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INDIANAPOLIS — Larry Bird stares straight ahead, shakes his head slightly and tightens his lips. His eyes quickly dart back and forth. He slowly closes them and looks down.
Bird is the man who runs the Indiana Pacers, an NBA legend who was watching another loss as the all-new-but-not-necessarily-improved Pacers are struggling to get things started.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go.
“Larry is always locked in, always in tune with the team and always has high hopes,” said one Pacers staffer. “But this year, he expected us to challenge Cleveland.”
Instead, the Pacers sported a 5-6 record with the world champion Cavaliers strutting into their arena. One of the losses came to the dreadful Philadelphia 76ers — the Sixers’ lone win in 10 tries.
Bird has been involved with the Pacers in some capacity, on and off (mostly on), since the late 1990s. He’s a Hall of Famer as a player and sometimes Hall-of-Fame players don’t always understand modern players.
“I never saw a team so excited to eat sushi after a loss,” Bird said while storming out of the locker room back in 2007.
He has since adjusted a little more to the times, like them or not, and while he can still be brutally honest with the players and media, Bird will also occasionally offer praise. He will even sometimes do it when things aren’t going as great as he’d like.
For Bird and the Pacers, it was an offseason of change.
Frank Vogel was released as coach, replaced by Nate McMillan. George Hill was traded (to Utah). Jeff Teague, Al Jefferson and Thaddeus Young were added.
Paul George remained. So did Myles Turner, Monta Ellis and a few others. It seemed like a roster that could do more than just nibble at other Eastern Conference contenders.
Bird again was the man behind it. He believed in change.
There’s time, but at best, the Pacers are still finding their way and will be dangerous once they get it figured out. At worst, they’re merely a team with parts that don’t match.
So it’s games such as ones against the Cavaliers that can help determine where the rest of the season may go.
“It’s a big game,” McMillan said. “The world champs are coming in here. It’s kind of a game where you measure yourself.”
Bird won’t go on record, but he feels the same. He has stated repeatedly the Cavs are the model, the team everyone is chasing.
As Bird asked everyone in the room right before winning the NBA’s 3-point contest in 1987: “Who’s playing for second?”
He hopes the Pacers can at least get that far this season. It was the reason for all the change.
It was Bird being Bird, a man who is always watching, always trying to find ways to surprise, always thinking championship.
“I think we have the pieces,” Bird said. “It’s just how we come together. … I think it’s a nice team.”
If Bird is right, the Pacers will have to start soon. And soon may be now.