Q and A with Larry Bird

Mark Montieth headshot
by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

December 14, 2013

The photos of players from the Pacers teams he coached are framed but sitting on the floor in Larry Bird's office in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, nearly ready to be hung on the wall. Meanwhile, the players on the roster he's assembled are hanging atop the NBA standings, with a league-best 20-3 record.

Life, it would seem, is really good for Larry Bird right now. He can look back on NBA championships won as a player – three of them, in fact – a Coach of the Year award and mentor of the only Pacers team to reach the NBA Finals, an Executive of the Year award and, now, in his second run as team president, architect of one of the league's elite teams.

Bird sat down with Mark Montieth on Friday afternoon, before the Pacers' game with Charlotte, to discuss the intricacies of his team, his expectations for the team, his management style, and his future.

Q: Has this team exceeded your expectations?

Losing three games out of 22, yeah, I'd say they're doing a little better than I anticipated. Especially on the road. They're very focused. They are good. They're tied in together and for the most part they play unselfish. They're deep. I expect them to win a lot of games this year.

It's only a quarter of the way through the season, but do you feel you have the best team in the league? Or is there another team out there that might be better?

I don't know about the best team. We have the best record, but that will wash out at the end of the year. If I have an opportunity to make one more move, I'm going to make it.

I was going to ask if your roster is set.

It's never set. If you can do something that makes them better, you do it. Yesterday we went over every team and picked out some targets. We don't know what teams are going to do with a lot of their players. I'm not into making big trades, especially with our core group, but if we can pick up a player who can help us, we will do that.

Danny Granger

What type of player would you be looking for?

I don't know.

So it's not to fill a specific need or position, just anything that's an improvement?

The thing we don't know is, what's Danny (Granger) going to bring to the team. That's something we'll have time to look at after he gets in there, to see what we need. And then we'll go after it.

How much difference can Danny make?

He can make a big difference. He's looking pretty good. He's healthy. He feels like he's healthy. We won't know until he plays day after day after day. The knee has never been tested. He says it feels good, but that doesn't mean it's going to last. All indications are that he's going to be ready to go in a very short time. But I don't want Danny to go out there until he's ready. You're never ready to play until you're out there. But he's pretty rusty. I don't want him to get him out there and everybody's expecting great things. But I want him to be in some kind of shape before he goes out.

He had talked earlier in the week like he would go on Friday. Did you discourage him from playing?

I haven't talked to Danny, but I did talk to (coach Frank Vogel). I think we came to the conclusion that it's better to let him practice a little more. We do have time here. Get him as much practice time as we can and knock off some of the rust. Test the leg a little bit, test the knee, because he hasn't had that.

Lance Stephenson has been an interesting story. When you drafted him, it was in the midst of all the local uproar over players' behavior off the court. He had had some issues. How much hesitation did you have about taking him?

I didn't have any. When he was there, I took the best player available. He was by far the best player. I thought he'd go in the first round. You worry about some things, but I knew some of the guys we brought in could really help him. We were committed to doing the most we possibly could to focus on him because of the talent .When we got him here we could see he was a good kid, but we had a lot of work to do, and we're still working. This year, I haven't really talked to Lance that much. I used to talk to him all the time. Because he's made such a positive jump.

Lance Stephenson

He also had a legal issue come up after the draft. Were you ever tempted to cut ties then?

No, we didn't. I talked to Lance about all of it. The first year, I told him to stay away from the practice facility all summer. Because (the incident) happened right after the draft. I just said, 'Hey, if you're going to do that, we don't want you around here. You think about, then when the summer's about over you can come back. You think about it. We're not dealing with that stuff.'

Is it fair to say you have a soft spot for guys like him, who come up in a ...

I never thought I did, but obviously if you look at the past … they're all good kids. I was young once and made a lot of mistakes. I believe in second chances; I always have. I really don't believe in third or fourth chances, but I'll do my best to help whoever I can. If they're willing to help themselves.

