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Q&A: Pacers president Larry Bird

Larry Bird isn't a fan of teams tanking: "It makes me sick to my stomach," the Pacers exec said. Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- Long after his playing days have ended, Larry Bird remains extremely competitive. The idea of giving up on a season certainly is not in his DNA.

All-Star forward Paul George (broken leg) has not played this season, and yet, the Indiana Pacers are still fighting for a playoff spot.

Bird, the team's president, expects George to come back. He also expects his team to make the playoffs.

The Pacers have lost six straight games and play four of their next five on the road. Yet, Bird is optimistic.

"Anytime you lose five in a row, it's probably not the best thing, but we've had our ups and downs this year, and there aren't a lot of people that are expecting a whole lot," Bird told ESPN.com on March 23. "I still think we should make the playoffs in the East. I don't know how many wins that's gonna take, but we do have enough talent to make the playoffs, and it would be disappointing if we don't."

During a wide-ranging interview, Bird discussed the Pacers, his appreciation for Russell Westbrook, his disdain for tanking and, as always, he shared some terrific stories.

ESPN.com: Russell Westbrook has been averaging nearly 30 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds per game for over a month now. You've put together similar stretches during your career. What do you think of what he's been able to accomplish?

Larry Bird: Here's a young man that has had serious injuries -- bad knee injuries throughout his career -- yet every time he walks on the court, you know you're going to get 100 percent from him. He attacks, he's fearless and he plays the way it should be played, so I'm all for him. I hope he wins 10 MVPs in a row. I just love players that compete on a nightly basis and really take the challenge to their opponents.

ESPN.com: You and Russell obviously play two different positions, but does he remind you of yourself in terms of his competitiveness and will to win?

Bird: I don't know. I just think that my opinion about basketball, the way I was taught, was when you step on the court, you play to win. Now, if you're not supposed to play to win, then they shouldn't keep score. If they didn't keep score in these games, I wouldn't have played as hard as I did. But I do think this is our job. We know that we're going to be hurting years down the road. He knows that he's going to be hurting years down the road, but he can't help it. He has to play that way to be effective, and he knows that.

ESPN.com: Stephen Curry? James Harden? Anthony Davis? Who do you like for MVP?

Bird: It's like every other year. There are always a lot of candidates. I like all of them. I like all of our great players. I really do. On any given night, one of them can be special. But like with Russell, he's been special for a month. But he's been special his whole career, too. The MVP, I think, just like the All-Star teams -- somebody's going to get left out. I don't follow it that close, but there's so many players you can choose from, and you couldn't go wrong with any of them.

ESPN.com: You were able to build the Pacers through the middle of the draft, which has typically been extremely difficult. There's really no one perfect way to do things, but when you hear the word "tanking," what's the first thing that comes to mind?

Bird: It makes me sick to my stomach. For somebody that's been in this league for over 30 years, I don't think that's the way you do things, but that's my opinion. Everybody else has got their opinion. I've read in the past here where people thought we should lose on purpose. I don't believe in that. I've never believed in that. If I ever get that way, I'll be out of the game.

ESPN.com: That's just your competitive nature?

Bird: This is a competitive league. These players are paid large sums of money to perform at a high level. And when you come in and tell them, "We're tanking, and we're not playing to win tonight," what does that say for your league? It is what it is, but my opinion of it is, play to win. That's the way it is.

ESPN.com: You guys have hit on a lot of guys who have stayed in school -- Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert and Solomon Hill. Is that the direction you like to go in?

Bird: I don't think it's a direction. I do like four-year guys, though. They're low maintenance. They already know what the league's all about. We've taken some young guys -- Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and both of them are very good players. I don't think every draft we go in and say we've got to get a four-year guy or a three-year guy. It's really who's there. I know in Danny's situation, we followed Danny's career pretty closely. And I know when he came in here to work out for us, it was more of a favor to come in here than it was that we had an opportunity to draft him. I think we were at (pick No. 17) that year (2005), and we thought he was gonna be taken in the top six. But he slid to us and we knew about his knee injury and everything. It was pretty easy. If you saw the way Roy played his freshman year, you would've never dreamed he'd be on an NBA court. But the improvement, the work ethic he displayed, showed us that he'd be the best player he possibly could be by sheer work and force. Then, you take a lot of the other guys on our team -- David West was a four-year guy. It's just so much easier.

