AL HAMNIK: Pacers' Larry Bird adjusting to NBA fishbowl existence

2014-05-10T17:45:00Z 2014-06-02T22:57:08Z AL HAMNIK: Pacers' Larry Bird adjusting to NBA fishbowl existenceAl Hamnik Times Columnist nwitimes.com
May 10, 2014 5:45 pm  • 

As his Pacers were busy shoveling dirt on the suffocating Wizards in Game 3 of Friday night's playoffs, ESPN cameras caught team president Larry Bird behind the team bench.

Was that a smile?

Lately, he hasn't had much reason to amid Indiana's much-publicized struggles since the All-Star break.

But on this night in the nation's capital, the Pacers grabbed a 2-1 lead in their second-round series as center Roy Hibbert finally emerged from his cocoon.

All of this had me thinking how difficult it must be for a self-admitted country boy to hold such a high-profile position in the NBA and live a fishbowl existence.

Fade back to West Baden, when Bird was raised in nearby French Lick by Georgia Bird, who worked two jobs to support Larry and his five siblings. Bird's parents divorced when he was in high school and father Joe committed suicide a year later.

Bird used basketball as a release from family troubles and says growing up poor motivates him to this day.

A Chicago writer called him 'The Hick From French Lick' at Indiana State and the label stuck even with the Boston Celtics. There was no social media, thankfully.

The nickname angered Bird, who avoided obtrusive media during his college career until the 1979 NCAA title game with Michigan State and charismatic Magic Johnson.

Bird's transition from an "aw-shucks" country boy to an NBA bigwig still isn't complete, as you could tell Friday when ESPN spotted the Hall of Famer in the Verizon Center crowd.

He looked uneasy, though happy I'm sure, after his team held Washington to a franchise-low 63 points.

But he gives few interviews other than to Indianapolis media, isn't the most accessible executive and would rather blend in than stand out at any public forum.

"I'm more used to it now than I was in college. This is a whole different world for me," Bird said. "I am a loner. I like to be myself. I like my down time.

"I enjoy basketball and that's why I do this. I've been living this life since I was a kid. I had an opportunity to coach (the Pacers) for three years and now I'm in this business, so you do run into a lot of people."

In mid-March, when the Pacers were regressing and the wheels appeared ready to come off, Bird spoke up publicly. He was disappointed and embarrassed.

"A lot of times, we don't take the fight to them (the opponent)," he said then. "I think (coach Frank Vogel) has to start going after guys when they're not doing what they're supposed to. And stay on them, whether you've got to take them out of the game or limit their minutes."

Bird quickly had the national spotlight on him, not an endearing thought if you know this guy.

"It's definitely a new lifestyle. You do run into a lot of people. You have a lot of meetings, but I tend to still have my time to get away, have my time to be in my office and study players," Bird told me.

"I go to every practice, every shoot-around, every home game. It's part of the job. It's a routine I'm used to and I enjoy it."

As long as those wheels stay on.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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