Published May 16, 2012
Everything always seemed to come so easily for Larry Bird on a basketball court.
The way the ball appeared almost destined to swish through the net every time he finished his lightning-quick release with a flick of his right wrist. The way he could suck a defender in while running the break, only to zip a no-look pass to a cutting Boston Celtics teammate for an easy bucket.
The way Bird related to his Indiana Pacers players as a coach, pushing the right buttons and drawing up the perfect plays late in games to lead his team to the NBA Finals.
The intricacies of the executive's chair proved far more difficult for Larry Legend to master, which may make his latest award in a career full of them that much more fulfilling.
Bird was voted the NBA's Executive of the Year on Wednesday, becoming the first person to be named the league's top executive, coach and MVP.
"It was a long journey, it was a painful journey," Bird told reporters in Indianapolis. "But now we think it's going to pay dividends."
The three-time MVP and Hall of Famer received 12 first-place votes and 88 total points from a panel of team executives throughout the NBA. San Antonio's R.C. Buford (56 points) finished a distant second, followed by Los Angeles Clippers GM Neil Olshey (55).
"I think it's an award well deserved," Pacers forward Danny Granger said. "Larry probably has more accolades than anybody right now."
Bird was hired as team president in 2003 and learned the ropes at Donnie Walsh's side. He helped put together one of the best teams in the league in his first season, a 61-game winner that seemed poised to rule the Eastern Conference for years to come.
Then he endured the franchise-changing brawl at the Palace in Detroit in 2004 that gutted a championship contender; a series of arrests and public embarrassments from his players in the following seasons that alienated a hoops-crazy fan base; and three coaching changes as he looked to change the culture of a free-falling franchise. A four-year playoff drought had many in his home state calling for Bird's head, a startling fall for someone who once could do no wrong in Indiana.
A fed-up Bird started a massive overhaul in 2006. The house-cleaning took years and included the trades of Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Shawne Williams, the exile of Jamaal Tinsley and the move from hard-driving head coach Jim O'Brien to unproven 38-year-old assistant Frank Vogel.
"We had to change the culture," Bird said. "I thought Jimmy O'Brien really helped us in that aspect. He came in here and knew exactly what we had to do. We had to not only change the culture, but we had to take it slow and get some players we thought we could build around."
After exhibiting some questionable personnel acumen early, Bird has pulled off some savvy moves to assemble a cohesive, hard-working team that finds itself deadlocked 1-1 with the heavily favored Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"For that franchise to get to this point, it needed to have a guy like Larry who has tremendous patience, a very strong will and the determination to see a plan through," said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who coached the Pacers from 2003-07 and has been a friend of Bird's since their playing days together in Boston.
Bird added Danny Granger, Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough in the draft, George Hill, Lou Amundson and Leandro Barbosa through trades and David West in free agency.
"I left five years ago, and at that point in time he basically laid it out and said this is what it's going to take," Carlisle said in a phone interview from Dallas. "It has played out exactly how he pictured it."
Playing in small-market Indiana, Bird hasn't had the luxury of an open checkbook to chase max salary players in a max salary league. He's had to worry far more about fit, chemistry and work ethic, and that's just fine with him.
"I knew it was going to be tough, and it's still tough," he said. "We don't drive revenues like the big market teams. We can't go after $17 million-dollar players. We've got to go a different way, and we've got to do it a piece at a time."
The new-look, veteran group has restored the Pacers' gritty, blue-collar attitude and helped them to the No. 3 seed in the East and had the fifth-best record (42-24) in the league.
"It's obvious why he got executive of the year," said Vogel, who finished third in coach of the year balloting this year. "If you look at how this particular team has been built, it's really remarkable. To be able to build this team with mid-lottery picks and trades is just — it's near impossible to do."
Now the Pacers are getting prepared to host Game 3 against the Heat on Thursday night. The starless group gave the Heat's three studs — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — all they could handle in a 95-86 loss in Game 1. Bosh went down with an abdominal injury and the Pacers tied the series with a 78-75 grinder in Game 2.
With a promising young core and plenty of salary cap flexibility expected to be there for him this summer, Bird and the Pacers don't figure to be going away anytime soon.
"Small market teams have got to be careful with how they spend their money," Carlisle said. "Larry has created the perfect scenario of great young talent and flexibility. That franchise is in a phenomenal position."
AP freelance writer Cliff Brunt in Indianapolis contributed to this report.