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David Aldridge

Ex-Pacers president Larry Bird has been absent during Indiana's 2013 run to the East finals.

Bird, architect of Pacers' rise, chooses anonymity over acclaim


Posted May 27, 2013 5:45 PM

The man who put the Indiana Pacers together is, this morning, likely at his compound in Indiana, maybe fishing on one of his lakes. Or maybe he's tinkering about at the main house.

It shouldn't surprise you that he lives in one of the least densely populated counties in the state. He is incommunicado with all but a few people, the way Greta Garbo used to be, the way Howard Hughes used to be, the way a lot of famous people used to be before Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and all the rest.

If you do not seek fame, if you do not burn to walk on the red carpet or be mentioned in US Weekly, you can keep fame at arm's length. It is still possible to be a private person, to go away and stay away.

Larry Bird stays away.

He is a rumor, a whisper, accessible only to a handful of media people he knows and trusts, like the great Jackie MacMullen, with whom he wrote a couple of books and that he got to know in Boston. He is available, of course, with his close circle of friends and family. But to most of the world, he has disappeared.

He was not in Indianapolis on Sunday, when they ran the 500 as they always do on Memorial Day Weekend, and when the Pacers played in the Eastern Conference finals, which they had not done since 2004.

The team that Bird put together looks for all intents and purposes like the only team in the East capable of giving LeBron James and the Heat a battle for the next few seasons. Indiana is down 2-1 after getting vaporized Sunday night, but no one with a brain is writing the Pacers off, not after they went into Miami, gave away Game 1 and took away Game 2. The Pacers still have a chance to get back to The Finals for the first time since Bird coached them in 2000, because Bird saw things that others didn't see on the basketball court.

The man Bill Fitch famously called "Kodak" because of his extraordinary vision has built a championship contender only to vanish himself during its apex.

It was Bird that traded for Roy Hibbert on Draft night in 2008, a center prospect considered so slow and so heavy that other teams picking just ahead of Toronto -- which took Hibbert with the 17th pick and then sent him to Indiana -- didn't even have Hibbert on their boards.

It was Bird who took a little-regarded forward from Fresno State named Paul George with the 10th pick in 2010, a player that was dismissed by a lot of personnel types because of the relative lack of competition the Bulldogs faced, in part because people thought George was a little soft.

It was Bird that convinced David West to sign in Indiana, and not Boston, as a free agent two years ago ... even though the Celtics were offering more money. It was Bird that used a second-rounder in 2010 on Lance Stephenson, whose troubled past gave most NBA teams the willies. And it was Bird that didn't hesitate to promote a then 37-year-old assistant coach with no prior head coaching experience -- though he was a star point guard for Juniata (Penn.) College -- to be his coach in 2011, replacing Jim O'Brien.

But just when the Pacers finally turned the corner and began to win back fans who had soured on the team after the Brawl of Auburn Hills in 2004 -- and other off-court incidents that followed -- Bird walked away. He resigned as team president last summer, saying he would take at least a year off to deal with health issues. Donnie Walsh came back from New York to take Bird's job, with ex-Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard doing the grind work as new GM.

There are signals that Bird may want to return to the presidency next season. Walsh has indicated he would have no problem stepping aside. But for now, Bird's absence has created the oddest dynamic: the people now in charge of keeping the Pacers together had almost nothing to do with bringing them together.

"I've told him, he's weird to do that," Walsh said Sunday. "But he did that when he was my coach and we went to The Finals with him, and he resigned right after that. I would ask him, 'What's your dynamic here? Why would you leave now?' But I've learned to never psychoanalyze Bird."

Like any executive, Bird had some whiffs. He drafted David Harrison in the first round in 2004, and Shawne Williams in '06, and gave a lot of money to free-agent guard Sarunas Jasikevicius, who didn't pan out. (The jury is still out on Bird's last first-rounder, forward Miles Plumlee.) But the strikeouts were all ultimately dealt with as he rebuilt the roster with former GM David Morway, who resigned last year and was replaced by Pritchard.

Bird came back to the Pacers for the second time in 2003, the year before that awful night in Auburn Hills, the team splitting apart as if in a centrifuge. He had famously coached the Pacers for exactly three years, as he said he would, from 1998-2000. He allowed Rick Carlisle and Dick Harter to run the offense and defense, respectively, while rarely talking strategy as coach. And then, he left, as he said he would.

Walsh had made the Pacers matter, seasons after season, building a playoff team around Reggie Miller and Chuck Person. He then built a championship contender around Miller and Rik Smits, peppering in a Chris Mullin, or Jalen Rose, or Mark Jackson. When Walsh left to run the Knicks in 2007, Bird got in the driver's seat as the Pacers' president of basketball operations.

"For me, it's the first time I've ever taken over a team that's good," Walsh said. "My whole mantra is, don't mess this up."

The team that Walsh left when he went to New York featured former All-Star Jermaine O'Neal, whom the Pacers had lavished with a $126 million max contract, with Jamaal Tinsley and a young Danny Granger in significant roles. And Bird took a meat cleaver to it, building around Granger while trading O'Neal, Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson.

