Larry Bird's time with the Indiana Pacers became the perfect sequel to his legendary NBA career.
NBA greats don't often become front-office experts. After some stumbles, Bird came close.
He was a coach first, and a decent one, helped by the fact he had Reggie Miller around leading the team to the NBA Finals. Bird then was a decision-maker once he reached the front office full time, firm in his beliefs, necessarily oblivious to criticism.
He made some bold moves, including replacing Isiah Thomas as coach and later parting business ways with his friend Rick Carlisle. He made some mistakes, too. Two words come foremost to mind: Ron Artest. He stood by Artest too long (remember the Sports Illustrated cover?) until finally the Pacers had to dump the talented headache.
Bird's apparent surprise departure after winning this year's NBA Executive of the Year award – most thought he would return as team president until the Indianapolis Star broke the news Tuesday morning – means his lasting legacy with the Pacers is the current team.
While he may return to the NBA in some capacity again, he leaves the Pacers in their best shape in a decade.
He promised to rebuild the team after it scraped rock bottom with the Artest-induced “Malice in the Palace.” He came through on his promise, too, as this year's team earned a playoff berth with a strong record and were within sight of knocking out the ultimate NBA champion Miami Heat.
Several moves stand out in building the current team. Among other decisions, Bird:
* Promoted Frank Vogel, sensing he's the type of young coach who, like Miami's Erik Spoelstra and Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks, understands today's players and today's game. Vogel took over as an interim coach and earned Bird's and his players' respect.
* Signed veteran David West, who brought toughness and savvy to the team, an intangible needed for a relatively young team.
* Drafted and encouraged the development of Roy Hibbert. By the time of this year's playoffs, Hibbert came into his own as a big man with multiple skills – an invaluable asset in a guard-heavy league.
* Drafted Paul George in 2010, bringing the Pacers a versatile guard who can fit comfortably with any type of running mate, whether high-speed Darren Collison (another great acquisition) or the quick but more deliberate George Hill.
The Pacers were too young, and no match for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade when the two Heat superstars raised their game after the Pacers took a 2-1 playoff series lead.
It would have been interesting to see how Bird would have decided to bolster this team, drafting another piece and perhaps finding that missing superstar every NBA Finals contender needs.
Now the next question is who molds the Pacers from here, and it looks to be some mixture of Kevin Pritchard and the return of Bird's predecessor, Donnie Walsh. They've got plenty to work with, thanks to Bird.
Transforming from superstar player into front-office expert is a major leap, as Michael Jordan could surely attest. Bird had a few points in his time with the Pacers where fans and critics were calling for his ouster. The cries were loudest during the latter part of the Artest period, which was also dotted with off-court problems of other players. The Pacers lost fans during that stretch, and some of that was Bird's faith in players who didn't pan out.
Fortunately, Herb Simon and the Pacers' ownership held firm in their faith in Bird. He probably earned some additional benefit of the doubt because of his status as an NBA legend. But that could only go so far.
Bird vowed to rebuild the franchise from its depths after the brawl in Detroit, and he vowed to do it by bringing in players who would represent the franchise with class.
Bird's front-office stint will never rank with his status as a player. He was one of the NBA's all-time greatest players. That won't be his legacy as an executive, if there even is such a ranking.
But Bird's role as an executive showed some similarities to his time as a player. He soaked in everything he could, he learned what worked and what didn't. He found a way to read his openings and find the players who could best help him achieve his goals. He didn't quit when times got tough.
When we think of Larry Bird, we'll forever think of him in the No.33 jersey of the Boston Celtics. Yet he is the only man in history to win Most Valuable Player, Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year.
In the end, his time with the Pacers added an extra layer to his legend, setting him apart from the crowd once again.