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Even on sideline, they return as NBA stars

Among them they have enough basketball trophies, medals and other commendations to pain a strong man's back. Rick Pitino has an NCAA title and three national coach of the year awards. Larry Bird has three NBA championship rings and 12 All-Star team selections. Chuck Daly has two NBA crowns.

They bring a level of credibility and a brand of team basketball that any league would welcome, which is why the NBA is standing with open arms this week, eager to embrace this trio of high-profile basketball shepherds.

Pitino, who took over in Boston, and Daly, who is guiding Orlando, are returning for second stints in the NBA, and Bird is making his coaching debut for his home state Indiana Pacers.

"You're talking about the addition of guys who have reputations. This is what is needed in the league at this time," said Hubie Brown, a former NBA coach and now an NBA analyst for TNT. "The teaching. The organization. The discipline. The getting back to what sold this league in the '70s and '80s.

"What sold this league was good team play, great teams and great players playing within the framework of the team. That's what you hope to get by these guys coming back."

Daly, Pitino and Bird are among eight coaches who are either returning to the profession this season or taking over new teams. Ex-Indiana coach Larry Brown is in Philadelphia; P.J. Carlesimo went from Portland to Golden State; ex-Magic coach Brian Hill landed in Vancouver; Mike Dunleavy left Milwaukee's front office to replace Carlesimo in Portland; and former player Bill Hanzlik makes his debut in Denver.

But clearly Pitino, Daly and Bird are the most intriguing of the group, and the coaches people will be watching intently as the season opens Friday.

Without coaching a regular-season game this year, they have had an impact on the league. Pitino signed for $70-million over 10 years, the richest coaching deal ever in sports. Daly is near the bar, negotiating a three-year, $15-million deal. And Bird accepted a $4.5-million yearly salary.

For its millions, Boston is bringing Pitino and his New Yorker style back to a league where he worked briefly as the Knicks coach in 1987-88 and 1988-89.

With him has come a good bit of the collegiate game. He has three of his former Kentucky players on his roster: Ron Mercer (drafted him), Walter McCarty (traded for him) and Antoine Walker (was on the team).

And in preseason his Celtics, like his old Wildcats, are using a lot of full-court presses and traps, pushing the ball up the court at every opportunity and showing a lot of youthful exuberance. Whether they can keep it up over a grueling 82-game schedule is the subject of much debate around the league.

"It's no question," Pitino said, "that, if you want to be a Celtic, you're going to have to understand team play, team offense, team defense, fastbreak basketball and, I think, fun basketball."

Even with Mercer, Walker and McCarty, Pitino is trying to restore the Celtic glory with a team that's mediocre. Yet NBA types far and wide are convinced he can resurrect this fallen dynasty sooner rather than later.

"He's going to do well with the Celtics," said Knicks forward Charles Oakley, who played under Pitino during his stint with the Knicks. "A good coach is always going to find a way to do well."

Bird's presence on the sideline undoubtedly will take people back to one of the NBA's most impassioned eras, when he and the Lakers' Magic Johnson captivated people's attention. He epitomizes the lost art of fundamental basketball: discipline, hustle, sportsmanship and the team game, which defined him during his storied 13-year NBA playing career.

Without coaching a team on any level, he has gotten instant respect around the league from players, coaches and front-office executives.

"I think Larry Bird is one of the great minds in the game," said Miami coach Pat Riley, who doesn't hand out compliments readily. "I think it's going to take some time, but I think he's going to be one of the very good coaches."

Whatever Bird lacks in experience, he said he'll learn from assistants Rick Carlisle and Dick Harter, whom he has "a lot of faith in."

"In the NBA, most of the time you see assistant coaches standing on the side, watching the head coach do all the work," Bird said, "but here we work as a team. Not only the players, but the coaches."

Said Hubie Brown: "Bird will probably not get enough credit for this team winning. When he's going to be evaluated is when you get to the playoffs."

At 67, Daly is one of the senior members in his ranks after working the past three years as an NBA TV analyst. But he has the same bite he did when he spawned the infamous "Bad Boys" while coaching Detroit for nine seasons in the '80s and early '90s, which included league titles in 1989 and 1990.

He isn't vowing to revive that old bruising, belligerent brand of basketball in Orlando, but he's teaching the Magic the same defense-oriented style he made an art form with on the Pistons. And if an opposing player gets knocked down or intimidated in the process, all the better.

"Can I stand the rigors? I hope so," Daly said. "I don't think that is a problem."

So arresting is the arrival of Daly, Pitino and Bird that Riley indicated their mere presence _ along with Brown's in Philadelphia _ could shift the balance of power in the Eastern Conference.

"I think the Atlantic Division, in particular with the addition of Rick Pitino at Boston, and Chuck down in Orlando and Larry Bird up in Indiana in the Central Division _ there's going to be a lot more enthusiasm, a lot more hope with some franchises that struggled last year," he said. "I don't know how the smoke is going to clear over the course of the season, but I look for the Eastern Conference to be as good as it's been in a long time."