Considered a Draft-day gamble by Larry Bird, Roy Hibbert (left) has panned out for Indiana.

Hibbert was a gamble, but at least he was a 7-foot-2 gamble from a school (Georgetown) that had produced quality NBA bigs for 20 years. It wasn't a safe bet he'd turn into an All-Star, though.

"I had some success in college -- Final Four (in 2007), second-team all-American and everything like that," Hibbert said. "But I felt like I got a new slate when I got up to the league, because, you know, going up against those Syracuse zones, there's no defensive three-seconds, I thought if I got a chance I'd really be a better pro player than I was in college. I got to do a little bit of things. I got to explore my game a lot more.

"It really wasn't a lot of pressure, because people were doubting me to begin with. They said, 'Here's the Mount Rushmore of big men at Georgetown, and then there's me.' But I'm like, one day, I'm going to be up there. The reason why those guys are there is because they won in the college level and they won at the pro level. And that's fine. They can have them. But when my career's done, I want to have a couple of rings, and I'm gonna be up there, too."

George's progression was even more astonishing. If you thought George would, in three seasons, become an All-Star, and be voted the league's Most Improved Player, and show his mettle as a U.S. Select Team member that worked with the Olympic Team last summer, and become a near-lock for the 2016 Olympic Team in Rio, and do all that one year after Bird called him out for shrinkage vs. Miami in the 2012 semifinals, you're as crazy as McMurphy in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest".

"Nobody did," Walsh said, laughing. "Not even Larry the Guru did."

Well, maybe George did. He said the other day that he wants to be great. Unlike most 23-year-olds in the league, he went about making it happen.

Bird popped George publicly when he got off to a slow start against Orlando in the first round, saying George had to pick up his production. "This isn't the time to feel sorry for yourself," Bird said then. "Sometimes players lose their shot, and they lose all their confidence. As he gets along in his career, we think he can be a pretty good scorer. But just because you're not making shots doesn't mean you can't do the other things."

And as George wilted under the pressure of playing the Heat in the 2012 East semis, Bird was no less forgiving.

"I talked to Larry over the phone after that series for about an hour, to two hours," George said. "He just told me, I'm a young player. It's going to have to come around. These guys, LeBron and Wade, they've been doing it for years. So you've got to respect that. But you're here for a reason, and we drafted you for a reason. So all of that is starting to come together to me, that these guys believe in me. That's why I took so much time this summer in wanting to get better, and finding ways to get better.

Pacers star Paul George (left) still appreciates being a first-round pick by the Pacers.

"Larry went out on a limb to select me with the 10th pick. The only way that I can repay him for being the genius is to really bring it, be that player that he saw."

George worked with a ballhandling coach all summer. He stopped jacking up 3-pointers and improved his passing and decision-making. And he's shown his defensive chops all season, helping alongside Hibbert as the Pacers topped the rankings in points allowed, field-goal percentage allowed and points allowed in the paint.

Of course, with Bird in seclusion this season, George's conversations with him have ended -- "we kind of broke up," George said. But he remembers what Bird did for him.

"It was really to push me, and see what level that I can reach," George said. "And I think he's doing it. I think he's done it. Again, thankful for that man, because he got me in this moment and this situation."

James' dap of George at the end of the third quarter of Game 2 -- "he said, 'I got you back,' " George said -- was not some changing of the guard nonsense. James is far from done, and George isn't who he's going to be yet. But there was, clearly, respect shown by the best basketball player on earth to someone who wants the job, and is putting in the work and doing it the right way.

No, George isn't as good yet as James. But his progression rate has been astounding this season.

So what does he have to do to become elite?

"I know the answer to that," James said Friday. "I'm not going to say it right now while I'm competing against the guy. He may try to use that during our matchup right now. I know the answer to that. I'll answer it after the series."

But Pacers assistant coach Brian Shaw knows. He was there when Shaquille O'Neal became Shaq with the Lakers, and Kobe Bryant started understanding that there really wasn't anybody who could guard him. Shaw knows, the way the old Aborigine man knew in "The Right Stuff."

"He's just taken tremendous strides this year," Shaw said. "The thing that I've stayed in his ear about is, when you do that, when you show that you can do it, now that's what everybody expects you to do all the time. That's what LeBron and Kobe do every single night. People who pay to come to see them play want to see that every single night. It's no more, you know, 20-something, 10 and eight one night, and then four, two and two the next night."

All of this only happened for George, of course, because Granger missed almost the whole season with knee troubles. It took the Pacers some time to figure out how they could score without Granger, and who would be doing that scoring. Indiana struggled mightily in November, though its defense bailed it out many nights.

"We talked about, we made some adjustments, put in some stuff that gave us a little more movement," West said. "Part of it was we were running our offense like Danny was still in the lineup. We had to just say Danny's not here; we can't run the same plays that we run when Danny's in the lineup. I think to a man, it just took everybody just saying that's what we needed to do."

The Pacers had been a team that would set Hibbert up on the block and try to feed him the ball, in classic low-post style. But that didn't work well.

They added some pinch-post action from the triangle (is that Shaw's hand I see there?) that got the ball to West and George where they could maximize their respective strengths. They added the old opposite sets Phil Jackson ran for Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal, plays that brought each across the paint to catch the ball on the move. Those were for Hibbert, who was struggling as a static post-up guy under O'Brien.

