INDIANAPOLIS -- For his next feat, Larry Bird will slip out of his coaching camouflage and take on the task of guarding Michael Jordan.
He will trade his street clothes for satin shorts, and start calling plays for his surest shooter: Himself. He will lead the Indiana Pacers from the front lines, exchanging elbows instead of memos, making those brilliant touch passes no coach could teach.
What else is left for him to do? What other basketball challenge could engage his interest? In the space of four months, Bird has been nominated for the Basketball Hall of Fame and been named the NBA's Coach of the Year on his first try.
If he is to top himself now, he is going to have to aim high.
Wednesday night, the famous hick from French Lick maneuvered his Indiana Pacers around the New York Knicks and into the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals. The Pacers prevailed 99-88, clinching the best-of-seven series in five games, and providing Bird an enticing encore possibility.
No Pacers team has reached the NBA Finals. Nearly no one believes they can beat the Chicago Bulls. If Bird's magical mystery tour is not finished -- if there are more marvels in store this season -- then he should probably call it a career. He will have left himself a hopelessly hard act to follow.
"Obviously, the Bulls are the best team in the world," Bird said. "For us to beat them four games is going to be tough. Michael Jordan is the best basketball player who ever played. But we've got a group of guys who are looking forward to that challenge."
Bird's Pacers are a gritty bunch. They probably do not rank among the NBA's five most talented teams -- Reggie Miller is the only Indiana player who ranks among the league's top 20 scorers -- but they are seasoned and they are smart. Forward Dale Davis, at 29, is the youngest Indiana starter. Mark Jackson, the 34-year-old point guard, reminds Bird of himself because he must compensate with quick wits for a lack of footspeed.
Reggie Miller gets a hero's salute from Pacers fans.
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"We are a veteran basketball team," Jackson said Wednesday night. "We understand the job at hand. We do not get rattled. We do not beat ourselves."
The Pacers won't win many games playing run-and-gun, but they have yet to lose a game this season in which they scored 100 points. When Miller suggested a play be set up for him early in the season, Bird agreed on the condition he first make a stop on the defensive end.
Miller responded to Bird's challenge, and became his team's leader as well as its star. Wednesday, after the Knicks' Allan Houston scored 15 points in the first quarter, it was Miller's defense that shut him down. Maybe he would have done as much for Larry Brown. Maybe not.
"We needed something fresh," Jackson said, "and Bird came in and delivered just that. He stroked us, he criticized us, he did all the right things at the right time. But most of all, he believed in us."
Bird believed, in part, because he had played against most of these guys, knew their strengths and could imagine their possibilities. He inspired his players by the amount he trusted them.
"You hire people to do jobs and if they do them, you leave them alone and let them work," Bird said. "I'm not going to be directing people all over the court on every play. I have a lot of confidence in my players. I expect Mark Jackson to run the ball club. I expect my players to play hard and I expect Reggie Miller to hit the shots at the end. It's that simple."
Wednesday, Jackson ran the Pacers so well that the shots at the end were largely superfluous. He scored 22 points, had 13 assists and grabbed 14 rebounds -- a playoff triple-double against his old New York teammates.
"The game of his life," Miller called it. "A game for the ages." Jackson was asked if he had ever had a game so good.
"Yeah," he said, "playing Sega Genesis with my son."
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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