seen the League go from power players to pound it down inside, to really incorporating the three-point shot in the last eight to 10 years. So it’s really been interesting to watch the game as it’s progressed throughout the years.
SLAM: Now if I understand, the three-point shot isn’t something you really like, is it?
LB: [Laughs] I like it at certain times. I don’t like quick threes off the break, I don’t like three-on-twos that end up in a three-point shot. But a lot of coaches think that you play the percentages and if you have shooters you use it to your advantage.
SLAM: Now, over 30 years, you learn and you grow as a professional and an individual. What would you say is the biggest and most precious thing you’ve learned over these many years?
LB: Well you learn over a lot over 30 years. Obviously you’re more mature. I came into the League out of college and I always felt that I was gung hoe to get in there and see what I could do against the best players in the world. I had really been disappointed that in 1980 the games were on tape delay. The NBA was a good, but it wasn’t a great league and it went through their problems. As the League continued to grow, and different stars came into the League and you could sense that it was getting bigger and better. And I think it’s continued to do that for the last 25 to 30 years.
SLAM: I would imagine rookies seek your advice often. When you sign a rookie to the Pacers, is there anything that you make sure to tell each and every rookie that comes to you for advice?
LB: Well, it’s funny, you know, all these kids that come in now have all the answers. I can remember when I came in, I went to Dave Cowens, I talked to Dave about different things. I can remember the first time we went on a west coast trip, we were going to be gone for 14 days and I said what’s the difference out here than how it is on the east coast and they said there’s a lot more running and gunning and there’s going to be a lot more opportunities for you to play your total game instead of just scoring and rebounding. The players today, when I talk to them, especially when I sign them, I tell them what we expect of them, and, you know, hard work, show up on time, work on your game in practice, try to improve each year. And some of them take it and some of them down. After I sign them I say, I hope I sign you again to a lot bigger contract. When it comes down to it’s not only about displaying your talents on the court, but you have a short time period here to make a living and to make the best of it.
SLAM: Who is the individual who has impacted your life the most and what did that person do?
LB: I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had great coaches all the way since I was a young kid. My high school coach spent a lot of time with the young kids in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth grade teaching the fundamentals, how to set a proper pick and roll and where your hands should be placed on the ball. And then when I went to college with Coach King it was more defense, what you’re supposed to do on the defensive end, how you cut angles down, and how you really develop your game and your all around game. And then when I got into the pros I was very fortunate to have Bill Fitch and Casey Jones, guys who were two different types of coaches, but they were excellent for me. So I’ve been very blessed throughout my whole career to have great coaches.
SLAM: What is the most difficult thing you’ve gone through over the course of your career?
LB: Well probably the incident in Detroit when players went up into the stands. What it’s done to our franchise and how we were going to get out of it. It’s been frustrating, and especially when you want kids to do well. But just watching them and knowing what type of team we had that year and to see it all come to a halt in less than 30 seconds in Detroit.
SLAM: I think you would probably agree that when you look at this current Indiana Pacers team, you’re looking at a challenge, and I think you’ve been looking at a challenge for the past several years, do you think this is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
LB: Oh yeah, no question about it. We haven’t had any money at all. We’ve been up against the cap to go out and get a free agent. When we lose a player when his contract ends for $6 or $7 million, we might have to go out and get three players. We can use the money but to stay under the cap we only have $5 or $6 or $7 million to go out and get three players to try to stay under it. So, you know, that’s just part of the struggle. Obviously losing is very difficult, but when you’re rebuilding you know you’re going through stages, it’s going to be tough, but as long as you draft the players and you see a bright future, I think it’s going to be lights at the end of the tunnel, it’s going to be very good, not only for me, but for the franchise and that’s what’s most important.
SLAM: Absolutely, and I feel like each season this team and this franchise takes a step forward and looks a little better each season. What is it going to take before you, and this franchise, and this team can take that final step and be a powerhouse in the NBA and a threat towards other teams around the League and fight for a title?
LB: What’s happening is we’re drafting young players, maybe some of them won’t be superstars, but will be great fill-ins, some will be back-up players, some will be starters. And when you get your salaries down, which we’re going to be down to about $28-30 million after next year and that’s the first time, I think, in the history of this franchise we’re going to have an opportunity to go out and look for players and try to fill this roster with the type of players we want here and ones that can win games.
SLAM: What do you like to see in a basketball player? What do you look for when you’re trying to bring guys to Indianapolis?
LB: Well first of all, they give as much off that court as they do on and we’ve been very fortunate for that for the last four or five years. Even when we had players here that got themselves into some trouble, they were excellent in our community. They were out there and they were giving, but overall I think if you want to get the type of players in here that’s going to play the game the right way, and not only give it to you in games, but do the right things in practice to prepare themselves.
SLAM: Now, how has the process of scouting changed since 2004? Or has it changed? What are you doing differently now?
LB: Well the kids are so young now. I mean, there’s a lot of kids that come out that have great talent, but they’re so young you don’t know how they’re going to mature of the years and I think it’s really just a guess. You know they have the talent, you know they have the fundamentals, it’s just about whether they’re going to get better and better. That’s probably been the hardest thing. We like to take guys that have had a lot of college experience and that had good coaching, and been good kids along the way, but you just never know until you’ve had then for a couple years because you never know how they’re going to turn out.
SLAM: Now Larry, you’ve been in the spotlight for well over 30 years. People know you wherever you go. Is that hard for you and does it ever get old?
LB: Well, I can remember back in college the first time I was put on Sports Illustrated how my life has changed and I struggled with it for years, but you just get used to it. And you pick and choose the places you go, but overall it’s been a great experience because I’ve matured a lot, learned a lot, and I still have a lot of things left that I still want to do. But you’re right, I mean everywhere I go people know who I am. It was hard at first, but you sort of just get used to it.
SLAM: How do you deal with that pressure and that attention that you receive now and that you’ve received over your entire career?
LB: Well, it’s always been embarrassing to me that a kid from a small town that is all I wanted to do was just be the best player on my high school team went this far. There were a lot of ups and downs and there was a lot of frustration along the way, but if you really sit down and really look at my career, the pluses outweigh the minuses by a lot.
SLAM: Now you’ve experience a lot in your life. You’ve a lot of places and have met a lot of people. But you’re living life just like everyone else. What’s your advice to young adults and kids and just ordinary people? What’s your secret to living life and living a happy and successful life?
LB: My thing’s always been, don’t take life too seriously. If you have a job, do it the best you can. You can always accomplish more than you think you can with hard work and dedication. But you’re going to learn a lot and you’re not going to be the same person at 20 as you are at 40. And just to look back at my career at all of the great things that I’ve seen and that I’ve done, it’s just been above and beyond anything that I can imagine.