A 15-minute Q&A with a basketball legend
MANILA, Philippines -- On the first day of the Indiana Pacers' visit to Manila, the team's president of basketball operations, Larry Bird, was a silent if imposing figure on the sideline. He watched the team's practice session intently, but did not talk to the media or even pose for pictures, as many of the team's coaching staff and players did.
On Wednesday, the Boston Celtics legend, one of the greatest players in NBA history, broke his silence as he discussed a number of topics with local and international media.
Larry Bird's advice for Gilas Pilipinas:
"Well it's different. I tell our young players, when we start our playoffs, the first round is tough. Once you get to the second round, it's completely different. As you keep moving up, the competition is greater. That's why it's so hard in this league for teams to beat the great teams night in and night out because the competition level just continues to get better and better.
"As far as advice, it's that you keep working and keep playing, and any time you have a competition and you move up, you gotta stay together. You're gonna have your good days and your bad days, but overall if you just stay together and everybody's pulling in the same direction, it's a lot easier."
On whether the world will see another "Dream Team:"
"Well, they've tried to duplicate that over the years. But on the Dream Team, there were some very special players, guys that were long in their careers, we had some younger guys coming in. Obviously everybody thinks that (Michael) Jordan is the best player ever, so I was able to play with him and Magic Johnson. I don't know, there's a lot of talent, but in '92 we were the first as pros to play in the Olympics, which was a great honor, anytime you represent your country. But going in, we knew that we were probably gonna win. What we did, we stuck together, took care of business, and moved on."
Comparing the Indiana Pacers to his Boston teams of the 1980s:
"Well it's always tough to win a championship. What we're trying to do is build a team that can compete on a nightly level. There's great competition in our league, and we gotta continue to get better. We have a lot of young players.
"I don't compare this team to the (Boston) Celtics teams because it's a completely different style that we play, but I do think that we're good enough or deep enough to compete for a championship. As always, our goal is to get to the Finals and try to win the whole thing. But overall, this team is completely different from the teams I played on. But they're getting better.
"Obviously last year they got to the Eastern Conference Finals, and had a Game 7 against Miami. But until we take the next step, we're not gonna get there. But I do like our chances, I like our team and hopefully in a short period of time here we can challenge for a championship."
On Coach Erik Spoelstra
"He's done a great job. Great job. A very young coach, to come in even though he's been a part of basketball for a long time. He's had a lot of scrutiny going on, it's a very tough job for him, but I think he handled it as well as he possibly could. And things have changed, you know. Obviously, they have a lot of talent down there, but sometimes the teams with the most talents are the most difficult to coach, so I think he's done a fantastic job."
On the impact that Red Auerbach and KC Jones had on him:
"Well, I've been very fortunate to have Donnie Walsh who's been with the Pacers for 27 years. I had a guy named Dave Gabbit, who started in the Big East, and I was under him for a while, then obviously Red Auerbach, I've been around him for 15 years. You take a little bit from everybody, and you try to learn as you go. The rules are completely different now from when Red was running the franchise, but you do your best with what you have. All three guys were great guys to be under. KC Jones is the nicest man I've ever met in my life, and I'm fortunate enough to have him coach me for five or six years."
On having good draft picks:
"Well, I made some mistakes, too. Let's be real about it. But Danny Granger is a guy who we thought was in the top 10 of the draft, and we picked him at 17. It was very fortunate that he slid to our pick. Roy Hibbert was taken 17th in the Draft, a lot of people passed him up, we got Roy on draft night in a trade. And Paul George was a top 10 pick, and Lance Stephenson was like 42.
"But everybody looks at different things when they look at a player. I tend to look at length, I look at shooting, obviously. Can he defend? Is he a team player? Does he do the things necessary to get better every year? Some times it's hard, but you gotta go to a college coach, and different people, AAU coaches and get as much information as you possibly can. When you're trying to throw a team together that fits - are they gonna pass to one another, are they gonna play team defense, will they pull for one another. There's a lot of things that go into it, but sometimes you just hope to get lucky. I got fortunate in my team and I was fortunate enough to get some guys that turned out to be pretty good players."
