Can Larry create another legend?


Nov 15

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Saturday will be a tough night for me because I admit it: I root for Larry Bird.


It’s an important game for the Bulls because it’s a chance to get to 5-5 before leaving for two weeks and eight of the next nine games on the road through Dec. 5. There’s one home game, against the 76ers Dec. 2. The Bulls can leave for the West at .500 or better for the third time since Michael Jordan retired. The Bulls were 3-2 going west in 2005-06 and then were 3-3 in 2006-07 before going 1-6 and finishing with a win in New York in the infamous Ben Wallace "I’m-wearing-my-headband-take-that-Scott Skiles game."


The Pacers are coming off an historic meltdown, blowing a 26-point lead to lose at home to the 76ers Friday. The Pacers have been something of a surprise this season because I thought they’d be awful—I guess a surprise to me. T.J. Ford has been terrific and Danny Granger has become an impressive scorer with all games of at least 20 before Friday. He’s played some power forward, and he hasn’t scored as well from there as from small forward.


There is an interesting lineup decision for the Bulls, who were very good against the Mavs Thursday using a small lineup of Rose, Gordon, Thomas, Gooden and Deng. The Pacers start hulking Rasho Nesterovic, which would suggest using Aaron Gray. But my abiding philosophy is if Rasho Nesterovic beats you, you deserve to lose and probably should forfeit the season.


The Pacers were dominating Friday when the 76ers tried to match them big. When the 76ers went small, which is when they had success last season and why they’ve struggled some this season trying to work Elton Brand in and clogging the middle, they took over the game against the Pacers. I’d stay that way and go fast against a relatively unathletic Pacers team.


It’s a team that’s undergone one of the most dramatic turnovers in the NBA, breaking up a 60-plus win team with Ron Artest, Jermaine O’Neal, Al Harrington, Stephen Jackson and Jamaal Tinsley from the horrors of the brawl in Detroit. There have been multiple incidents with police since then as one of the most respected organizations in the NBA became anathema in its own community.


Donnie Walsh left for New York and Bird finally took over.


As Larry told me in the summer, "Now I have my chance, so let’s see what I can do. Donnie had his for a lot of years. He was a great basketball man, a great man, period. I admired him and I learned a lot from him. Now I get my opportunity to do what I want to do with the team."


Bird hasn’t known much failure, and, really, he had to defer to Walsh. To regain the faith and confidence of the community, the Pacers had to dump players like David Harrison, Shawne Williams, Artest, O’Neal and Jackson for relatively little. They banished Tinsley. Can Bird rebuild it? He says he will.


As I said, I root for him. Despite his superstar status, he’s one of the most humble unaffected people I’ve ever met.


Here’s my favorite NBA story:


This is almost 25 years ago when I was relatively new to the NBA. I contacted the Celtics about setting up an interview with Bird when he was in Chicago. I was told it was all set, and, of course, no one told Bird. I arrived at the Deerfield Multiplex where the Bulls used to practice and waited for the Celtics to finish and walked up to Bird, who didn’t know me and explained about the interview. Bird said he knew nothing about it and the team bus was leaving. He said he always came to the arena three or four hours in advance to shoot and to see him then. I said I’d hoped for a one-on-one and other reporters might be there. I had gotten over my shyness working in Washington, D.C. a decade before covering Congress and the White House. So I told Bird I’d drive him to the team hotel. "Sure," Bird said.


Even then, it was relatively unheard of, though I didn’t realize it at the time.


I put on my tape recorder and shot questions at Bird for 30 minutes and then ran into trouble. First of all, my car then was a Toyota Celica. Not very big. Bird folded himself in without complaint. The Celtics were staying at the O’Hare Marriott and anyone who knows the O’Hare area knows it’s not exactly a highway cloverleaf area. Streets cut in on diagonals. Never having stayed at hotels there, I couldn’t find it. So there I am driving around and Bird is noticing I’m lost.


Remember, he’s a star by then with championships and a reputation—I don’t know how—as somewhat unapproachable.


He’s not saying much but seeing the same things.


"You’re lost, right?" Bird finally says.


"Uh, yeah," I admit, sheepish and embarrassed.


"Red’s gonna kill me if I miss the game because of this," Bird says with a laugh to make me feel more comfortable.


I pull over and get directions and get to the hotel. As I pull up, Bird says, "Do you have enough? Want to come in?"


By then I was sweating so badly, I just stammered, "Uh, no."


Years later I had gotten to know Bird well and was with him many times.


"Larry, I’ve got to ask you something," I said one day. "Why did you ever take that ride from me?"


Bird smiled and gave a bit of a shrug.


"Just a Hoosier looking for a ride, I guess," he said with a hearty laugh.


Let me tell you, there aren’t any guys in the NBA like that anymore and rarely have been.


I really hope Larry gets it done. If doing things the right way and treating people well counts for anything, he will.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors.

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