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Larry Bird on the Big Show: I never would have coached at old Garden

06.28.11 at 6:39 pm ET

Celtics legend Larry Bird was a guest of The Big Show on Tuesday and he sat down with Glenn Ordway for a wide-ranging interview that touched on his job with the Pacers, how he feels about the modern game — and some of the players — and his memories of playing with the Celtics.

Bird also said that he never would have coached at the old Boston Garden.

“All my memories I just wanted them to be as a player,” Bird said. “Even here in Indiana, I told Donnie [Walsh] if the Garden was still up I would never go in there as an opposing coach and play the Celtics as an Indiana Pacer coach. I just couldn’t do that. But they tore it down and I got in there in the other Garden and it didn’t bother me as much.”

Asked if he would have handed over the team to his then-assistant coach Rick Carlisle, Bird laughed, “Carlisle did a lot of it anyway. No, I just wouldn’t have taken the job. I just couldn’t do that. I couldn’t see myself walking in the Boston Garden as a visitor. I just couldn’t do that.”

Listen to the whole interview on The Big Show audio on demand page. Here’s the rest of the transcription from the interview:

You haven’t made a lot of trips back [to Boston]. Is that by design or is that just how the schedule worked out?

Well, we’re pretty busy here and I try to get out there as much as I can, just never enough because my admiration I have for that city, it’s a great city, it’s a sports town. I always like to go back out there but an opportunity hadn’t arose as much as I’d like. But obviously I’m going to be there for a couple of days and I’ll probably enjoy it.

As you look back at the great period that you had with [the Celtics], is there anything you look back at and say, “I wish I had done this?”

Yeah, a couple more championships would have helped. You know in 1981 when we won our first championship, I looked at our team and I thought, “Boy, we got a chance here to win at least five championships.” And we had a couple years where we didn’t do as well. Starting in ’84, ’85, ’86, and ’87, we were well on our way to winning a lot of championships. Then all of a sudden the back issues started coming in and things started changing. I always felt that we had a good enough team to win five championships.

We played in five finals but we just won three, so that’s probably the most disappointing thing, but overall it was the greatest time of my life. It was something I loved and playing in a city that cared for their players and their teams, really it was a positive for me and I miss it. I miss being out there, I miss playing, but sometimes I forget I even played because it’s been so long. But it was a great experience for me, I grew up in Boston and met a lot of good people and obviously got to play for Red [Auerbach], and I had some good teammates. We were a good team out there.

Do you get the same juice from the game coaching or being an executive that you did playing?

No. I still get nervous when I was coaching, nothing like when I played. It’s not even the same but you get that ball in your hands, your mind is wandering a thousand miles a minute and you have to make decisions, you have to do a little bit of everything. Coaching is a little bit like that, but nothing like playing.

You were nervous when playing? What were the nerves like?

Well, the nerves were awful. I had them in college and we go to shoot around on the day of games and right when I got back from about 1 o’ clock to game time, it was awful. But once I stepped on the court in the layup line, all that went away and it was time to play. It was all just nervous energy and I never worried about how I was going to play because some nights you play good and some nights you don’t, but you always had to give the effort.

What was the whole ritual with touching the bottom of the sneakers? Was that part of the nervous energy or were you actually trying to accomplish something?

Well, that started in high school. We played on a lot of floors that they didn’t keep up as well. They could have dusted them a little better. You always had dust on the bottom of your shoes and it got into a habit and went through college and my whole career, so you just had to make sure you washed your hands real good after a game.

Are you amazed that there are young people out there who have no idea who you are?

Oh, I know that. John Havlicek told me that back in the early 80’s and he said, “As time goes on, people tend to forget and there’s new generations,” and he’s right. There’s a lot of people out there who have no clue how I played or who I am. That’s not all bad. Sometimes it’s always good to step from the limelight and do what you want to do and not have all the distractions I used to.

I don’t really remember you having a posse though. Some of these players carry eight or 10 guys around with them. I don’t remember that posse of yours.

I don’t know if eight or 10 guys would want to hang around with me.

Back when you were 35 years old, it was your last year in the NBA. You only played 45 regular season games, but looking at those numbers you put up, there are guys in the peak of their career that would love to have those kinds of numbers. How did you do it?

It was tough. I had pain down both legs. What happened with me is before I go out to play I get so juiced up and it would eliminate a lot of the pain. It wouldn’t completely go away but I’d just mask it out and not think about it. Once that game was over I knew I was in trouble. I had a lot of injections that year, and once I had an injection I knew I was out for a month. It was frustrating and I didn’t think I should play that last year but Dave Gavitt talked to me and we just tried to manage to get through it. Some days you’d get relief and some days you wouldn’t. That’s just part of sports. If had to do it over again I’d do it the same way. It’s just unfortunate I had to go out that way.

The game would be over and you would literally have trouble walking to get to the bus or the airplane.

Probably six months or seven months after the Olympics, I knew I was there. I was told by all doctors that you couldn’t do any more damage, it’s probably as bad as it’s going to get, so it’s up to you whether you want to play or not. Just part of sports. You just have to deal with what you had to deal with and it’s just unfortunate that my back, it wouldn’t get right. It was never right. But when it was, I knew I could play. Most frustrating then was not being able to practice the way I wanted to practice. I could tell my skills were deteriorating, and that was the most frustrating part.

What does that do to a player like you? You’ve been to the top of the mountain and these young whippersnappers are just whipping right by you.

Oh yeah. That’s when you try to do something else, you try to hurt them. Yeah it was tough. I knew if my back was fine I could have played another year or so but when it started giving me the pain the last couple years that I was having, I knew that it was about over. And then the Olympics were coming and I wanted to play in the Olympics so it was frustrating, but you know what? Looking back on it I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

How rewarding was the Olympic experience, considering the fact that it was the Dream Team, but you were not the same player you were a few years before that?