ESPN.com: Why did you decide to keep your team's core intact at the trade deadline?

Bird: I wanted to keep our group together because in the summer, if David and Roy opt out, we're back to zero, really. We don't have that much, so you leave your options open. If we did make a trade, I didn't want to take on a lot of contracts -- because that's what usually happens. Plus, I liked my guys. They're playing well. If we keep the core together and Paul comes back healthy, we'll be right back to where we were.

ESPN.com: Why do you think your team has been able to stay afloat in the playoff race despite not having Paul George all season?

Bird: We do have some talent. The additions of Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles really helped us. Once they became acclimated to what we were trying to do, they played a lot better. But you're still missing your best player -- and when you do that, it takes a lot away.

ESPN.com: You've had a lot of different guys step up this season in Paul George's absence. Who has been the biggest surprise?

Bird: I've been watching Rodney Stuckey for eight years now, and when you watch players from other teams you know how good they are, but you see them every day and you know they're really good. And I think C.J. Miles has had problems with injuries throughout his career, but our training staff is getting him pretty healthy and he's going to be here all summer, so I look forward and I look out for the big picture. We are going to have a good draft pick -- whether we're in the playoffs or not, we're gonna get somebody that can help us. And we'll just go forward with that, and we think we're gonna be pretty good next year.

ESPN.com: You had two seasons where you shot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line. Is it crazy that Kyle Korver -- albeit as more of a star role player, so to speak -- is chasing 50-50-90 right now?

Bird: Yeah. That's hard to do. It's really hard to do. And he's not really a go-to guy, but when he does have an opportunity to do what he's supposed to, 50-50-90 is pretty tough. That's a tough get. You don't see that too often in our league. It used to be 50-40-90. It's just like triple-doubles: I never really thought about it back when I played. I just played. But you go into halftime and you'd be like, "Man, I got it going tonight," so you knew you had it going, and it didn't always have to be scoring. My game was, the more I was involved in everything, the happier I was. That's right around trying to steal the ball, rebounding, passing and obviously scoring was a big part of it. But there were a lot of nights I didn't feel I had to score for our team to win.

ESPN.com: Did you always have the mindset that you didn't care if you scored or not as long as you were making your teammates better? Sounds like LeBron James.

Bird: I used to go out and play, and I tried to see what we needed. LeBron's the same way. He looks at the game a little differently than most guys, and he's got that mentality where if somebody's open, he's going to get them the ball. That's the way the game is supposed to be played. That's just called fundamentals. When you're young, everybody wants to be this and be that, as far as scoring and doing their thing, but as you get in this league and you look around, you go, "Damn, those guys want to have a piece of their pie, too," and if they get their piece, you're going to be more successful. There's no question about that.

ESPN.com: Rick Carlisle had a funny story about you recently. He told Boston.com that the last game you ever played was in 2000, when you were coaching the Pacers. It was a 4-on-4, half-court game -- you and the older guys on the team against some of the younger guys. It was best two out of three. You hit the game-winning shot, fell to the floor and the guys piled on top of you. And that was it. What do you recall about that?

Bird: I think it was me, Chris Mullin, Rik Smits and Derrick McKey against Al Harrington, Austin Croshere, Jonathan Bender and I can't remember who the fourth one was (Jeff Foster was a rookie at the time), and we beat them pretty good. It was the last time I played, because they didn't knock me down on the floor. I fell on the floor. I was tired (laughs).

