INDIANAPOLIS | Near the southern tip of Indiana is basketball legend Larry Bird's hometown of French Lick, where he spent the first 19 years of his life among a population of 1,500.
His high school, Springs Valley on South Larry Bird Blvd., has an enrollment of 282.
Bird starred at Indiana State, its home games played at the Hulman Center (capacity 10,020). He won three NBA titles, three MVP Awards and was a 12-time All-Star with the Boston Celtics, but kept that small-town, low-key persona during his 13-year pro career.
After retiring, Bird coached the Pacers to the 2000 NBA Finals and in the spring of 2008 took over as president of basketball operations when Donnie Walsh left for the New York Knicks.
The Pacers are now 20-39 overall and 7-24 on the road.
"Larry Legend," in an exclusive sit-down with Times sportswriter Al Hamnik, discussed his plans to revive a franchise that will likely miss the playoffs a fourth consecutive year.
Question: Media referred to you as "The Hick From French Lick" which you found offensive while playing at Indiana State. Running an NBA team thrusts you into the national spotlight. Has the transition to crowded board rooms and cocktail parties been difficult?
Answer: Obviously coming from a small town and not being old enough to really know much about the world outside the little town I lived in, it's been very interesting, to say the least. As I went through my (playing) career and got more comfortable, even today when I'm out in public, I'm always asked how I put up with all the people who come up to me and want my autograph. It's just something I had to get used to.
Q: Since Reggie Miller retired after the 2004-05 season, the Pacers haven't had a winning record.
A: When I got into this, I knew I was taking on the biggest challenge of my life. Our problem started back in Detroit (the 2004 Palace of Auburn Hills player-fan brawl). From that point on, it's been a situation where I felt we had to eliminate the players who were here (Stephen Jackson, Ron Artest, Anthony Johnson, Jermaine O'Neal) and start fresh. When you do that, it's very difficult because we gave up a lot of talent and took a little less back in trying to rebuild this thing the way we think our fans would enjoy it each and every night they come down here to watch them play. It has been a struggle. We had some incidents with guys with guns (Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley, Marquis Daniels) and we'll continue to get past that, but it's really no excuse on my part. We're rebuilding and you can't wave the magic wand and say, OK, everything will be alright tomorrow because it's not.
Q: It sounds like your hands are tied at the moment.
A: Our problem is we're up against the (luxury) tax every year. We never had any flexibility to go out and get free agents. After next year, before we go into the collective bargaining agreement, we're going to be down to about $28 million to $30 million (below the tax threshold). We think, with a core group of about eight guys we want to go forward with, that we'll have the flexibility to build this team the way we want to build it.
Q: What's your timetable in achieving a possible NBA contender?
A: As a former player and coach, this is really the first time I've had to deal with losing, and I don't like it or any part of it. But it's a challenge and I love challenges. I don't need 10 years. I don't need five. When I laid out the plans, I told them in three years this franchise will be moving forward in the right direction. And it will be.
Q: What do the 2009-10 Pacers lack to turn that corner?
A: We lack a little bit of everything. When we drafted the last two or three times, starting with Danny Granger, we got a good player. We picked a kid named Sean Williams who I thought would complement Danny very well but, obviously, because of off-the-court problems, we had to move Sean to another team (New Jersey Nets). Then we got Roy (Hibbert), we got (Tyler) Hansbrough, we got A.J. Price. They're all solid guys who went to school for four years and are a base, a foundation, we can build on every year.
Q: What type of player do you search for in the draft or in a trade?
A: One who can play multiple positions and fit into your system. But most of all, the kid who wants to come in here and give you their best effort day in and day out; someone whose motor is always running. The most important thing in basketball is to be able to shoot the ball under the basket, in the post and extend yourself out. We shoot a lot of 3-pointers but we can't help it. We have to because we lack the athletic ability to go inside.
Q: You are among the NBA's 50 Greatest Players of all time and along with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, were credited with jump-starting league interest once again. Will that be your legacy?
A: That's not really up to me. That's up to the people who followed my career. My history is, when I played, I played as hard as I could. I tried to improve every day. I did all the extra work because I knew at the end of the games, I was going to have the ball in my hands. That was probably the best feeling.
PRO BASKETBALL | ONE ON ONE WITH LARRY BIRD