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Back on center court NBA: Larry Bird, once one of the true superstars of the game, is making a successful transition to coaching in his first season with the Pacers.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

INDIANAPOLIS -- There are three minutes until game time at Market Square Arena. Reggie Miller and Chris Mullin are among the Indiana Pacers warming up, although in the stands there are more than a few fans who couldn't care less about what's happening on the court.

Their focus is on the tunnel.

Suddenly, applause begins to build almost wave-like, section by section. By the time the focus of their attention reaches the top of the tunnel, the entire arena is standing and applauding. Just like the scene that played out in Miami two nights before, in San Antonio last week and Detroit last month.

Larry Bird acknowledges the applause with a slight wave of the )) hand.

For 13 years, Bird was one of the most watched figures in professional sports. And he hated the spotlight, grudgingly doing interviews and publicity galas. After he retired in 1992, it seemed his days on stage were over.

But the lights are on him again. As coach of the Pacers, Bird has directed Indiana to the best 31-game start in the team's NBA history -- 21-10.

The spotlight is the price Bird has to pay to satisfy competitive juices that have been percolating since he stopped playing. So far, he says it has been tolerable. And so far, the Pacers love the attention they have been getting. A team that last season was considered in decline because of age is now seen as a vibrant collection of veterans who are turning heads with their unselfish play.

"It's been fun, it's been exciting and I'm glad I did it," Bird said in his Indiana twang after a recent practice. "I'm learning as I go, because I've never coached before.

"This is different, because when I was playing, I could figure out what guys were trying to do, and I knew exactly what my teammates were going to do. Sitting on the sidelines, you never know how a player's going to react in tough situations. And there's really nothing you can do about it."

The disheveled hair and plain attire for Larry Bird, the basketball player, are gone. Larry Bird, the coach, sports coiffed hair, sharp wool suits provided by Nordstrom and designer shoes.

Now 41, there's a hint of a double chin and slight wrinkles around his eyes, but his long stride remains confident and he still looks as if he could drop 30 points a night.

He's a player's coach who is cool on the sidelines during the most stressful situations.

But he's also a fierce competitor who won't hesitate to get in a player's face.

"He'll call you out in a minute," said Pacers forward Antonio Davis, who has felt Bird's wrath. "He'll tell you if you haven't come ready to play, if you don't want to sacrifice and do the things that it takes to be champions -- you have to leave."

Calm on the bench

It's game time between the Pacers and the New Jersey Nets, and one of the biggest contrasts in coaching styles is unfolding. New Jersey coach John Calipari, less than a minute into the game, is unmercifully screaming at second-year guard Kerry Kittles, at one point actually singing, "Kerr-rry, you've got to get ooo-pen." Calipari also curses at officials and slams the scorer's table.

On the other bench, Bird sits calmly, his legs crossed. Just like his playing days, he never loses his cool. You're not likely to witness Bird screaming, whether he's overseeing a practice or coaching a game.

"I'm not a screamer or a hollerer, and K.C. Jones never was," said Bird, who tries to pattern his demeanor after the former Celtics coach. "I've always felt that if a coach is into the game and he's hollering and screaming at the officials and players, it takes something away from the game. It's a player's game. I don't want to embarrass anybody."

But the fire and drive that were Bird's trademark as a player remain. And like Bird, the player, used to stroll up to a defender and describe in colorful detail just how he was going to beat him, Bird, the coach, is blunt with his players when pointing out their shortcomings.

"I'm very direct and to the point, and if somebody's playing like crap, I tell them," Bird said. "I tell them in the locker room, I tell them at halftime. I take it right to the individual. And if you don't step it up, I'm putting somebody else in."

For Davis, a well-sculpted forward with the Pacers, that no-nonsense approach was driven home in the first days of training camp.

"After one of the early practices, he called my name out and told me to start running," Davis said. "He told me that when I wasn't tired, I played a great game of basketball, but once I got tired, I might as well not be on the floor. He said that to me, and he said that in the papers.