Donnie Walsh once said you like the guy-from-out-of-nowhere story. You liked Ron Artest, and some other guys who had been in some trouble. It does seem you have a desire to try to help guys if you can.

That's my job. Even when I was a player I tried to help kids. You only have one shot at this, you don't want to throw it all away on immaturity or something stupid. But I do believe in second chances. It's tough sometimes to hang in there with some of these guys, but if they do make the change they make the franchise better. That's all I'm worried about, doing my best for the franchise.

Is it an underdog thing? You want to support the guy who didn't get the breaks?

I got a lot of breaks when I was young. People gave me second chances. But I do understand this is a one-shot deal. A lot of these kids have children. How are they going to support them if they're not playing basketball? A lot of us don't have opportunities to go out there and make millions of dollars doing other things. It's a one-shot deal.

The question that gets asked the most by fans now is, how do you keep Lance? Are you confident you can re-sign Lance? That you'll have the money to do it?

I never worry about that. If Lance isn't here, we'll plug somebody else in. Obviously I think this is the best situation for Lance. I worry about if Lance leaves here. This environment is absolutely perfect for him. Players know his little games. Lance is always energetic. He's always at another level. He likes to mess around in practice. Guys understand that here. It's not a bad thing, he's just energetic. He wants to go 100 miles an hour every time. Lance falls on the court and acts like he's been shot. Guys will walk by and tell him to get up. So this is the best environment for Lance.

I don't know what's going to happen this summer. We want to keep him and he wants to be here. This is the best environment for him. We will make him a great offer, an offer that I think is very fair. If you look at our books, how does anyone know what's going to happen in the summer. How do they know we're not going to make trades or have more money or less money. We will try to sign Lance, but I don't worry about it. If Lance is not here, we'll get somebody else.

David West has been such an obvious influence on this team, in the locker room and on the court. What did you tell him to convince him to come here? Because he could have gone to Boston for more money.

Years ago, Donnie told me you're going to be sitting here one of these days and somebody's going to call, either for a trade or a free agent, and they're going to want to be here. We talked to David's agent, but we didn't spend a lot of time on it because we were looking at other players. One day I was sitting here and got a call from his agent and he said, 'Hey, why aren't you guys going after David a little harder? Because he wants to be there.' I said, 'We're talking about it every day, but I'm very concerned because he's coming off a significant (knee) injury.' He goes, 'We'll do whatever to show you that he's ready to play. He hasn't played a lot of basketball. But we feel he's ready to go.'

Knowing that type of injury usually takes about a year to get back, I said, 'Will he fly out to Boston to see (team physical therapist) Dan Dyrek, as well as our team doctor? If Dan gives him the OK, we're very interested.' So he did that, and we signed him.

What if someone from a school of business or management school were to ask, How did you do this? How did you get the Pacers turned around? Is there a general approach you've taken that can be summarized?

Yeah, patience. You have to have thick skin and you have to know what direction you want to go. When I talked with my owner (Herb Simon), I told him what I wanted to do. Out of everybody, the most important guy who stuck with me through all of this ... happened to be our owner. It didn't matter what anybody else said. It didn't matter to me. But once I told Herb what I wanted to do, he was behind me. Now, I'm not saying when he left he didn't tell people, 'I don't know if it's going to work or not,' but when I talked to him he was 100 percent behind me. And that's all I needed. I took my time and obviously we got lucky in the draft. We took some guys who we thought could really help the team and they were hard workers. It's paid off for us.

Getting George Hill was big for us. Even though we knew that the young man we gave up (Kawhi Leonard), who I was going to draft, was going to be very, very good. But at that position, I thought we were pretty well set. So we needed a guy who could lead the team. George isn't a pure point guard, but I played with a guy who wasn't a pure point guard in Dennis Johnson. If I didn't play with Dennis Johnson, I probably wouldn't have made that deal. I played with a two-guard who played point guard, and we did fine. And he did fine.

He and Lance seem to go well together, because Lance is kind of a point guard. They're both hybrids.