That it was Vogel who made those changes made it all the easier for Hibbert to take. The two had become very close (see below) while Vogel was O'Brien's assistant. It was O'Brien who'd brought Vogel to Indiana, after he'd hired him in Philly, and after O'Brien had gotten Vogel into coaching by helping Louisville coach Rick Pitino take Vogel in as an unpaid assistant. Vogel had walked away from his senior season at Juniata because he desperately wanted to become a coach.

"I don't want to dive too much into the coach we had beforehand, but once Frank took over, everything changed," Hibbert said. "We could communicate with him a lot more than we did with the coach before. It was more of, like, a togetherness. There's few people I'd run through a brick wall for, and that's one of the guys I'd do it for."

Taking over for his NBA rabbi didn't make for a comfortable situation, but Bird and O'Brien called Vogel together when Bird made the change. "Larry called me and let me know they were going to make a change, and was I interested,?'" Vogel said at the time. "And before I could answer, coach O'Brien interceded and said, 'I'm behind this all the way if you want to do this.' "

Walsh is convinced majority owner Herb Simon remains committed to spending what's necessary to keep the nucleus together. Indiana didn't hesitate to match the $58 million offer sheet Portland gave Hibbert last summer -- the Blazers actually did the Pacers a favor by locking Hibbert in at a not-unreasonable-for-an-All-Star $14.5 million, and for a not-unreasonable four years.

Walsh and Pritchard locked up starting point guard George Hill for $40 million over five years last fall, a deal not unlike that of Memphis' Mike Conley. And while West will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, there aren't many people around the league that think the Pacers will let him get away, even though they don't have his Bird rights. (They can still use the "Early Bird" exception on him on a contract that can run up to four years, and a little more than $17 million annually.)

The Pacers are understandably miffed that the NBA networks, including TNT, my network, barely paid notice to them during the season. They had completely remade their team, with good kids like Hibbert, and George, and Hill, acquired on Draft night 2011 from San Antonio for the rights to Kawhi Leonard. And in West, they had one of the most underrated, team-first guys in the league.

To be fair to my folks, though, fans in Indianapolis have taken a while to warm to the new Pacers, too. The Pacers finished the regular season 25th in attendance, averaging just 15,269 fans at still-vital Bankers Life Fieldhouse. That was ahead of two playoff teams, Milwaukee and Atlanta, but neither of those teams is a legit contender. Indiana's window is open.

Walsh points out that it took the locals a few years to warm to the Miller teams, too. And until last year, Indianapolis, for all the Pacers' successes, was still Peyton Manning and the Colts' town. The Colts sucked a lot of money out of the corporate economy and a lot of air out of the population and media.

"We made the playoffs, and I don't know how many times, and we got knocked out in the first round," Walsh said. "Then, when I brought Larry Brown in [in 1993], we won in the first round.

"The next year, we'd helped with the city to help build the Kennedy statue, for Bobby Kennedy," said Walsh, referring to the Landmark for Peace Memorial, which commemorated the famous speech Kennedy gave in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, while running for president. That night, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Kennedy, ditching his prepared remarks, was the one who announced to the predominately African-American audience that King had been murdered.

The groundbreaking for the statue took place on May 14, 1994, the same day the Pacers were playing the Hawks at the old Market Square Arena in the semifinals.

"And people were driving around, honking their horns," Walsh said. "And it stayed that way for, I don't know, six or eight years. I told them, you've got to win. Once you start winning at the higher levels, it'll become the thing in town."

They may be getting there, again. Sunday was the Pacers' seventh sellout in the playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, in front of celebrities like 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Marquette coach Tom Crean, there to cheer on his former player, Dwyane Wade.

Bird wasn't there. He won't be there Tuesday for Game 4. Whether he comes back, as has been rumored, after the Draft (which Walsh and Pritchard will run), to again take over, or not, it doesn't matter. His fingerprints are all over these playoffs, just like they were three decades ago in Boston.

The Team that Bird Built is back.

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

(This week's record in parenthesis; April 29 rankings in brackets)

1) Miami (2-1) [1]: Udonis Haslem has his conference finals breakout performance Sunday with a huge night, scoring 17 on eight of nine shooting, and keeping the floor spaced by making enough jumpers that the Pacers were hesitant to leave him and double LeBron James.

2) San Antonio (2-0) [2]: The Spurs Borg will assimilate you.

3) Indiana (1-2) [10]: Pretty cool day in Indy Sunday, with the 500 in the afternoon and the Heat in the evening. (They still don't show the race live in Indy, opting to air it at night on tape delay like they used to nationally. Has a 1975 kind of feel, but whatever.)

4) Memphis (0-2) [5]: Grizzlies. Grit. Grind. Great. Going. Going...

5) Oklahoma City [3]: Season Complete.

6) Golden State [4]: Season Complete.

7) New York [6]: Season Complete.

8) Chicago [8]: Season Complete.

9) L.A. Clippers [7]: Season Complete.

10) Denver [9]: Season Complete.