Rick didn't tell you about the time two little kids were out here, and we were leaving the arena and he said, "Why don't we stop and beat those two little guys? Let's go." They were probably 13 or 14 years old. He threw me the ball and I took off running hard, and I pulled a hamstring. I think it was the year before that 4-on-4 game. I was gonna quit then (laughs). I had never had a pulled hamstring before.

ESPN.com: March 12, 2015, was the 30th anniversary of your 60-point game. What do you remember about that day? You have downplayed that performance, too.

Bird: It wasn't that good of a game. I like the hard-fought, scrappy games, pound it inside. It was just a loosey-goosey game. It was a pretty close game, as I remember. We weren't up 20, 25, but we were up 10 the whole way, and it just wasn't a good game. I ran a 5-mile race two days before that, and actually, I was very sore. My legs were really sore. I wasn't tired or anything, but I was really sore.

I knew I was gonna play that night. I just didn't know how effective I was going to be. But once I started going, I was making shots. But it just wasn't a fun game to play in. It wasn't my type of game.

ESPN.com: What was your type of game? What's the one game that stands out?

Bird: I don't know if it was my best game, but the one I enjoyed the most was Game 6 of the 1986 NBA Finals. I had control of the game (Bird finished with 29 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds as the Boston Celtics captured the championship that night over the Houston Rockets). I could do anything I wanted to do. It was a meaningful game. I knew if we won, we'd win the championship. The series was tough. You lose a lot of sleep during that. You're tired. But that's one game I always felt that in a big situation like that, I always performed at a high level.

ESPN.com: How were you able to rise to the occasion time and time again in big spots?

Bird: I don't know. Because going into those games you never knew what was gonna happen. But I always had enough confidence in my game and I put the time and the hard work. I never really felt the pressure. The only thing I was always worried about was how I was going to perform, because I wanted to perform at a high level for myself. And you never knew that until you stepped on the court.

ESPN.com: During that 60-point game, when did you know you had it going?

Bird: I knew I had it when Kevin McHale scored 56 a couple weeks before (on March 3). I knew I was gonna get there one day. (Bird told reporters, "I'll break that record in no time." And he did.) But Kevin left that game with I forget how many minutes left. He could've had a lot more.

ESPN.com: When you think of Larry Bird, you think of all the numbers and the accolades, but you also think of the trash-talking, too.

Bird: Yeah. I don't know. Some of the stories I remember. Some of them I don't. It's probably just nervousness, talking. But if I had something to say, I said it. But if you knew our team, I thought Cedric Maxwell and Kevin McHale talked more junk than I did. Danny Ainge, too. They were always talking.

ESPN.com: What was the best McHale trash talk you heard?

Bird: Kevin McHale, one time, did one of the dirtiest things anybody can do to an opposing player. He told his buddy, a college friend, a teammate (at one point) at the end of the game in Golden State we were up pretty big -- and we were just getting ready to go out of the game -- and Kevin told him when he came in, he said, "When you get the ball in the low post, you just turn and shoot it over me, and I'll just act like I'm defending you." Sure enough, they threw it in there, he turned and Kevin batted the shot about six rows up into the stands. And I mean I felt so bad for the guy, and the guy was pissed. And I went over to (Celtics coach) K.C. Jones and I said, "Get me out of here. This kid's out of control, this kid's out of control." It was the worst thing I'd ever seen on the basketball court, but that's why I remember it to this day. You don't do that to your friend (laughs).

ESPN.com: With Dominique Wilkins, you had that funny line on that retirement video that you were pretty sure his statue wasn't in a defensive stance. What made him bring out the best in you?

Bird: I don't know. Dominique was a talented player. I remember when he first came into the league, he was able to jump. He did a lot of his damage off of two feet when a lot of guys go off of one. Jordan was a one-leg jumper, he was a two-leg jumper. I never jumped, so I didn't have to worry about it (laughs). But he was very skilled, did a lot of spinning in the lane and elevated and he was a helluva player. In this league, every night, being the guy I was, I always took a challenge because I knew every night I had to prove myself, usually against pretty damn good players.