Lance can play point guard. The coaches don't think so, nobody else does, but I think Lance can play point guard. He can make plays. As he gets older and matures as a player he'll be even better. But he can make plays, he can find George on the wings. I always say, in this league you need two guys who can handle the ball at guard. They both can do that.

Looking back now the period you went through in building the team, how difficult was it? You were taking a lot of criticism. Newspaper columnists, radio people were saying, 'If he wasn't Larry Bird, he would have been fired by now.'

After Donnie left, the first thing I did was trade Jermaine O'Neal. I thought that was huge. Even getting the 17th pick really helped us. I didn't really worry about that. I knew it was going to be difficult. The day that Donnie left, I said, 'This is going to be my biggest challenge, to make all the decisions and get the type of team that I want here. It's going to be tough.' People love to go after individuals they don't think can get the job done. I was no different. You have to be tough and you have to be focused and driven. My goal was to get a team here in Indianapolis that fans could be proud of.

It seems like it was the first chance for people to take shots at Larry Bird. Nobody could say much about you as a player or coach, but now there was a chance to go after Larry Bird.

That's fine. I don't care about that. As a coach it's well documented that I had two great assistant coaches. I ain't going to sit here and say that I did all that myself. I sort of managed the team. Rick (Carlisle) was the offensive guy and Dick (Harter) was (the defensive guy). But it's like I told Frank, somebody's got to manage these guys. You can not let these guys be in the locker room making decisions about how they're going to play the game and who's going to take the shots. Anytime you have fires in the locker room, you have to put them out. You have to be on top of things. My job as a coach was to make sure they're in shape, make all the decisions about what time we're going to practice and how hard we're going to practice. Even as a coach, I told the guys, if I see what I want that day, we'll end practice. You can be here an hour or all day long. I have nothing to do. It was more a managing standpoint than a coaching standpoint. Everybody knows the Xs and Os. From the defensive standpoint it's different. If you're going to be good, you have to guard.

My thing is patience. You have to wait on players, sometimes. You have to get the right fit. It's like Rick Carlisle said, you don't want all milk drinkers. I believe that. But you don't want guys that get in trouble. You don't want them 5 o'clock phone calls (about players violating the law). It hurt me as much as it hurt our fan base. I was in the middle of all this. But once I took over, I felt there were some things that needed to be changed. But I wasn't going to be drastic in all this. It was going to be a process. I thought I could get it done in three years and that's about what it took.

Paul George

Is there anything you learned in the years since you started in this role? Are there things you wish you could go back and do differently?

No question. There's so many, I don't want to get into them. There's so many. Early on, I was behind Donnie and we talked everything out. But being the sole decision-maker is a whole different ballgame. It's like being an assistant coach and moving up to head coach. But I had a plan and we stuck with it, and it worked. And we got lucky. I ain't going to say I knew we was going to get Roy. The day I walked down to the draft room (in 2010), it was between Ed Davis and Paul George. My owner kept asking me who I was taking, and I was still debating. But when it came down to it, you had to take the young, talented guy with a lot of length. If you watched Paul George in college it was scary, because he shot a lot of air balls, he took a lot of bad shots, he turned the ball over at a high rate. But he's long, athletic, he shot 90 percent from the foul line and he can guard.

It's amazing to think a guy who was second-team all-conference as a sophomore enters the draft and becomes the 10th pick and then has this kind of career. It was a gamble for you.

Yeah, but basketball-wise, he hadn't matured yet as a player. He still hasn't. But he got better. He's a worker. We did our background checks. He loved to play. He would work. He wants to be good. It's completely different between him and Lance. Lance's got the ability, you just have to slow him down a little bit. Paul's got to keep working to get better.

It seems like one of the advantages this team has, other than Lance, none of them came up five-star recruits or big-time players. David West had to go to a military academy before going to Xavier and wasn't a big deal coming out of high school. George Hill goes to IUPUI. Roy was awkward growing up. Paul George wasn't highly recruited until the end of his senior year. It seems like that all works to your advantage now, because there's a lack of ego.

