Larry Bird started the week by driving an IndyCar down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to stump for the NBA’s All-Star weekend returning to Indiana.
He ended it by stepping down as president of basketball operations for the Pacers, a stunningly abrupt decision that has become a hallmark of the NBA great’s post-playing career.
Bird made the call Friday and general manager Kevin Pritchard will be elevated to take his place, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the team has not announced the move, which was first reported by Yahoo! Sports.
Bird leaves the Pacers ahead of a pivotal summer in which the franchise will have to decide what to do with star forward Paul George. He can become a free agent after next season and there is wide speculation he would prefer to play for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pacers will have to decide whether to try to persuade him to stay long term or trade him.
With that potentially franchise-changing scenario pending, Bird is stepping down from a major role with the Pacers for a third time.
His quick exit follows a pattern for Bird. When the Hall of Famer makes up his mind, that’s it.
“Larry is very special, tremendous integrity,” Pacers owner Herb Simon told The Indianapolis Star this month. “His word means something.”
Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens didn’t know Bird well but is a longtime admirer.
“I thought he did a tremendous job as a coach and a front office person in Indiana when I was (at Butler),” Stevens said before Friday’s game at Chicago. “The runs they went on for all the years he was there was really impressive. So whatever he chooses to do I look forward to and certainly all wish him the best.”
Bird coached the Pacers from 1997-2000, leading them to the NBA Finals in 2000 before walking away from the job after applying a long-held theory that a coach’s effectiveness is diminished after three or four years on the job.
He returned as team president in 2003, helping construct a club that was among the best in the league, won 61 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2003-04. That team fell apart the following season after the “Malice at the Palace,” the ugly scene in Detroit in which players Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal fought with Pistons fans.
The French Lick, Indiana, native methodically reshaped the team into a contender again, building a promising core around George and Danny Granger and helping to mold Lance Stephenson from a troublemaker into a force. He was named NBA executive of the year in 2012, then stepped down a few months later.
Bird hinted at the time that health played a role in his decision then, and he stayed away for a year before returning as the Pacers’ top executive. With Frank Vogel as his coach, the Pacers reached the conference finals in 2013 and 2014 with a new core of George, Stephenson and Roy Hibbert.
Bird did not renew Vogel’s contract after last season and installed Nate McMillan as his coach. The Pacers were swept out of the first round this season by the Cleveland Cavaliers, a major point of frustration for George, one of the league’s most versatile stars.
George has not hesitated to make his displeasure known regarding the direction of the franchise. That sets up for what is sure to be a tense summer of talks and decisions. And the two also did not see eye to eye on the court, with George resisting Bird’s preference of playing him at power forward as part of a sleeker, faster lineup with Myles Turner at center.
The Pacers ultimately bowed to George’s preference to stay at small forward, and he averaged 23.6 points and 6.7 rebounds for a team that finished 42-40 this season and was never a real threat in the East.
Bird turned down several trade offers for George at the deadline in February, and his star rewarded him with exceptional play down the stretch to help the Pacers reach the playoffs. But their series against LeBron James and the Cavaliers, tight as it was, showed just how far they are from getting back to being a real factor in the conference.
Now Pritchard will be driving that bus. Long one of the more respected executives in the league, he left the Portland Trail Blazers after disagreements with owner Paul Allen in 2010 and joined the Pacers in 2011.
The transition should be seamless given Pritchard’s familiarity with the organization and time spent working with Bird. But he will not be able to ease into the big chair.
The biggest decision this organization has had to make in years is staring them right in the face, and Bird will not be the one making it.
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