There is more Rik Smits than you remember. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Rik Smits was smooth for a guy with a hoagie-sized feet, but it is something you have to adjust for, like you’re entering a dark room on a sunny day. When the Pacers needed a bucket while down four late in an eminently winnable Game 7 against the ‘98 Bulls—Scottie Pippen’s back telling him quit, Dennis Rodman pretty much cooked, even Michael Jordan the slightest bit creaky at age 34—they looked for Smits on the left block. Mark Jackson did that thing he did a million times per contest, where he backed the defender down from 25 feet, and then he turned and fired an entry pass directly into Ron Harper’s palms, turning the ball over and effectively burying the Pacers’ Finals hopes.
The Smits stratagem made sense at the time. Reggie Miller had gone quiet in the fourth quarter and that particular Bulls squad didn’t have much in the way of frontcourt defense. (Dale Davis wasn’t a crunchtime threat due to his poor free throw shooting, but he had spent the series repositioning Toni Kukoc like a cardboard standee.) So, sure: Smits in the clutch. If you could get him the ball, tall and skilled as he was, you knew he’d at least get a decent shot off. In a world where Mark Jackson attempts a bounce pass, maybe Smits cans a baseline turnaround over Luc Longley and we see what happens with the Bulls up two in the final minute.
I’m thinking about this sequence because I’m thinking about those late 90s Pacers squads because, at root, I’m thinking about Larry Bird. Basketball exists only in the memory these days, we don’t have to pretend to care about the MVP race, so we’re free to explore the fullness of our intellect. I’m starting with the Legend and I’m sure the groundbreaking ontological work will follow from there.
Anyway, that Game 7 loss in the Eastern Finals concluded Bird’s first season as head coach of the Pacers. He took over a team that had been previously successful under Larry Brown but when they struggled through injuries in 1996-97, Brown’s habitual wanderlust kicked in. He leaked to the press that he was thinking about moving on, and then the players quit on him, and that’s how Bird landed in an ideal situation, in charge of a solid veteran squad in his home state of Indiana.
“It surprised me that [Larry] would want to be a coach because I never thought he was the type of guy who would be interested in it,” Danny Ainge said, when he heard about Bird taking the Pacers gig. An ancient Red Auerbach was more direct: “it's a 15-hour day and travel and responsibility and aggravation and emotional ups and downs. Holy god almighty, what would he want that for?'' The tone of a lot of the contemporary coverage of Bird’s hiring is politely quizzical. I mean, sure, if that’s what he wants to do… This was several years after Magic Johnson had taken over the Lakers and lasted 16 exasperated games. When Donnie Walsh was asked the inevitable question about great players not necessarily making great coaches, he cited Billy Cunningham and Lenny Wilkins. There was no precedent then and there is no corollary now for Larry Bird having an aptitude for a job he didn’t express much interest in until suddenly there he was on the sidelines, looking on impassively while Mark Jackson brought the ball up the floor.
I’ve long been a fan of this Runner’s World article in which Larry Bird covers the magazine’s beat with Hemingwayesque spareness. First because it contains 27 instances of the word run and second because it perfectly illustrates Bird’s condition as the most matter of fact human being who has ever lived. This is a trait that played well with the Pacers’ collection of seasoned pros. “He keeps things simple and direct,” Jackson said. “You never have to wonder if there’s some hidden meaning.” Larry didn’t yell at his players during games. He understood his own intimidating presence, that he could command respect and inspire discipline merely by being himself. Larry Bird asks you to do something, you do it. He knew he wasn’t a master strategist, so he hired Rick Carlisle to design the offense and Dick Harter to take care of the defensive scheme. (Bird’s hilarious asceticism: Carlisle and Harter were his only assistants.) Larry’s chief contribution to the Pacers on-court product was his insistence that everybody show up for the season in basketball shape, which sounds obvious in 2020 but was not exactly a given in the late 90s. When half the league arrived overweight and wheezing after the 1998-99 lockout, Indiana hit the ground running, because that’s what Bird expected of them.
With the benefit of hindsight, that lockout-shortened season was the Bird’s best shot at bringing a title home. The Bulls had disintegrated over the summer following Jordan’s retirement and the Pacers were extremely motivated, having come up just short of the Finals the previous year. They were more good than great, but the NBA was in flux and anything was possible. Unfortunately, that broad range of possibility also included a demoralizing six-game Eastern Finals loss to the Knicks in which Reggie Miller shot 36 percent from the field and Marcus Camby destroyed Rik Smits on the interior. Even though the Pacers finally reached the championship series the following season, they faced off against a spectacularly talented Lakers squad that had gotten their house in order under Phil Jackson and were at the outset of a dynasty. The 1999 Spurs were a significantly more beatable opponent.
Bird stepped down shortly after losing to the Lakers in the Finals, for the simple fact that he had promised to stick around for only three years. Over that span, he went 147-and-67, which is kind of a neat little accomplishment in comparison to Bird’s playing career and happens to represent the most successful spell in franchise history for the Pacers. It remains potently strange that Larry Bird, three-time MVP and something like the sixth-best player of all-time, breezed through Indiana, organized one of the best teams in the league, and then quietly walked away from a profession nobody knew he would be good at or even wanted to pursue in the first place.
Though he would go on to become a capable executive with the Pacers in the future, his brief coaching tenure was his final statement as an artist. It was about cheap talk, about the power of humility and a steady process. When he was hired, Bird admitted that the idea of drawing up fourth quarter plays on the whiteboard made him nervous: “I’d better get the Xs in the right places. Otherwise the guys are going to get awfully confused.” By the middle of his first season, he told SI: “I think I know basically what we’re trying to do.” At that point, the Pacers had won 19 of their last 24. He’d go on to win Coach of the Year and push Jordan right up to the cliff’s edge. Larry Bird played dumb and deadpanned as both a means of obfuscation and as a way of living his values. Don’t give the secret away; don’t get too pleased with yourself for keeping it either, or you’ll fall behind. He knew what was up, but he wasn’t going to tell you about it. You had to look for the genius in the work, where it always was.
More from Colin McGowan's Suspended Indefinitely series: