Bird puts his message on the line for Pacers And to a man, Indiana responds with a season that exceeds expectations

June 01, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- It was, for Larry Bird, a time to send a message. And at that time, about three months ago, he asked the Indiana Pacers' backcourt of Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson into his office for a discussion.

"I called them into my office and told them this is a special team, and that they have an opportunity to win a championship," Bird recalled. "Deep down, I don't know if they believed that. When you get to this level and this time of the year, you have to put it on the line every night. They're good enough to beat everybody, if they play up to their potential."

Bird recalled that conversation last week, after the Pacers won consecutive games to get back into their Eastern Conference finals series against the Chicago Bulls. Last night that title run came to an end as the Pacers lost to the Bulls, 88-83, in Game 7 at the United Center.

It was the end of an incredible year for the Pacers, who, one year after failing to make the playoffs, won a franchise-record 58 games. That turnaround earned Bird Coach of the Year honors, and he guided his team to the conference finals, where it gave the Bulls a major scare.

"They gave us one heck of a series," said Chicago coach Phil Jackson. "It [losing] was a disappointment for them, but it was a great series."

Added Chicago reserve guard Steve Kerr: "I'd like to say the game was never in doubt. But there was doubt the whole way. They've got some great players and they're a great team."

But those accolades mean little to Bird, who believed his team had a chance to win a title even when everyone else had doubts. By the midpoint of this series, he had his players believing they were of championship material, and the Pacers almost pulled it off.

A fierce competitor as one of the greatest forwards to ever play the game, winning three championships with the Boston Celtics, Bird has a strong desire to win. So Bird, who ripped his team for a lackluster effort after a Game 5 loss here, was disappointed that his team failed to advance.

"Coming into this series, I felt we had a good enough team to win," Bird said. "We didn't do that. We wanted to win a championship. I knew we could be here at the end and do it if we could make plays. We didn't, and Chicago did."

And surprisingly in defeat, Bird was questioning whether his players would even want him back after the defeat.

"I didn't get them where I wanted to take them," Bird explained. "I'll talk to my players and see if they like the way they're going or whether they want someone else to lead them."

Bird needn't ask. The Pacers, to a man, have expressed gratitude about the no-nonsense coach who molded a group of veterans into one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

"No," was Jackson's response when asked whether the Pacers could have gone this far without Bird. "He was truly Coach of the Year. He did a brilliant job, he made the game fun for us. It's disappointing we didn't win it all."

Bird provided one of the most memorable moments of this year's playoffs, his lack of expression as everyone surrounding him went crazy following Miller's three-point basket that provided the win in Game 4 in Indianapolis.

"[My team is] going to watch every move I make," was Bird's explanation of why he barely blinked an eye. "They need somebody they can lean on, not someone who's cheering for them when they make big plays. They need somebody who can focus."

And Bird provided such a focus for a team that, with the likely breakup of the Bulls, could step up as the new power in the Eastern Conference.

"I've seen my team grow," was Bird's response when asked about his best memory of this season. "We're done a good job of staying focused and together."

He's No. 1

Michael Jordan shot past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the top of the all-time playoff scoring list last night. The leaders:

Player .................... Points

1. x-Michael Jordan ....... 5,786

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar .... 5,762

3. Jerry West ............. 4,457

4. Larry Bird ............. 3,897

5. John Havlicek .......... 3,776

6. Magic Johnson .......... 3,701

7. x-Hakeem Olajuwon ...... 3,674

8. Elgin Baylor ........... 3,623

9. Wilt Chamberlain ....... 3,607

10. x-Karl Malone ......... 3,541


Pub Date: 6/01/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.