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Wednesday, September 3, 2003
Bird finally gets his man

Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- A week ago, Rick Carlisle was content to spend the upcoming NBA season in a television studio.

On Wednesday, he jumped back into coaching.

When you examine Rick Carlisle's accomplishments in Detroit, it's easy to say with confidence that he'll do a good job in Indiana. In both years of what was thus far his only head coaching experience, the Pistons overachieved and won the Central Division.

Carlisle made the Pistons better than the sum of their parts. And when a coach can get greater production from his players than the potential they possess, it's a testament to his coaching ability.

Clearly, Larry Bird has high regard for Carlisle. When I spoke with Bird last spring, we were discussing end-of-the-game situations and how coaches draw up plays. Oftentimes, the play doesn't work out the way it's drawn up, Bird interjected, "Have you ever seen Rick Carlisle draw up a play? He's superb at doing that."

Which, by the way, is no small task. Oftentimes, while sitting courtside for radio, I'm able to watch what the coaches are drawing up on special plays -- sometimes it looks like a road map in a traffic jam with lines all over the place. You can tell the players are looking, but not necessarily understanding what's in front of them.

Certainly this one aspect doesn't make a great coach, but it's a nice attribute to have and speaks to Carlisle's skill level.

His new players will quickly realize that he'll help them win. Jermaine O'Neal is an extremely mature young man, who, I'm sure, with all of his appreciation for his relationship with Isiah Thomas, will recognize that coaching not a popularity contest.

So, whether his new players like him or not, they'll respect him for what he brings as a coach and for his virtually unflappable demeanor. Players like a coach who can keep his cool and stay on top of the game -- that's what they're getting in Rick Carlisle.

Carlisle ended a week of speculation by signing a four-year contract with the Indiana Pacers, the same team that bypassed him in favor of Isiah Thomas three years ago.

Carlisle was the only person new Pacers president Larry Bird considered for the job.

"I was probably two or three days from taking ESPN's offer before Larry called me with this opportunity," he said.

Carlisle didn't hesitate to give Bird an answer. The only snag was contract negotiations.

Bird, Carlisle and Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh all declined comment on how much the deal was worth.

But Bird indicated Carlisle agreed to a contract worth less than the going rate for an experienced NBA coach, at least initially, because the Pacers still owe Thomas $5 million for this season. Thomas was fired Aug. 27.

The Detroit Pistons owe Carlisle $2 million after firing him in June.

"It would never have happened if he didn't help us out in a big way," Bird said.

Carlisle replaces Thomas, who was 131-115 in three seasons. The Pacers reached the playoffs all three years under Thomas, a Hall of Famer who spent his entire 13-year playing career with the Pistons, but also had three straight first-round playoff exits.

Wednesday's news conference announcing the hiring of Bird's longtime friend, former teammate in Boston and former assistant with the Pacers was in stark contrast to the one in July when Bird was introduced as team president and he and Thomas walked off the stage, glaring at each other.

Instead, Carlisle and Bird joked, shook hands and seemed to enjoy sharing the spotlight.

"Donnie wanted me to go to charm school and Larry wanted me to go to a Dale Carnegie course," Carlisle joked. "I told him I'd gone to a Dale Carnegie course in 10th grade. He didn't believe me."

Carlisle turned the 45-minute session into his version of the Oscars, thanking everyone from his former players in Detroit to the Pistons front office to ESPN executives to the Pacers owners and front office.

He spent two seasons in Detroit, winning the NBA's 2001-02 coach of the year award, and leading the Pistons last season to their first Eastern Conference finals since 1991.

While his 100-64 record and postseason success weren't enough to keep him employed in Detroit, Carlisle's track record and relationship with Bird were enough to win him the Pacers job.

"I like this roster very much," Carlisle said. "I had opportunities to get involved again, but I declined. This was a job, that when it came up, you had to take it."

The move brings Carlisle back to one of his previous stops, where he was an assistant all three seasons Bird coached the Pacers, the most successful three-year span in Pacers history. Bird's time as coach ended with Indiana making its only NBA Finals appearance against the Los Angeles Lakers in 2000.

Bird left after the season and Carlisle was one of three finalists to replace him. Walsh, then team president, chose Thomas over Carlisle and Byron Scott.

"He's very serious about his work, and I think he'll do a fine job," Bird said of Carlisle. "I expect no problems at all."

Carlisle's first task with the Pacers will be patching up a relationship with All-Star forward Jermaine O'Neal, the team's leading scorer and rebounder who in July signed a seven-year contract to stay in Indiana.

Last week, O'Neal said he would not have re-signed if he knew Thomas would not return.

"I had a very nice conversation with Jermaine Saturday," Carlisle said. "I told Jermaine, I understood what Isiah Thomas meant to him as a coach, mentor and friend and I told him in no way would I try to replace that."

Bird said he wanted to meet with O'Neal in person when he returned to Indianapolis.

The quick return to coaching was not something Carlisle had expected.

"This summer, I really thought I'd be taking the path I did three years ago -- taking the year off," he said. "I think, generally, things happen for a reason."