It goes to show you that hard work does pay off. I can remember watching Roy as a sophomore in college. I also knew Roy as a junior. If he had come out, he probably would have been a top 12 pick. And then he had a better senior year. Why is he No. 17 all of a sudden? I remember talking to his agent and telling him, if Roy's there at 17 I'm taking him. He goes, I'll get Roy there. If you take him, I'll get him there.

How does an agent do that?

Just tell other teams not to take him. But he told me the day of the draft, 'OK, he will be there at 17.' I said, 'I'm taking him.'

It's amazing that a 7-foot-2 guy with any skills would drop to 17.

You never know. You never know how these guys are going to turn out. I thought Shawne Williams (who Bird drafted with the 17th pick in 2006) was going to be a great, great player. I thought he was going to fit in perfectly as a stretch four. But it didn't pan out. If he panned out, it would have been pretty amazing.

Is this the best defensive team you've been around?

They're really good. It's amazing what Dick Harter did with the team. If you look at what we had, I thought with Dick we blitzed a little too much (defending pick-and-rolls) and we got Rik (Smits) out of position sometimes. But if somebody messed up, everybody on the bench knew who it was. But we had smart players. That team was smart. They were off-the-charts with basketball IQ. Dale Davis ... people always asked why we would have him take the ball out. I said, 'He'll eat it before he throws it away.' You never seen him make turnovers. Their basketball IQ was off the charts.

But defensively, this team is the best I've seen.

The other question that comes up so often is how long you'll stay in this role now.

I ain't worrying about that. Obviously, when you're going good you feel good and you like it. I definitely needed a year off. I was burnt out. I was hurting. Donnie was sitting there (available). He loves it. So it was easy. Did I think I was going to come back? I didn't know. I really didn't know.

I never understood why you wouldn't come back. Wouldn't you be bored if you weren't working?

No. I tell you, I was pretty content. The thing that got me was when other teams started calling. It sort of fired me up a little bit. I never really gave Donnie or anyone an answer until Herbie called me one day. That day, I was a little bored. He said, with his age, he wanted to make a run for it. Just about all the guys here were our guys. Let's make a run for it and see what we can do. If you're not doing anything, why not? Once I found out we had a little bit of money this summer and were probably going to sign Paul George without waiting to match an offer and all that, I was set to come back. Once I told him that, he called back the next day and said, 'I want you in the office next week.' And I'm not going to start paying you until July 1. (laughs)

Are you glad you did?

Well ... yeah, I'm pretty content. But I was pretty happy last year, too. I feel better. When you feel good you can do anything.

I did miss it a little bit. But coming back knowing most of these guys were my guys and we were going to be able to do what we wanted to do made it easier. We just had to tinker with the bench a little bit.

Larry Bird, Herb Simon, Donnie Walsh

How much is Donnie involved now in your decision-making?

You have to have one decision-maker. I understood that from working with him. But do I go down there and ask him questions a lot? Yeah. Is Kevin (Pritchard) and Peter (Dinwiddie) involved big-time? Yes.

Donnie told me one time, 'Bird, I'm glad you're here.' I thought he was just saying that to be nice. He said, 'I'm glad you're here, because I really have nobody to talk basketball with.' I know what he meant. I've been through it. Donnie's been through it. It's been our life. That's the same way I felt when Donnie left. I had nobody. So I called him up one day in New York, I said, 'Donnie, I finally get it. I have no one here that I can talk basketball with.' That's tough. Then when Kevin came on board, he's an old basketball player and he understands the game inside and out, it made it so much easier. It was so easy. Then Peter, he's never really played it, but he's very sharp. Peter's the guy who comes in here (to talk about a trade) and says, 'What about this and this for this?' You're sitting there going, 'Wow! Pretty good.' Then we've got to make it happen. But having Kevin Pritchard here has been a godsend for me. He's been in basketball all his life. He's been the head of a team. He turned a team around. Then you go next door on the other side and you've got Donnie Walsh.

