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Coach Bird shrugs off the legend

Bounce it off his extraordinary 13-season Boston career, then through five golfing/yawning years of Larry Legend retirement, and finally back to home state Indiana, which has forever been the passionate heart of the basketball universe . . .

Nothing but net.

Larry Joe Bird's plunge into NBA coaching is automatically blessed with neither his long-running Celtics championship touch nor the scripted wonderworks of old No. 33's memorable McDonald's ads with Michael Jordan.

"If I don't win, I won't be around long," Bird said, jumping with famous size-15 feet into the kindergarten stage of his new life as coach of the Indiana Pacers. "Our first game made me sick to my stomach, blowing a second-half lead of 13 points against New Jersey."

Never has an athlete of Bird's stature in professional team sports enjoyed transformation to overwhelmingly successful coach or manager. But, in Indy, the excitement over Larry Legend's attempt is loud and hopeful.

Trying to beat the hero rap.

In streets outside Market Square Arena, before the Pacers played their home opener against Golden State, local newspapers were hawked with a huge page-one headline that proclaimed: "BIRD ERA BEGINS."

Inside there was the stereotypical NBA hype, much of it manufactured with fireworks, dancers, balloons, deafening music and laser lights. Bird stood on a sideline, seemingly oblivious to the circus around him. Then came pregame introductions.

Among the Pacers, no player got a roaring reception to match the screams for gunner guard Reggie Miller. But then the P.A. voice turned to Bird. Noise from 17,000 would escalate by 50 percent.

"I didn't hear it," Bird said much later in the night. "I'm so into my game mentality, so focused. It was like when I played in Boston. I'm sure people were cheering, but I never heard any of it, not until maybe the closing minutes, when we were up by 15 or 20 points and I was taken out."

Even now, at 40, adorned with all his sneaker-wearing heroics, from French Lick beginnings to Indiana State University to NBA icon to a historic Dream Team climax at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, there is wonderful simplicity to Larry Joe Bird.

In that back-home-in-Indiana opener against the Warriors, his team won 96-83. Miller scored 33, but Bird was the story. Fifteen minutes after the game, the neophyte coach sat before six hand-held TV cameras, 11 microphones and 22 reporters.

"My first time around the league, now that I'm trying to be a coach, there'll be far too much attention on me," said the 6-foot-9 blond. "I just hope it doesn't take anything away from the players. Maybe by around January we can just go about business more normally."

Probably not.

He is Larry Legend.

"This does feels good," Bird said. "Winning my first as a coach is special. I mean, after being so bummed out over blowing my first one against the Nets. I've always hated to lose more than I liked to win. I like my new job. Thought I would, but I wasn't sure. Every day I learn something new."

After an aching back forced Bird's departure from the Celtics, he built a lavish Florida home in Naples and spent much of his time on golf courses. "It was real fun for a while, but I wasn't ready to slow my pace so dramatically," Larry Legend said. "I missed the competition, the demands and the challenges. I turned down other NBA opportunities, but this one in Indiana seemed right. I'm ready to give it my best shot."

His best shot was a dandy.

At times the Indiana-Golden State game lapsed into painful inefficiency. In succession, among the two teams loaded with millionaire players, came a missed shot, a bad pass, a traveling call, a missed shot, a double dribble, a missed shot, a charging foul, an air ball and a bad pass.

Larry Legend looked ill.

Surely, in the mind of old perfectionist Bird, there was internal pain. Even a silent feeling of "At my age, with a bad back, I can still play better than almost all these guys." A great shooter in his Celtics time, No. 33 would nonetheless fire it up 2,000 times in a one-man practice on the morning of a game night. Always trying to make sure.

Bird never actually made any "I'm still better than these guys" statement, but you know he was probably thinking it. What the rookie coach did say was "It's disappointing when you don't see the killer instinct. Even with an easy win over Golden State, we slopped around for the final five minutes."

During timeouts, Larry doesn't rush himself in conferring with players. First he huddles with assistant coaches. "You know me _ I'm not much of a talker," he said. "When I was in a uniform, it often seemed that timeouts were too long. After our coach got his point across, we would stand around staring at each other. So I try to get things straight with my assistant coaches, then I'll use maybe 30 seconds to pass the word to our players."

We remember Larry Bird for his wondrous offense. That smooth, accurate jump shot. His clutch baskets. But as the former sensation turns to a fresh challenge in coaching, the bossman in Indy is preaching defense.

"We won (in Boston) with defense. When things started going bad with the Celtics, we would look at one another in the huddle and say, "Let's stop this B.S. and dig in.' It worked a lot of times.

"Maybe we had a little more talent in Boston than this (Indiana) team does, but the Pacers are plenty good. We can be a playoff contender. But it takes 48 minutes of diligent work. We slacked off to blow that one in New Jersey. Even in beating the Warriors by 13, we slacked at the end. Slacking won't get it in this league."

With the Celtics, he was on three NBA championship teams. Larry Legend was three times the league MVP. An All-Star in all but one of his 13 seasons. Rookie of the Year in 1980, beating out his eternal rival and friend Magic Johnson.

But this is something entirely different. Larry Joe Bird must overturn tradition to make a total switch from great player to great coach. "It's always been a problem for the game's top heroes," said Los Angeles Lakers executive vice president Jerry West, himself a sensational NBA guard.

"Larry will expect his Indiana players to be much like he was with the Celtics. He will face huge disappointments. But I think he can make it work. Looking at players from any era, you just aren't going to find many who are anything close to Larry Bird."

It'll be tough, but the Legend is ready.