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Larry Bird back in the game, gives Pacers another shot

Larry Bird was a spectator last year but has returned as president of the Pacers. (USATSI)
Larry Bird was a spectator last year but has returned as president of the Pacers. (USATSI)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Larry Bird sits quietly in the stands watching practice, peering down through basketball eyes that have seen so much. Sometimes, he stands and leans on a railing, stretching his chronically achy back. His eyes, though -- squinty, a little droopy -- never avert their Hall of Fame gaze from the action on the court below.

Bird is back in his element, back running the only team he wanted to run. A year off has rejuvenated him, has reminded him of a fact he probably should've already known.

"If you're a lifer, you're a lifer," Bird told CBSSports.com in a quiet moment after practice last week.

Bird is a lifer, all right; a private man who knows there is no use fighting the awkward bond between his small-town roots and his life's work in the public eye. He has returned after a year off to reclaim his perch as president of the Indiana Pacers, an outcome he truly didn't foresee when he left.

"I never dreamed I'd be back, especially so quick," Bird said. "But I thought that's the best thing that I've done in a long time -- get away from it, refresh, watch the team play."

He is watching the team play in person now, watching his offseason handiwork take shape. So far, even the instinctively diffident Bird has to admit he likes what he sees.

"Of course, any time you've got a better team, it makes it a lot easier," Bird said. "But not only that, we've got good guys. These guys are so good to be around. It's like you never left."

In the summer of 2012, after winning the NBA's executive of the year award, Bird had to step away from the game that has been in his blood since he first lofted a basketball toward a hoop in his native French Lick, Ind. He was burned out, in constant agony from the back problems that brought his Hall of Fame playing career to an end. There were other challenges that Bird, ever the introvert, describes only as "health issues."

"It wasn't hard," Bird said in a rare moment of reflection about his decision to leave the Pacers. "I knew we had a good team, that the team was pretty well set."

Bird, 56, spent time in Florida and at his beloved southern Indiana ranch. He watched almost every Pacers game last season, filing some mental notes into his encyclopedic basketball mind.

After a while, teams started calling Pacers owner Herb Simon. What's going on with Larry? Can we talk to him? One such team was the Sacramento Kings, and after a brief but serious flirtation, Bird and Simon began the dialogue that ultimately led him back to Indiana, where he belonged.

"I guess when the other owners started calling my owner up and started asking questions, that's when he called me and said, ‘Look, I want you back here,'" Bird said. "'I'd rather you be here than anywhere else.'"

In the end, nothing that Bird tried during his year hiatus -- personal appearances, a little corporate work -- could replace his burning obsession with the game, his need for the competition. The final push for a reunion with the Pacers came from Frank Vogel, the unproven, 30-something assistant Bird had promoted to head coach after firing Jim O'Brien late in the 2010-11 season.

On his first day back at work following a brief vacation, on the heels of Indiana's Game 7 loss to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals, Vogel traveled to Bird's ranch and made his pitch.

"I went down and spent some time with him hoping I could nudge him a little bit to understand what we're building here and get him to want to be a part of it," said Vogel, now 40. "He affects what we do here in so many ways."

Donnie Walsh, who had returned to the Pacers a year earlier after a three-year stint running the Knicks, agreed to stay on in an advisory role when Bird returned as president. Suddenly, the pieces were coming back together for another run at the Heat.

Bird and Walsh, possessing a sizeable percentage of the Hoosier state's collective basketball knowledge between them, would be Vogel's two-sided sounding board -- a kettle drum of information that Vogel could tap any time. The skilled Kevin Pritchard would execute the vision as the GM, along with rising front-office stars Peter Dinwiddie and Ryan Carr.

"Things haven't really changed much," Bird said.

The core pieces Bird had assembled -- a blossoming star in Paul George through the draft, George Hill and Roy Hibbert through trades and David West via a rare foray into high-level free agency -- have remained. The Pacers retained West this past summer with a three-year, $36 million deal. With little fanfare, George committed to a five-year extension that could be worth as much as $90 million.

After falling to Miami in six games in the 2012 conference semifinals, the team Bird left behind had succumbed to the Heat again -- one round and one game closer to the Finals. Bird watched it all unfold from afar and knew that the core he'd assembled needed help.

"When I was sitting there last year I was saying, 'Man, they need a stronger bench, a more consistent bench,'" Bird said. "Soon as I got back, I started pinpointing guys I wanted to go after."

The first name on the list was C.J. Watson, a backup point guard capable of maintaining order when Hill went to the bench. Bird's initial inquiries were that the price for Knicks free agent Chris Copeland would be too high -- until Copeland's agent called and said he wanted to be in Indiana.

"The price went down within a range that I could afford," Bird said.

Bird has never been one to trade draft picks; in the small-market reality in which he lives, they're too valuable. But with the Pacers so close to title contention, Bird deviated from his playbook and sent a first-round pick to Phoenix as part of a deal for Luis Scola.

"I've always liked Scola, always been after Scola," Bird said. "I made some calls knowing the price might be steep, but still feel like we got a good deal out of it."

Far from Bird's small-market comfort zone, the Nets loaded up with luxuries few teams, if any, can afford -- a star-studded roster with a luxury tax bill that will exceed most teams' entire payrolls this season. The Knicks doubled down on the prolific but thus far title-less talents of Carmelo Anthony, casting off a first-round pick for Andrea Bargnani. A team like the Pacers would have to demand a pick in return just to absorb such a contract.

"Every collective bargaining agreement, they try and do whatever they can to make it a level playing field," Bird said. "But it's never going to be that way. You've got major markets that can go out and spend a lot of money on one player, and if he doesn't pan out, they just sit there and go get another one. We can't do that. But I knew coming in here what we were up against. ... I chose to be here, I know our limitations and I know what we can do and can't do."

Bird has never been a win-the-trade-on-paper executive; he trusts his eyes and his gut over analytics. In that respect, so much changed in the GM ranks in the year that Bird was away. Young, advanced stats-minded executives have been installed all over the league as teams try to copy the blueprint set forth by Daryl Morey in Houston and Sam Presti in Oklahoma City. Former players running teams -- Bird, Joe Dumars, Pat Riley -- are being squeezed out by number crunchers and former agents.

"I came from the group of Jerry West, Rod Thorn and all those guys," Bird said. "Even when I first took over when Donnie left, I could call those guys up and ask their opinion -- not really on players, but different things. We shared information. But now with so many new guys, you really don't know ‘em. You know who they are, but you really don't know 'em.

"And I don't know if they get nervous, but they don't talk a lot, ya know?" Bird said. "Some of these guys I never heard of because they come from different backgrounds."

One thing about Bird's job has not changed, and it's a fact of pro basketball that has endured since his playing days: The contenders load up and take their shots at the team that's on top. You build your roster and your culture with the goal of getting past the team that's in your way. When Bird played with the Celtics, it was the Sixers, Pistons, Lakers and others. For Bird the executive, it's the Heat.

"First of all, they've got the best player in the world," Bird said. "But they're a tax team. They'll spend a little bit more to get the players they want and they've got players that want to go there and play -- pretty good players for a lot less money. That makes it tough, but that's just part of the game. I've always said, the favorite is going to be the team that has the best player. ... They deserve to be No. 1 until somebody takes 'em off that spot."

In the end, that's why Larry Bird is back. Refreshed and invigorated, Bird has brought his full arsenal of basketball instincts and guile to bear on the problem at hand -- the team that's in his way. Just like the old days.

If you're a lifer, you know, you're a lifer.

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