11) Brooklyn [11]: Season Complete.

12) Atlanta [12]: Season complete.

13) Boston [13]: Season complete.

14) Houston [14]: Season Complete.

15) L.A. Lakers [15]: Season Complete.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

San Antonio (2-0): Tony Parker, two years ago, said the Spurs were on their last legs and down to their last serious chance to win a fifth title during the Tim Duncan Era. And two years later, they sit one win away from another Finals appearance. And if you don't think the 37-year-old Duncan doesn't burn just as badly as Kobe Bryant, and doesn't want to equal Bryant's five rings, you don't know The Big Fundamental that well.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Memphis (0-2): Can we declare a moratorium on how the Grizzlies' playoff run is a moratorium on whether they were right to trade Rudy Gay? When they win a game, it doesn't mean those who thought they should keep Gay and see what their team could do with him were idiots; when they lose a game it doesn't mean that they were fools to trade Gay and make a long-term decision about their finances. That trade's over. Move on.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

Who are Does (as in, John Does) 1 through 10?

Those 10 unnamed persons are a significant part of the lawsuit filed May 16 in Alameda County, Calif., by former National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter against the union's president, Derek Fisher, and Fisher's assistant, Jamie Wior. Hunter is claiming Fisher and Wior and unnamed accomplices -- Messrs. Doe 1-10 -- worked to end the lawsuit, get Hunter fired unfairly and to keep Fisher in power.

In the lawsuit, Hunter formally accuses Fisher, who was "nearing the end of his playing career" in 2011, in the words of Hunter's complaint, of going behind Hunter's back to try to negotiate a settlement with the owners during the lockout in order to ensure a post-playing job with the NBA or one of its teams.

"For Fisher," Hunter accuses in the suit, "the lockout could not end soon enough. For similar reasons, some of the most highest compensated NBA players ("Certain Players"), and their agents, shared Fisher's sentiment that the lockout must end."

This is, of course, the gist of what someone leaked to Fox Sports' Jason Whitlock in late October, 2011, during the lockout -- that Fisher wanted to settle the lockout with a 50-50 split of Basketball Related Income with owners (which is what wound up happening Thanksgiving weekend of that year, when the lockout was settled). At the time of Whitlock's story, Hunter was still holding out for a 52-48 BRI split that would have favored the players. Whitlock also implied strongly that Kobe Bryant was one of the players who wanted to make the 50-50 deal.

Whitlock's story upended the union, though Hunter and Fisher both publicly denied any rift to reporters a couple of days later at a hastily called news conference. Of course, after the lockout ended, the relationship between the two went south, and in a hurry.

Fisher sought an audit of the union's business practices, stories about Hunter's hiring family members to union and union-affiliated positions came to light and a report from an independent law firm hired by the union to investigate it found that while Hunter did not engage in embezzlement or theft of Union funds while executive director, he did not properly manage the conflicts of interest created by hiring family members. He also, the report found, took actions that were on occasion "inconsistent with his fiduciary obligations to put the Union's interests ahead of his personal interests." Hunter's last contract with the union, in 2011, was never formally approved by the union's Executive Committee, as specified in the union's bylaws.

Even though Hunter fired his family members, including his daughter and daughter-in-law, from the union, he was placed on leave the first week of February by the executive board. A couple of weeks later, during All-Star weekend, his contract was terminated in a 24-0 vote of players.

"Going forward, we will no longer be divided, misled, misinformed," Fisher said that day, Feb. 16. "This is our union, and we have taken it back."

Up until the moment he was fired, Hunter's attorneys were working on a potential settlement with the union. But after the firing, Hunter proceeded with the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages. (Hunter is still being investigated by the U.S. Attorney's office in New York, and the U.S. Attorneys never comment on what they're doing, or if they're still doing it.)

"Hunter is ignorant of the true names and/or capacities of the defendants sued under the fictitious names of Does 1-10, inclusive," his lawsuit reads, "except that Hunter is informed and believes, and on that basis alleges that the damages alleged herein were proximately caused by these defendants' wrongful acts. Hunter therefore sues these fictitious defendants and Hunter will amend this complaint to allege their true names and capacities when ascertained."

The lawsuit does not specify how Hunter or his attorneys from Sidley Austin will identify the Does.

"For 17 years, no one worked harder than Billy Hunter on behalf of the players and their union," attorney David Anderson said via e-mail Sunday night. "Yet, there came a time when certain influential figures turned on him to pursue their own narrow interests, then drove him out of the union with a campaign of unjustified personal attacks. Our suit aims to bring the facts to light in this matter and obtain compensation for the significant damage these actions caused."

Fisher and Wior did not respond to texts seeking comment either from them or their legal representatives. They have until mid-June to reply to the suit, and can ask for an extension.

With the playoffs going on, Hunter was reluctant to file the lawsuit, but felt his reputation and ability to do business had been damaged by his ouster, according to a source. Hunter does not want to be reinstated as executive director, according to the source; the union has yet to pick his successor.

Hunter claims in his lawsuit that Fisher "actively manipulated" the Paul, Weiss report by making false statements to the firm's attorneys, including, in the Hunter lawsuit's wording, the charge "that Hunter had tried to bribe him to secure Fisher's support during the 2011 collective bargaining negotiations."