No, I wasn’t even practicing over there. I’d shoot a little bit before the games but that was about it. But the feeling that I got when I walked out there for our first game and got on that floor and seeing all the flags, that was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me, playing for your country. And knowing that I wasn’t the player I was a few years back and knowing I was going to play about 20 minutes a game, just the experience was overwhelming. It was a great experience for me.

Why are there so many former Celtics who have gone into coaching?

I don’t know. You look around, we’re all over the place. A few years ago me and Donnie Walsh we’re talking about the same thing. Chris Ford was coaching in Philadelphia. M.L. Carr was a coach at one time. You just go down the list. A ton of my teammates are involved in either the front office or coaching. I have no clue. If you look at and watched us play, the way we played the game and how we went about our business you could sort of tell there were some coaches there and some GM’s there. We played a smart game. We tried to use the least amount of energy we possibly could and still the games, but we thought the game out and maybe that has something to do with it.

You ended up going back to Indiana, you did have an opportunity to stay here in Boston, did you not?

Yeah, the year I retired and went in for [back] surgery, Dave [Gavitt] wanted me to come in just to learn a little bit and watch him and I had a couple of opportunities to stay out there. But I could never see me coaching in the Boston Garden. All my memories I just wanted them to be as a player. Even here in Indiana, I told Donnie if the Garden was still up I would never go in there as an opposing coach and play the Celtics as an Indiana Pacer coach. I just couldn’t do that. But they tore it down and I got in there in the other Garden and it didn’t bother me as much.

When you say you couldn’t stay here in that building, it was the memories of the building. The new building looks different, acts different, they actually have air-conditioning over there, you’d be surprised at that. I loved it when Pat Riley used to [complain] all the time and say Red would put the heat on, they didn’t have heat either.

No, they didn’t have heat either.

It’s amazing you guys played under those conditions. When you look at the conditions that these athletes have today — you’re lining up private jets for these guys and they’re obviously performing in much different building than some of the buildings you played in.

Yeah, things change. If you go back and talk to [Bill] Russell and K.C. Jones they’ll tell you they rode trains and buses and took cabs. So, everything changes. I know when I was playing I used to talk to Cousy and Heinsohn and all those guys and they thought we had it made, which we did. You just get used to it. You get on those 6 o’clock buses and go to the airport and the fight’s probably delayed two or three hours but you just got used to it. That was your job. It’s a lot easier now but 10-15 years from now it will probably be something different. I don’t know what, but those guys are going to have it made I can tell you that.

I hear you’re contemplating giving this position up a year from now?

I was thinking about stepping down last year. I talked to my owner and we didn’t know what was going to happen with the league and a lot of things going on and I felt like I’ve got this in a pretty good situation here now. We’ve got a lot of cap space and we’ve got a good core group of young players. You’d liked to win championships every year, but sometimes you’re satisfied with the job you’ve done. Maybe a lot of other people ain’t satisfied but I feel this franchise is in good shape. We’re going to go through this year and see what happens but I turn 55 this December and my kids are off to college and me and [wife] Dinah, maybe we’ll do something different. I say that, but maybe she wants me to keep doing this. I don’t know.

What would you do?

I don’t worry about it. I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t worry about it. I still do a lot of charity work. I do a lot of functions. I’ll probably get back to my charity work and keep busy. There’s no plan but I’ll find something to do.

How different is the job that you’re doing right now in that you do get criticized. You probably receive a little bit more criticism than you did as a player, correct?

Oh yeah. I receive my share. But when I took over when Donnie left, I knew where we were at. I knew I had to rebuild the whole thing. I laid down a plan to my owners and I said, “Look. I’m not used to saying this, I don’t like it, but we’re not going to win many games. In three years I think I’ll have a core group of young guys, about 10 or 11 of them that we can build this franchise with. It’s not going to be pretty and I don’t like it.” Now we’re here and now it’s time to start winning.

What do you think of the game today?

There’s not a lot of difference. There’s some athletes that run a little faster and jump a little higher. I never ran into a guy like LeBron James or a guy like Dwight Howard. There’s some very, very good players but those two guys are as good as ever played the game. Especially in my era and up to now. And Shaq and Kobe [Bryant.] But the basket is still 10 feet high. The guys just a little bit higher, you’d just have to shoot a little higher. As far as trying to guard them I don’t how the hell I’d have done that. I don’t think it’s changed that much. I would have loved to compete against this new group. Just like Cousy and them would have loved to play against us, I would have liked to have taken my chances against these guys.

I keep hearing your name with Dirk Nowitzki. He’s a different player than you, is he not?

Well, he’s 7-feet tall. A lot of my stuff later on in my career was in the post. It’s hard to compare. It’s an honor for me to be brought up with Dirk. I like Dirk. I like him as a person. I’m happy for him. If people think he’s better than me that’s fine. I have no problem with that, I’ve never had a problem with that. He’s another guy I would have liked to have played against. So you know, whatever. That’s for other people to debate. I just like him as a human. I think he’s great for our game. He works hard. He takes pride and passion in his job. I think it’s only positive for this league.

I heard that you’re building a statue for you out there, obviously we have one back here. That’s quite an honor.

It’s a great honor, but you know I’m not into all that stuff. There’s three young men that’s been working for a couple of years and trying to raise money the right way through little donations from people who care and followed my career. I’ve got a meeting with them shortly here to talk about it. I feel honored and it’s something you never think of, it’s just something that happens. I look at my career as being over and you move on but there’s a lot of people I run into that still want to talk about it.

Read More: Dwight Howard, Larry Bird, LeBron James,
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