- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2003

Larry Bird stole the ball in Game5, and the Celtics stole the series from the Pistons in 1987.

To which Isiah Thomas, in frustration, said If Bird were black, he would be “just another good guy” in the NBA.

Thomas later apologized for his comment, claiming it was a joke, when it really reflected the bitterness, conceit and ill-tempered nature of the two rivals.

No, it was not going to work, this arranged relationship involving two of the game’s biggest names: Bird, the newly appointed president of basketball operations with the Pacers, and Thomas, the three-year coach.

There was too much baggage between the men. There were too many ornery games in their past. There was too much animosity.

They took one leery look at one another after Bird assumed his duties with the Pacers seven weeks ago, and it was as if they were being pulled back on the floor again: Bird with the Celtics, Thomas with the Pistons and mayhem all about them.

How could they put the raw passion behind them?

How could they broker a championship future for the Pacers if the sight of each man prompted a journey to the run-ins with Bill Laimbeer and the “phantom punch” of Robert Parish?

They vowed to start anew, though uncertain how, as a mere two conversations between the two in seven weeks attest. Bird probably talked that many times with the team’s ball boy.

In the end, they could not escape a simple truth. They were meant to be on opposite sides, their brief union an accident.

Each man has tried to reinvent himself following a Hall of Fame career: Bird, the reluctant coach and prospective owner, and Thomas, the front-office guru, CBA owner and NBC talking head. Nothing matches the time when the ball was in their hands.

Like them or not, they were flawless competitors, arguably the best ever at their respective positions: Bird as the do-everything small forward and Thomas as the consummate 6-foot point guard.

They were basketball opposites, though stereotypes in their own way: Bird the small-town Indiana kid with the bent rim hanging from the barnyard door and Thomas the streetwise playground artist from the wrong part of Chicago.

They were different, yet alike, which perhaps also explains their contempt.

Each player would rip your heart out and then gloat about it.

They were poor losers. They were poor winners, too.

Bird talked trash with the best, playing with a sneer on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

Thomas was the angry little man of the NBA, almost Napoleonic, forever out to cut down the tall timber in his midst. He once took a 40-stitch elbow from Karl Malone, perceived to be payback for trying to show up John Stockton. That was Thomas. He backed down from no one, big or small, and fought two of the biggest names in the game: Bird and Michael Jordan.

Thomas is said to have orchestrated the great freeze-out of Jordan in the 1985 All-Star Game, which led to Thomas being left off the original Dream Team in 1992. Thomas deserved to be on that team, of course. He earned it the old-fashioned way, with skill and sweat, but also with a lot of guts.

But basketball is a political game, too. Thomas has scored a few victories there, and lost a few, too. He lost one this week.

His coaching acumen was debatable, mostly a work in progress, not unlike it was with Bird in his three seasons as coach of the Pacers.

Thomas was tabbed to rebuild the franchise after Bird left the bench, beating out Bird’s anointed favorite, Rick Carlisle, who, coincidentally, happens to be available to take the job.

Thomas could not help Ron Artest, as if anyone outside the mental-health community could. The Pacers seemingly rose and fell with Artest’s mood swings last season. The Pacers were the best team in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break and an afterthought by the start of the playoffs.

They were young, talented and petulant, hardly in line with the professional presence of Reggie Miller, Mr. Pacer himself. This could have been their season, even with Thomas, which perhaps was an element in Bird’s thinking. It could not be his franchise as long as Thomas was around. Neither man was about to relinquish that role to the other.

No justification was really necessary in the firing after Thomas compiled a 131-115 record in three seasons and established the habit of being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

A president of basketball operations could go either way on the record.

What made it untenable was the sweet history between the two.

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