The bribe charge stems from a $22,000 Patek Philippe watch that Hunter gave Fisher in June, 2010, according to the Paul, Weiss report. Hunter told the Paul, Weiss attorneys that he told Fisher that he wanted to give him the watch then because he wasn't sure he'd be able to justify giving it to him a year later if the union was in the midst of a lockout. Fisher told the Paul, Weiss attorneys he didn't recall discussing the timing of whether he should take the watch in 2010 or 2011. He did tell the attorneys he was "uncomfortable" taking the watch, "and that, with the benefit of hindsight, he felt the watch may have been a gesture aimed at winning his loyalty to Mr. Hunter during the upcoming collective bargaining sessions," read the section in the Paul, Weiss report.

"In other words, a bribe," Hunter's attorneys respond in their lawsuit against Fisher, Wior, the union and the 10 unnamed players. "Not only is Fisher's accusation inconsistent with the more than decade-long gift-giving tradition (to Executive Committee members), but it is telling that, if Fisher had perceived the gift as a bribe, it was a bribe he immediately and unhesitatingly accepted."

The word "bribe" never appears in the Paul, Weiss report,. The salient section concerning the gift reads, "In our view, Mr. Hunter should bear the brunt of the responsibility for any curious appearance that arises from this gift, and Mr. Fisher's decision to question Mr. Hunter's conduct and call for an internal inquiry into Union business practices in April 2012 fortifies this opinion."

Hunter details a phone call he received the night of Oct. 27, 2011, from a player and his agent, neither of whom Hunter identifies in the lawsuit, other than the player "is an NBA superstar, who is one of the highest paid players in the NBA." Hunter's suit claims the player urged Hunter to take a 50-50 split, saying, "I know tomorrow is a big day. You can put this thing to bed. Do the deal." The player, according to Hunter, said he'd support him if he did so.

Hunter claims that the next day, his private insistence to players that the union continue to hold out for a 52-48 BRI split was leaked by a "mole" in the meeting to the media. Later, Hunter claims, he was informed, though he doesn't say by whom, that Fisher "had been covertly negotiating directly with the Certain Owners unbeknownst to Hunter and the Executive Committee."

Hunter claims in the lawsuit that he confronted Fisher about his alleged "double-dealing," but that Fisher denied it, saying it was the player and the agent who'd called Hunter the night before who were negotiating a 50-50 deal with the league. Hunter goes on to claim that Fisher was strangely quiet during a subsequent negotiating session with owners, and thus came to the conclusion that Fisher had been working on a secret deal with the owners, who now expected a 50-50 deal on that basis.

Fisher and Wior could seek to dismiss the lawsuit, asking that a judge find reason that Hunter's lawsuit is not actionable, or that there's a flaw in his case. If the suit is allowed to proceed, a judge or jury could agree with some of the suit's arguments, but not others, in which case an amended lawsuit could be filed.

And if the trial proceeds, of course, all kinds of records -- phone, digital and otherwise -- could be subpoenaed by both sides. And there probably aren't a lot of folks on either side who would be anxious to see those records come to light.

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

They are taking it about as well as you would expect in Seattle. From Kevin Gallagher:

Aware that fans have been hoping for 5+ years for the NBA to return to Seattle, David Stern opened his press conference by saying "This is going to be short for me. I have a game to get to in Oklahoma City." His first sentence is repetitive. The second is as small and vindictive as the commissioner himself.

I was 20 feet from the Commish in Dallas when he said that, Kevin. And my radar didn't go off. I didn't think anything of it. But after I looked at my Twitter feed that night and read the stories out of Seattle, I felt like an idiot. You have every right to feel like that was a gratuitous shot at your city, even while I genuinely (naively?) believe Stern didn't mean the way you took it -- and, again, you have every right to take it that way. Whether he meant it or not, it was the exact wrong thing to say, and this is a guy who always knows exactly what he's saying. And he should, correctly, take some heat for it.

I must admit, Jerry Sloan versus the New York press corps could be a fun deal. From Mohamed Haidara:

Few things I'm curious to get your intake on as this season is coming to an end and we start chatting about draft, preseason, and next season to follow. With regards, to HOF coach Sloan and his specific requirements: where do you think would be the best landing spot for him? Is there a chance he can end up in Brooklyn IF, of course, both him and D-Will set their differences aside for a moment?

Sloan needs a veteran team, Mohamed, one that needs to be challenged and not coddled. The Nets would make sense, but I don't think you'll see a reunion of Sloan and Deron Williams, no matter their protestations that things weren't as bad between them in Utah as people made them out to be. (On this, I trust Steve Luhm, the great writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, who's as tied into the Jazz as you can be. And the Luhminator wrote the two were tired of each other. To me, that's "case closed.") He would make sense with Atlanta, for example, or the Grizzlies if they don't re-sign Lionel Hollins. Sloan will take his time, though, to find the job that's just right. Or, he'll stay out.

