ORLANDO — The most publicly reluctant general manager is back in the game as Larry Bird has returned to run the Indiana Pacers after a one-year hiatus, and his brutally honest personality is unchanged.
Speaking from the summer league, Bird offered pointed opinions on a variety of NBA topics, including the Celtics’ rebuilding plan, the hiring of Brad Stevens, and hanging on to veterans past their prime.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge imploded the roster as expected, dealing Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets to garner future assets. Bird was part of the previous Big Three in Boston and remained with the Celtics until his back couldn’t withstand the NBA rigors, retiring in 1992. Kevin McHale hung around until 1993, coming off the bench for his final three seasons. Robert Parish left for the Charlotte Hornets after the 1993-94 season at age 41.
It took the Celtics 10 years to recover from that transition. So Bird understood Ainge’s desire to rebuild the Celtics before sinking into insignificance.
“It’s tough,” said Bird. “I knew I was on my way out. Actually I was going to leave a couple of years earlier and [former Celtics president] Dave Gavitt talked me into staying. It was tough. There was always talk about should Red [Auerbach] trade us early, but there’s loyalty there in that organization and he decided to keep us.
“But you always gotta look out for the franchise. You always do.”
What Bird considered loyalty 20 years ago would be franchise suicide today. The Celtics showed last season they were a team on the decline. Pierce and Garnett gave every bead of sweat they had but the Celtics finished just 41-40. Ainge had to move forward.
In his own comedic way, Bird lauded Ainge’s abilities as a general manager and passion for rebuilding quickly.
“Believe me, Danny Ainge knows what he’s doing,” Bird said. “He won a championship. I never doubt Danny Ainge. I only doubted him when he had the ball in his hands and three seconds to go. Not in the position he is in now. Danny does a good job. You know you do get older. You can’t beat Father Time and I’m sure things will work out.”
While Bird prefers to observe his former organization on more of a casual basis, he couldn’t hide his admiration for Pierce. His place in Celtics history will be rather murky. Does he compare with Bird, McHale, John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, Dave Cowens, and Bill Russell? Or does the fact he played in such a bizarre era of Celtics basketball — filled with upheaval, coaching changes, losing streaks, and then the splendid Big Three Era — cloud his legacy?
Bird, like Havlicek, who called Pierce the best scorer in Celtics history, has nothing but adulation.
“He’s one of the better ones to ever come through there. He really is,” Bird said. “I would have loved to see [Pierce retire a Celtic]. I got a lot of respect for Paul and what he has accomplished. But who says he’s not going to play another four years? It’s a tough situation.”
Bird spoke with energy and vigor, which was drastically different than the conclusion of the 2011-12 season, when he seemed exhausted. He stepped down and allowed former Pacers president Donnie Walsh to run the team, and Indiana reached the Eastern Conference finals without its most heralded player, Danny Granger.
Players that Bird drafted — Paul George, Lance Stephenson, Roy Hibbert — contributed greatly to the playoff run. Bird said his respite was necessary.
“I feel better. I had some injuries and mentally it was nine straight years and Donnie felt like he wanted to come back and I didn’t know if I was going to come back this year,” he said. “But they continued to call, leave messages, and I spoke to the owner [Herb Simon] and Donnie numerous times and [they told me] if you’re going to do it, you’d better do it now because it’s not going to get any easier down the road.”
Bird did not back away from the high expectations for the Pacers, or the challenge of dethroning the two-time defending champion Heat. George, a star on the rise, is eligible for a long-term extension this summer.
“We like that, that’s what we play for, we want high expectations,” Bird said. “We want to do well and we want to be on a level where we can compete every night. [But] we’re always fighting an uphill battle with the revenue, but that’s part of who we are and we do the best with what we have.”
Despite their Indianapolis connection Bird said he has never met Stevens, but he endorsed the new Celtics coach.
“I’m not surprised [he took an NBA job] . . . I think he’ll do fine. But it takes time,” Bird said. “[Stevens is] very patient. He doesn’t get too excited. When the players watch their coach and they don’t get excited, they play with a demeanor and keep pushing and pushing and everything is going to be all right. It carries over to his players. And that’s why [Butler] got so far in the last few years.”
After about 10 minutes, Bird ended the media session. He had given his take on numerous topics and it was time to return to anonymity, which for him is an impossible task.