On what Pacers need to become champions:
"Our bench has got to be better. We got a good starting five, our bench has got to play better than they did last year. I know how hard it is to win these championships, it's not easy. But we do have a group of good guys that play together and pull for one another, I think we also got to get a little lucky. We're good enough, but we gotta stay together, we've got a long season ahead of us, but I really believe that we're built for the playoffs. When the playoffs come, we'll have to be ready, because there will be challenges facing us."
On the tough Eastern Conference:
"Yeah, it's not easy out there. Chicago got Derrick back from surgery and obviously Brooklyn Nets, the New York Knicks, they're all good, Miami. But it's a challenge, there's no question about it. The team that gets lucky and stays healthy and plays together. Right now, Miami Heat are the best team, they've won two championships in a row, been in the Finals three years in a row. Until somebody beats them, they're still the best team."
On what he can teach this generation of players:
"I think patience is a big thing. A lot of my guys work very hard in the off-season, but the problem I have with the guys that work hard is, do they work on the right things? A lot of players go out and they shoot 500 three-point shots. They can't believe that when I practiced, I never shot three-pointers. I always thought the mid-range game was the most important part of the game, because you want to get the ball as close as you can to the rim to score. So lay-ups obviously is what you work on all the time. But I always thought that the mid-range game is what I need to work on more than three-point shooting.
"So I try to tell my guys in the summer, don't work on three-pointers. Work on the mid-range games. If they can do that on a consistent basis, they will get better. But I just think that a lot of these players don't work on things that they need to work on. So a player ask me a question, David (West) or someone, I try to help him the way I did. It might not work now because it's been 27 years, but these guys will do whatever you ask them to do, and they want to get better. I just hope that they do the right things to improve their game as they go along."
On building the Pacers brand and traveling to different countries:
"Sure it is, this is great. Anytime we get out from Indiana, we get more recognition. Obviously, the further you go in the playoffs, more people watch you, so this is great for us to be here. Believe me, this is not something that we did not want to do. We wanted to do this. We have a brand, and when we go around the country whether they like us as a team or not, at least they know who we are."
On the Pacers' off-season acquisitions:
"Well, I think we're pretty well set right now. Last year, after watching the performance of our bench, I thought that in a lot of games, they hurt us by not being able to score the basketball. So obviously, we went out and we got CJ (Watson) first, great back-up point guard, had some experience in the league. And then we got Chris Copeland from New York, we all know Chris is a deadeye shooter. He can score points in a hurry. And then we got Luis Scola, everybody knows Luis Scola and what he brings to the table. He's a little bit older now, but for what we need, he's perfect. It's just three moves that we made that we feel will make us stronger. And if we want to compete at a high level, our bench has to give us more than they did last year."
On the Pacers being the deepest team in the Eastern Conference:
"Well I hope so, but you never know. Looks good on paper, but we'll see what happens."
On feeling pressure:
"Pressure, I don't know what that is. Obviously, you've never seen me play."
On the physical and mental aspect of basketball:
"The physical part is just getting out there and being able to... we call it 'banging,' hitting guys, just being strong enough, because these guys are big boys, and when they run into you, it hurts. So, the mental aspect, everybody talks a good game, but can they actually play a good game? We have a long schedule, and mental fatigue actually sets in. It's just like coming over here, the 12-hour time difference. We can use that excuse, or mentally, we can prepare ourselves to play a game that night and put the mental fatigue away.
"I think the mental aspect of the game is something that is as tough as anything because we play about every night, we play five times a week a lot of times, we play a lot of back-to-backs. You really can't make an excuse. The teams that make excuses don't last long in the playoffs. Everybody's gonna have their injuries, everybody's gonna get beat up, we're gonna be sore. Those that can overcome the mental and the physical aspects is probably gonna go far in the playoffs."
On how the international game has changed :
"Well if you remember back in 1992, the one thing that I was told before everyone decided to get together and play in the Olympics was, 'You can change the game of basketball in the whole world if you guys do this.' And what they meant by that is, if we go over there and dominate, everybody else in the world will say, 'We got to get better.' So they'll bring in better coaches, they'll bring in better facilities, better training techniques, and that's the one thing I've seen in the last 20 years.
"Everybody's gotten better. Not just United States or China, everybody in the world's basketball is getting better. and it's because of what happened in 1992. Because if they didn't get better, USA was gonna dominate forever. But what you see in the last 15 or 18 years, every once in a while, we do get beat. And we get beat because of what happened in 1992."