Another take on Jason Collins. From Kevin Meng:

The real point of view that should be taken is as follows: Jason Collins, like all other people, is born free. Our collective social contract deems that as long as he does not infringe upon your rights or the rights of anyone else, that he free to live his life as he chooses. You may not agree, but that is for you to deal with personally. Jason Collins, as the public knows him, has not changed. He is still an honest, friendly, and caring man. The only difference now is that the public knows what he does behind closed doors in an aspect of our lives that the Western world has deemed as private. If your life is so dull, empty, and worthless that you need to attempt to put down another man just because of who he is sexually attracted to or who he loves, then the problem is with you and not Mr. Collins.

I commend Jason for having the courage to reveal his true self to the world, and hope he continues living the life he wants for himself. These people are no different than bullies at school, and we all know that the real problem that bullies have is on the inside.

Well, we've discussed this a bit in these pages, Kevin. I remain convinced that minds and attitudes will change more when that change comes to a person naturally and is not forced upon them. Everyone reading this has a gay friend or gay family member. We all want the people we love to be treated fairly and to not suffer. I think Jason will play next season, and I really don't think it will be that big a deal.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and your offerings to the happy couple (candlesticks, I'm told, are always a tasteful gift) to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(Last week's averages in parenthesis)

1) LeBron James (29.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, .557 FG, .750 FT): Yeah, he committed two turnovers in the last minute of Game 2. But he was otherworldly for about 44 minutes of that game beforehand. He was, seemingly, everywhere, making every pass and steal and shot. He makes the incredible seem inevitable.

2) Kevin Durant: Season complete. KD's standing as a man and as a citizen of the world has never been higher than when he donated $1 million toward disaster relief in Oklahoma following Monday's horrific tornado that destroyed large parts of Moore, Okla., a suburb of Oklahoma City, and killed 24 people.

3) Tim Duncan (20.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 3 bpg, .515 FG, .583 FT): Named first-team All-NBA for the first time since 2007, and continues his incredible third act of his career in leading the Spurs to the brink of the Finals.

4) Carmelo Anthony: Season complete, with an MRI confirming what we all suspected: 'Melo played in the postseason with a torn shoulder muscle.

5) Chris Paul: Season complete.

BY THE NUMBERS

107 -- Consecutive series in NBA playoff history in which the team leading 3-0 goes on to win the series. That is the Wall of History that the Grizzlies have to climb after losing Saturday's Game 3 in overtime to San Antonio and falling down 3-0 in the Western Conference finals.

5 -- Consecutive seasons the Wizards have been in the lottery. Washington bucked the odds and wound up with the third pick overall, giving D.C. a chance to add another good young player to their John Wall-Bradley Beal nucleus. The early scuttlebutt centers on Georgetown forward Otto Porter or UNLV big man Anthony Bennett as the Wizards' preferred choices should they stick with the pick.

3 -- Finalists for the Bucks' job, as first reported by Yahoo! Sports on Sunday: current Hawks coach Larry Drew, Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson and Lakers assistant Steve Clifford. Here is hoping that if Drew is Milwaukee's preferred choice after the second round of interviews, that the Hawks will do the right thing and release him from his contract, which has another five weeks or so to run before expiring.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) The reason I am able to have this ridiculously unimportant job is because so many thousands of men and women gave their lives in service of our nation in times of war. I will never forget that on any Memorial Day weekend. Thank you all and thanks to your families for their sacrifices as well on this Memorial Day.

2) I like when teams give new coaches a chance, so I like the Suns hiring former player Jeff Hornacek as coach, replacing interim coach Lindsey Hunter. He is the first major move by new GM Ryan McDonough, who liked Hornacek's basketball acumen, competitive drive, teaching ability and embrace of analytics. It does not hurt that Hornacek is a first-class guy and was beloved by Phoenix fans for six seasons before being sent to Philadelphia in 1992 as part of the Charles Barkley trade. "It may help in the community a little," a source directly involved texted Sunday night, "but was not a factor to Ryan." I suspect it was a factor to owner Robert Sarver, who wants to re-make some of the connections between fans and the team's more successful past.

3) In winning the lottery for the second time in three years, the Cavs can address long-term needs in the middle. Anderson Varejao is a fan and team favorite, but he'll be 31 on opening night and he's coming off yet another injury-marred year. Last year he played in only 25 games after suffering a torn quad muscle and then developing a blood clot in his lung.

In the last three years, he's missed 149 of the Cavaliers' 246 games, with a torn ankle tendon, a broken wrist, the torn quad and the blood clot. At $9 million next season with a club option for $9.7 million in 2014-15, Varejao doesn't break the bank financially, but all the broken bones and torn muscles make getting some stability at center a necessity. Whether that comes in the Draft through Nerlens Noel or Maryland's Alex Len, or in free agency, is still a question. But it's hard to see, as some have speculated, the Cavs going for Georgetown's Otto Porter with the first pick. Porter is a small forward. And in 2014 a certain small forward born in Ohio can become a free agent. I am speaking, of course, of Luke Babbitt.

4) A really smart read on the different ways the Mavericks and Spurs have used analytics to improve their teams in the short and long terms.

