MARIETTA, Ga. - The hot, stuffy gym was silent. The final seconds of an ugly blowout were racing off the clock. And a leather-lunged guy behind the Indiana Pacers bench decided this was the perfect moment for a little suggestion.
"Hey," he barked, "put Larry in!"
Mark it down as the first time, but surely not the last, somebody will share such a sentiment at a Pacers game this year. Indiana may have Reggie Miller under contract, but most folks will probably think their best player is the one wearing the suit and drawing up the plays.
Early Friday evening at Life University, Larry Bird pretended not to notice. He just lowered his gaze and walked briskly off the court.
A group of Pacers rookies had just lost badly to a group of Celtics rookies, 100-73, and Indiana's first-year coach had a few pointers to share behind closed doors.
A few minutes later he came out to face a media throng at least a dozen strong. This had to be a record for one of these NBA summer leagues. But what do you expect when one of the greatest players in Celtics history goes against the kelly green for the first time ever?
Must have felt strange.
"Not at all," Bird said. "My career's over in Boston. It will be fun going back there in the regular season and competing against them. But my mind is on this team here."
Someone mentioned Rick Pitino, the man Bird initially helped lure to Boston, the man he was once supposed to work alongside as Celtics general manager. The $50 Million Coach was a no-show at the Atlanta Summer Shootout for the second straight day, again leaving his assistants to put up with the stolid air and the incessant whistles.
That, no doubt, disappointed the 1,000 or so fans who paid five bucks each to enter the Sports Health Science Center (And Sauna). There would be no holy war, no early showdown 31/2 months before the NBA season starts.
But still, Pitino's name came up.
"It's not about me and Rick," Larry Legend said a tad testily. "It's about me and the Pacers. I couldn't care less about the Boston Celtics. I care about the Indiana Pacers and doing the best job I can for them. I didn't even care who we played today. I just knew they'd press."
You may choose to believe this if you wish. We have our doubts.
After all, while the officials and the Celtics assistants wore shorts, Bird and his staff came in golf attire. His demeanor and his appearance seemed to suggest Bird wanted to win this game, even if it was a meaningless showcase for the likes of Danya Abrams and Mark Pope.
You don't spend 18 years on the Celtics' payroll and just walk away without any emotion.
You don't stage more than a few miracles on the parquet and hang the last three of those 16 championship banners from the rafters without thinking maybe this relationship was for life.
You don't wait patiently, quietly for the M.L. Carr experiment to flame out, don't sit there for five years as a consultant without expecting the kingdom's keys to land in your hands.
Instead, those keys went to Pitino, an outsider. The way we figure it, the May 6 hiring was just the second time in franchise history that the Celtics went outside the family to find a coach.
Only Bill Fitch's arrival at the start of Bird's playing career broke the straight shamrock line from Red Auerbach to Carr. That's 50 years of nepotism. That's an unparalleled tradition of mistrusting non-Celtics.
But Bird wasn't about to share his pain Friday. This wasn't the time nor the place. He stayed positive and kept his comments fairly bland, as befits a man with a $4.5 million annual salary of his own.
"I'm a rookie at this," he said. "I've never done this before. I'll learn as I go."
He's learned plenty already.
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