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With Isiah gone, Pacers soap opera just starting

SPECIAL TO ESPN.COM

Aug. 28
It didn't come as any surprise when Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird fired Isiah Thomas as Pacers head coach. I wasn't shocked at all when I heard the news.

You wonder about the timing of this decision because of the long-term deal superstar Jermaine O'Neal recently signed.
Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh and Bird made the decision just four weeks before training camp.

Bird and Isiah were fierce competitors as players, and you just knew that when the Pacers made the recent front-office move to bring Larry Legend back, a change was conceivable.

Bird wanted someone on the bench he felt comfortable with -- Rick Carlisle, his former assistant with the Pacers and former Celtic teammate. Carlisle, who enjoyed back-to-back 50-win seasons with the Pistons, is waiting in the wings and is a likely front-runner to replace Thomas.

You wonder about the timing of this decision because of the long-term deal superstar Jermaine O'Neal recently signed. One of the key reasons for O'Neal's return to Indiana (instead of signing with the San Antonio Spurs) was the presence of Thomas, his mentor. O'Neal has great respect for and appreciation of Isiah.

O'Neal re-signed with Indiana in July soon after Bird was hired as team president. The 24-year-old star has been quoted as saying that he absolutely expected Isiah to be back as coach. If he knew Isiah would be fired, O'Neal said he would have gone elsewhere.

Who can forget the press conference announcing Bird's return? Larry's comment was that both are competitors who want to help the Pacers win. He said that with their respect for each other, they would work together.

That didn't last long, my friends. They didn't even work together for one game!

The Pacers had the best record in the Eastern Conference (34-15) at the All-Star break last season, earning Thomas the head-coaching job in the All-Star Game. Things went downhill after that, as Indiana lost 16 of 22 games in a two-week stretch. They limped into the playoffs with a disappointing 48-34 record before falling in the first round to the Boston Celtics in six games.

In three years with the Pacers, Thomas led them to the playoffs but fell in the first round each time. His three-year record was 131-115.

Now it will be interesting to see the soap opera between the Pacers and O'Neal, who is unhappy with Thomas' departure. Stay tuned.

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