5) Baylor guard Pierre Jackson was the best player at the New Jersey combine last week, according to scouts who were there. "The bar wasn't exactly high, but yes," one GM said. There weren't that many players who'll even be drafted at all in Jersey out of the 44 invitees.

6) Some days, the job is a colossal pain and a burden. And some days, EJ and the Chuckster are nice enough to introduce you to Lynda Carter, and you pull a Benjamin Button and become 13 years old again, and it's Friday night at 8, and you use the four-button remote to turn on CBS, because "Wonder Woman" is coming on. And you stammer and stutter like you always suspected you would if you ever met Carter. And it is wonderful.

NOT FEELIN' ...

1) It is important you understand that what follows is not a criticism of Mike Krzyzewski, or Jerry Colangelo, for that matter. How could one criticize a pairing that has produced successive Olympic gold medals (2008, 2012) sandwiched around a World Championships gold in 2010? Coach K and his staff have restored honor to the notion of playing for our country in international competition, and all of the key players who would be part of the 2016 team in Rio (from LeBron James on down) highly endorsed Coach K's return to the bench last week, after Krzyzewski said time and time again in London that those Olympics would be his last. But it is not being critical of Krzyzewski or Colangelo to lament the fact that Coach K's return for another six-year cycle starting next summer (with FIBA's Basketball World Cup, the '16 Games in Brazil, the '18 World Cup and the '20 Games) almost certainly means that Gregg Popovich will never get to coach the U.S. team. And that is a bad, bad thing, for reasons that have been stated over and over again in these pages.

2) There will be little movement to fill the several remaining coach vacancies until Indiana and Memphis are done playing. Everyone wants to talk to the Grizzlies' Lionel Hollins and Pacers assistant Brian Shaw. Of course, the Grizzlies insist they'll work on getting a new deal done with Hollins when they're done in the postseason. That could be as soon as Tuesday. We'll see.

3) Have not forgotten that it was 13 years ago last week that Malik Sealy was killed by a drunk driver in Minnesota. Goodness, what a waste. Malik was one of the truly good ones.

4) It is, officially, Lying Season in the NBA. You will hear extensive, breathless rumors over the next month about Draft prospects who have been given first-round promises, and who look great in individual workouts, and who have a secret "black flag" on their medical record, and who are rising and falling on teams' Draft boards. Don't believe any of it. (OK, believe about 9 percent of it.) Agents and teams, often for different reasons, are lying through their teeth. You cannot dismiss rumors you hear these days quickly enough.

5) They cannot seem to get out of their own way at Rutgers these days.

Q & A: ROY HIBBERT

That it was Roy Hibbert about whom so much fuss was made after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, when Pacers coach Frank Vogel took Hibbert out in the finals to get a smaller, better switching defensive five on the floor -- only to see LeBron James blow by Paul George and drive to the basket for the game-winning, buzzer-beating layin -- shows how improbable some NBA careers can be.

Taken 17th in the first round by Toronto, which had arranged to trade Hibbert to Indiana for a package that included Jermaine O'Neal, Hibbert was one of the least-likely developing bigs you could imagine. He had never run on a treadmill as a teenager, when he had already committed to play for Georgetown -- which had sent the likes of Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and other bigs to the NBA. Hibbert did not seem likely to be the next in that line, even though he had helped lead Georgetown to the Final Four in 2007.

Early in his career, he acknowledged he was seeing a psychologist to deal with the dimensions of his hard adjustment to the pro game. But with a strong work ethic and desire to prove people wrong, Hibbert has become the lynchpin of one of the NBA's best defenses, stopping everyone who comes into his airspace (including the Knicks' Carmelo Anthony with that iconic Game 6 block at the rim, making even James think twice (if you believe this) before coming into the paint. And he has done it while always being accessible, honest and fan-friendly, Tweeting up a storm and threatening to wear a monocle to the podium if the Pacers win it all.

Me: You've made such a journey to get where you are now. When you think about your success, what goes through your head?

Roy Hibbert: I was just always humbled. I'm always thinking about what I could do more. I write little Post-It stickers on my mirror when I wake up. Just something about 'Stay hungry.' 'I can do anything.' Just little reminders, just posted all over my mirror, just to keep me, keep that drive going. I may be tired. Everybody's banged up this time of the season. But we're one of four teams still playing. We have an opportunity to do something great here.

Me: What was the last Post-It you wrote to yourself?

RH: Stay aggressive. Sometimes I write those Post-It sticker notes on my shoes: 'Just Destroy Everyone.' Everyone that's in my way, whether it's on offense or defense. It's just little things that keep me going.

Me: That aggressiveness was not always there.

RH: It was a little up and down throughout my career. I remember one game this year. We lost to Minnesota at Minnesota, last-second layup. David West pulled me aside in the locker room, and he was like, he went [sticks a finger in your chest], 'We need you to be solid.' So I picked up the defensive part of it and the offense just came.

Me: When did your wrist finally feel right?

RH: I had a game against Philadelphia, at Philly -- I think it was the first game against Philly. I think it was clicking. Everything was going well. I started getting treatment on it a week prior, and it really started feeling better.

Me: What was your frustration on the court while your wrist was banged up?

