- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

INDIANAPOLIS — Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas shook hands on their first day as boss and coach.

Neither smiled.

Bird, hired yesterday as the Indiana Pacers’ president of basketball operations, said he looked forward to working with Thomas, who succeeded Bird as coach three years ago.

The contentious rivals from their days leading the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons to NBA titles say their focus is on doing the same for the Pacers.

“We’ve not sat down yet,” Bird said. “Hopefully, we’re on the same page.”

Bird was the NBA’s coach of the year in 1998 and left the Pacers when his three-year contract ended. He guided the team to its only appearance in the league finals in 2000.

Bird will take over day-to-day decision-making from Donnie Walsh, who has led the franchise since 1986 and will stay on as chief executive.

Bird gave another explanation for walking away from the Pacers’ front-office job offer three years ago: an irregular heartbeat that left him exhausted.

“I don’t think a lot of people realized at the time that I had an arrhythmia,” he said. “I was sort of worn down and didn’t want a part of it, but I feel rejuvenated and ready to get to work.”

It took a year for the medication to control his heart problem. With his energy back, Bird was ready to return to the game and his home state, where he first made his mark in basketball in the small southern Indiana town of French Lick.

The Hall of Famer, who won three NBA titles with the Celtics in the 1980s, became more interested in returning to the NBA when the league decided to put an expansion team in Charlotte. Bird joined a group that sought the franchise, but the team was awarded to billionaire Robert Johnson in December.

He then started talking with other teams about front office jobs before Walsh called. Bird smiled when asked whether he had given up on becoming an NBA owner, recalling a conversation with Pacers owners Herb and Mel Simon.

“I asked the Simons five, six years ago if they wanted to sell and they wouldn’t do it, so I doubt if it is in the foreseeable future,” he said.

Walsh said he would fulfill the remaining four years on his contract with the Pacers and that he expected Bird to replace him.

“I’m glad to have him back in Indiana where he belongs,” Walsh said. “This will be a new era of Pacer basketball.”

Bird’s job includes making player and coaching decisions as well as taking charge of scouting. His relationship with Thomas will be closely watched.

Bird returns to a team that bears little resemblance to the veteran roster he coached to a 147-67 record, the best three-year stint in team history. Thomas led a young Indiana team into the playoffs each of his first three seasons, but the Pacers were knocked out in the first round each year.

Bird’s Celtics and Thomas’ Pistons crossed paths several times in the Eastern Conference finals in the late 1980s. Their most memorable battle came in Game5 of 1987, when Bird stole Thomas’ pass and fed Dennis Johnson for the game-winning layup that gave Boston a 3-2 lead. The Celtics won the series in seven games.

Thomas also criticized Bird, once saying if he were black he would just be another basketball player. Thomas later apologized for the remark.

“We competed hard against each other, and we enjoyed the game. We enjoyed competing,” Thomas said. “What most people probably don’t realize is that when you’re competing, you have a great deal of respect for him [because he works so hard.]”

A three-time MVP with the Celtics, Bird is one of the biggest stars in Indiana basketball history. He was a high school standout before leading Indiana State to the 1979 NCAA title game.

“I listened to other teams, I was talking to them and then Donnie said, ‘If you go back to work, do it here,’” Bird said. “It’s going to be exciting, and I know it’s going to be tough.”

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