"I hated him in the beginning. I'm not going to lie. But you know something? He was right. I wasn't in shape to play the way I'm capable. Now, I'm in shape, I'm playing effectively and that comes from him. Because if you would have asked me at the time, I would have told you I was in great shape."

His home court

There's a photo of a casually dressed Bird on the cover of the 1997-98 media guide, looming larger than life over Market Square Arena. Next to him are the words "Back Home Again."

The hiring of Bird wasn't some spur-of-the-moment publicity stunt intended to appease fans upset with the team's dismal 1996-97 season, which ended a string of seven straight playoff appearances. The Pacers actually tried to hire Bird shortly after his retirement in 1992.

"I was asked before, but Larry Brown was here, and I thought he was an excellent coach for this team," Bird said. "Then I called [Brown] to see if he was interested in the Celtics job, and a week or two later, [Indiana] called and asked me if I were interested in this job. Really, I wasn't interested in getting back into the league."

But Indiana was home, and Bird missed the competition. And looking at the Indiana roster, a mostly veteran mix with four of the five starters having at least nine years of NBA experience, Bird felt the situation was ideal.

"I couldn't have dealt with a younger team my first year. I didn't want the headaches of helping guys make the adjustment from high school or college to the pros," Bird said. "It's important for me to have this team. If you're going to break in without any experience, you would want to break in with this team."

When he was offered the job, Bird was working with the Celtics as a consultant and Rick Pitino had just taken the Boston position. Asked whether his input was well-received by the Boston organization, Bird laughed.

"I thought in the beginning that they might listen to me," Bird said. "But then I got phased out. I had my hands in a lot of things and went to a lot of meetings, but things weren't going the way I thought they should and I was disappointed.

"I was leaving there anyway, whether I got this job or not, because I didn't like what was going on. They kept asking me to come back and do something. But I just felt my input wasn't there."

Asked whether he could have coached the Celtics, Bird replied without hesitation: "No, not at all. I played there, I had a good

career there. But I didn't want to be the guy that had to try to rebuild with a young team."

A 'target place'

Desperate to be a part of a winning team, Mullin last season began to focus on where he would like to be traded. Indiana was on his short list, and vaulted to the top when Bird was named coach.

"That became the target place for me after he was hired," said Mullin, 34, who was an original Dream Team teammate of Bird during the 1992 Olympics. "He's always been a mentor, a teacher, kind of a coach from a distance. I would watch him, study him and find out what he did in the off-season to make him the player he was."

For Indiana guard Mark Jackson, 32, his first five years in the league as a member of the New York Knicks were spent mostly trying to chase down the rival Celtics in the Atlantic Division.

"I never really had any relationship with him before, because we were opponents," Jackson said. "But I always had a lot of respect for him as a basketball player. I always enjoyed playing against him."

Even rookie forward Austin Croshere, whose upbringing in California as a Lakers fan in the 1980s made him an automatic Celtics hater, always appreciated Bird.

"To say I grew up watching the Lakers in the '80s, it's almost impossible to say I didn't grow up watching Larry Bird," Croshere said. "I hated to see my team lose to them, but he was a great player. And it's a great honor to play for him."

Bird, whose entrance into the league alongside Magic Johnson in 1979 launched the NBA into the popularity it enjoys today, played in an era when the spotlight shone on the truly great players -- a far cry from the league today.

"There are a lot of guys that live off the fact that they make one commercial -- they're superstars," Bird said. "I think the word 'superstar' is overblown. Really, in our league, we don't have that many true, true superstars."

bTC Bird, one of the game's biggest superstars, should know. Whether he was loved by Boston fans or hated by those claiming allegiance to other teams, Bird was always respected. And a lot of those fans who booed him as a player are rising to their feet in NBA buildings across the country, paying tribute to one of the last, true superstars.

"You know we're the players, but even as a coach he's bigger than us," Davis said. "When he first came, we were fascinated about being coached by a guy who had been through the wars and won the titles.

"He is truly a legend. Hey, he's 'Larry Legend.' "

Pub Date: 1/06/98

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