RH: I started questioning, not my talent, just my right hand. I shot more with my left. I'm OK with my left, but I shoot a higher percentage with the right. Sometimes I didn't even want to shoot with the right hand, even though I was given that in the game. I just kept working, working, working, and the treatment came, and the treatment came, and it started feeling better, and I haven't looked back since.

Me: You have always responded well when people doubted you, going all the way back to when you first started at Georgetown. Why?

RH: I just always wanted to be the best. Big John [John Thompson, Jr., the legendary Georgetown coach and father of the Hoyas' current coach, John Thompson III] used to joke with me -- I know he was serious at the time -- he used to say, 'You're going to be the tallest mailman ever.' I said, I respected people who had nine to fives, but I'm not built for that. I'm 7-2, and I just wanted to take advantage of my height. I just wanted to work. So I'd always be in the gym, trying to get better. People always talked, but I always drowned it out. I compared it to [being] a long-distance runner. You're always by yourself out there. That's just the best feeling.

Me: How'd you learn to defend without fouling?

RH: My first year in the league was pretty tough, because it's learning the rules -- defensive three seconds, the no-charge zone, and everything like that. So I tried to block everything at first, and I was getting called for fouls. And then the next thing I tried to do was take charges, and I was still getting called for fouls, and I was messing up my back. So I started watching some film. I saw Dwight Howard do the straight up every now and then, and I stayed during the summer. Most guys leave after the season's done, but I took a couple of weeks off, and I stayed, watched film, and I worked on being put in two on one situations, and being able to get a stop, or getting two or three passes made without getting a foul, and learning the straight up. I'd say between the first and second year I started working on it, and between the second and third year I really started getting a grasp on it.

Me: Who did the drills with you?

RH: [Smiles] Coach Frank [Vogel]. He was an assistant coach at the time, and he said, 'Hey, big guy, we have to keep you on the court.' We sat down, we watched film. We did those drills. I wanted to leave sometimes. I was getting really frustrated. I was like, 'How am I going to be able to guard two people and get a stop without [fouling]?' Coach Frank worked with me all the time. Sometimes we'd be in the gym a long time. He was one of the guys that really supported me, really had my back. And that's why I always try to have his back as well.

Me: It seems like he has that relationship with a lot of guys on the team.

RH: Yeah, he does. I've been over to his house, had dinner. He barbequed and everything like that. He's one of those guys that you'd do anything for. I've earned his respect; he's earned my respect. And we see it out there. When he gets on us, we know it. He doesn't get on us too much; we police ourselves. We're a veteran team. But we have respect for him, and he's definitely garnered that sort of culture around here, made a culture around here that's respectful.

Me: You've incorporated MMA training into your offseason routine for a few years. Who is your favorite MMA fighter?

RH: Oh, man. I'd say Georges St. Pierre. I have a tremendous respect for MMA guys, 'cause it takes a lot to go five rounds, three, four, five minutes apiece. They're the best-conditioned athletes in the world. I like to do that during the summer.

Me: How did the training help you?

RH: It went well. It pushed me to my limit sometimes. We used to break things up, where we'd have 30 minutes of mitts, just punching. And then we'd do like a Cross Fit workout, where I may have to run on the treadmill, do some Burpees, do some pushups, do some ropes, do some wall getups, stuff like that. Or, like, get on the ground, and have to get up with somebody on top of you. It's just mentally fatiguing, and it strengthens you a lot more. Last game [Game 2], I'm, at the free-throw line, and I'm obviously tired, and I hear fans in the Miami section saying, 'Hey, Roy, you're bending over, you're looking tired, looking tired.' I'm like, this is nothing compared to what I did during the summer. During Game 6 of the Knicks series, I'm exhausted. I'm bending down in the timeout, 20-second timeout, basically on the ground. I'm exhausted. And the next play out, I get that block. It's just trying to be resilient. We need to get further. So that's what was on my mind.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

Aint no way a human should be able to throw a cross court pass like ‪@KingJames‬ just did lol
-- Raptors forward Rudy Gay (@rudygay22), Friday, 8:51 p.m., after James improbably found Mike Miller in the corner for a 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the first half of Game 2 against the Pacers.

THEY SAID IT

"Last year when he was searching for a coach, we talked about it. We talked a little bit about what he was looking for. I had a couple of people I could recommend to him. He said, 'You're not interested in this, are you?' I said no, I'm not, I can't do that right now."
-- Phil Jackson, to The New York Times, about conversations he had with Michael Jordan on the Bobcats' coaching vacancy last year. Charlotte opted for Mike Dunlap, who was fired after one season.

"I am proud of what we accomplished during my tenure, and how the expectations have changed and what lies ahead for this franchise."
-- Former Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro, in a statement released by the team, after it announced it would not be offering Del Negro a new contract after three seasons coaching the team. The Clippers won a franchise record 56 games this season but lost to Memphis in the first round. Del Negro went 128-102 in L.A.

"It's a unique situation for me to be in, but not an ideal one."
-- Raptors exec Bryan Colangelo, who was shifted from his former position as general manager in Toronto to team president. Colangelo was moved over by the franchise's new CEO, Tim Leiweke. Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri is the leading candidate to replace Colangelo.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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