COLUMN: A Larry Bird moment
Larry Bird, president of the Indiana Pacers, sat on the bench watching his Indiana Pacers team participate in an NBA Cares program at the Mall of Asia Arena. It was one of the activities for the visiting NBA team before they play the Houston Rockets in the first ever NBA Global Game in Manila.
Dressed in Indiana Pacers sweats, he smiled broadly as his players genuinely looked like they were having a good time even if jetlag was setting. “It’s a bitch, ain’t it,” as he muttered, his Hoosier twang evident despite the cacophony of sounds emanating form the court.
One of the greatest ever to lace up some high tops and play the game of basketball sat a few feet away. He looked older and more heavy set as opposed to his lean assassin’s frame when his Boston Celtics were one of the top teams of the 1980s.
Who didn’t want a picture with Larry Legend? Everyone wanted one. When he saw some eager photo hound headed in his direction, he moved out of the way -- a clear sign that he didn’t want to be pictured. Notoriously low key and private, I only recall a very few and select journalists with whom he bared his thoughts and basketball mind. Jackie MacMullan, Bob Ryan and Jack McCallum come to mind.
On one brief occasion, he taught one of the young Pacers a post move. No doubt, one that bagged him several thousand points in his hall of fame career.
But that was brief. Bird soon settled back onto one of the courtside seats. Why not? He was no longer coach of the Indiana Pacers but the team president.
If I got an opportunity to talk to Bird, I had a few hundred questions that I wanted to ask. Some of them about his years in Boston, some about the Dream Team, some about his foes in the NBA, some about his time as a Pacers executive, and some about his team.
This Pacers team is a younger one than the one he coached. One of his former charges, Jalen Rose, is in town as well. At that moment, Rose donned his old Pacers trunks and was teaching kids some simple defensive drills.
Rose too is far from his lean frame when he formed a lethal tandem with Reggie Miller on those late '90s to early 2000s Indiana teams.
Then I thought of a question. The other day, I saw this video of a 50-year old Michael Jordan schooling a young and petulant OJ Mayo. Did Bird take on any of these young punks who had no respect for their elders?
I debated whether it was an appropriate question. Maybe Bird has settled into a sedentary life. Maybe.
During the 15-minute press conference Bird gave Wednesday, he displayed his candor, wit, knowledge, and -- here it comes -- competitive spirit.
A question asked my a colleague, Jasmine Payo of the Philippine Daily Inquirer got that familiar old fire burning.
Jasmine: Where do you feel the most pressure? Being a player or…
Bird: Pressure? I don’t know what that is. (media room breaks out in laughter)
Jasmine: (unsure of what to do asks again) When do you feel…
Bird: Obviously, you’ve never seen me play. (smiles)
It was classic Bird and Jasmine had her Larry Bird moment. A rare one but revealing indeed.
However, Bird hopes that competitiveness rubs off on his team that is a few feet away from him stretching out getting ready for their second ever team practice on Philippine soil.
“It’s always tough to win a championship. What we’re trying to do is to build a team to compete on a nightly level. There’s some great competition in our league. We gotta continue to get better. Build these young players. I don’t compare this team to my Celtics team because it’s completely different in style that we play.
"But I do think that we are good enough. We’re deep enough to compete for a championship. As always our goal is to get to the finals and try to win the whole thing. But overall, this team is completely different than the teams I played on. But we’re getting better. Obviously last year we got to the Eastern Conference Finals in a Game 7 against Miami. Until we make that next step we’re not going to get there. I do like our chances. I do like our team. And hopefully in a short period of time, we can challenge for a championship.”
The challenge for Bird isn’t just on the NBA hardcourt but in the hearts and minds of fans everywhere beginning with this first ever NBA Global Game in Manila. With the Los Angeles Lakers, the Celtics, the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls, to name a select few, becoming “global brands,” one goal is to put the Pacers in that same pantheon.
“Sure this is great. We want to get out from Indiana and get more recognition. Obviously the further you play the more people will watch it. This is great for us to be here. Believe me, this is not something we did not want to do. We wanted to do this. We have a brand and we want everyone around the country to like us.”
The country for sure likes this rare Bird. Everyone at that presscon hung on to his every word.
After all, it isn’t every day when the basketball gods descend into this corner of the world.