But they know I'll make the decisions. It's like this summer, I knew what I wanted to do when I got here. Then I tell Kevin who I want and he goes and gets them. It's pretty simple.

I've told Donnie a couple of times how happy I am that he's here, because this is a special team. We've had our ups and downs, but last year when he took over again I told him, 'I tell you what, Donnie, you're going to love these guys. They're not going to come over every day and talk to you, but you're going to love them. They're good kids and they want to win. They care.' They want to be here. It's like me, I don't go down and talk to these kids every day. I don't say a lot to them, because when I was a player I didn't want people in the front office bothering me. They're sort of their own little group. I'm the last guy who needs to be in there patting them on the back telling them how great they are. I said at the beginning of the season when we had our dinner what I thought of each individual and what I thought they could do this year. They don't need to hear it every day.

Did you tell them they can win a championship?

I don't bring up championships. I tell them I know how good they are and what they can accomplish as a group and what kind of guys they are. I know they're in it for each other. I have nothing to do with it now. I got you all together, but it's up to you to make things happen. But I know this is one of the better teams we've ever had here. I knew that going in, with the additions we made this summer. It's pretty easy to see, being around it all my life, that these guys are good. They're good. They're going to have games where they don't play as well, there are going to be some teams come in here that beat them that shouldn't beat them. But overall, they're going to win a majority of their games. It's just a given. Did I think they were going to beat New Orleans (in the second game, the night after the opener against Orlando). I told Frank a month before the season, gear for New Orleans now. Because you're going to get (beat) when you go down there (if you're not ready). And Detroit's going to knock your ass off if you're not ready to play against them. I thought early on they passed some tests that I thought was going to be very difficult for them. As each game goes on, they're getting better and better.

I know they're good. I know they are. Can they win it all? I don't know. But they're good. I give them credit. They are what I thought they could be.

I tell people all the time it's the best locker room I've ever been around. It's the most mature team I've been around. Do you feel that way?

It's the best group of guys you could ever have. Years ago, we'd get two or three-hundred thousand dollars a year in fine money (from players). Now, if you get $20,000 a year ... I said you guys are killing these charities around here. I get a call the other day about a player who was late two times in a month. I said, 'Come on, man, if that's all you're worried about, don't call up here.' It's amazing. They'll be here in the locker room, but they're supposed to be taped at a certain time, and if not they're fined. And we still don't have that. It's pretty amazing. They're tied in. They know what they're supposed to do. Even last year … that's why I told Donnie, 'You've never seen nothing like this, Donnie.' It's been easy.

Do you feel like this team has a certain window as a championship contender? I guess in my mind I think David West has three years left on his contract, so you have at least three years as a championship contender.

You never know the injuries. They always play a major role. I always feel if you lose somebody you just put somebody else in there. We don't want to lose anybody, because this team is together. They'll stay together. They're tied in. I don't know what the window will be. But like I tell Donnie and Kevin, we've got to enjoy this year. Because they're good. And they're going to win a lot of games.

They're obviously good enough defensively to win a championship. Are there certain things on offense you worry about?

You can nit-pick them all day. But when the going gets tough, they're pretty good. Sometimes they dribble too much. If you watched the first half of Miami the other night and how they (the Heat) were moving the ball … if we ever got to that point, we could score a lot more points. I'm a big believer in taking it from side to side. You don't have to get a shot up in the first 10 seconds. I think we start our offense too far out. And we don't get into a play until 13 or 14 seconds, and that hurts us. It's all stuff that can be fixed. If they go back and watch Miami and the ball movement, they were picking us apart. That's the way the ball has to move if you're going to be a championship contender every year.

Is there anything left you want to accomplish? Not in this role, but in life?

This is my life. This is what I do. I've been fortunate to be involved in it for more than 30 years. I don't know what else I want to accomplish, but while I'm here I want to accomplish great things. I want to win a championship as bad as anybody else here, but it's like Slick (Leonard) always says, You've got to get there first. So let's try to get (to the Finals), and then it's up to the players.