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Sunday, January 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Percy Allen / NBA reporter
NBA executives returning to prominence

By Percy Allen
Seattle Times NBA reporter

BILL KOSTROUN / AP
Michael Jordan, left, hasn't been as successful as Larry Bird, right, in his attempt at a career in basketball after his days as a player. Bird is currently Indiana's president of basketball operations, and Jordan is out of a job.
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NEW YORK — It must be akin to operating a rotisserie-league team the way they're wheeling and dealing and turning the NBA on its ear.

The stars of a past generation are taking over again, remaking the game into their once-glorious image. If anyone can save this league, it will be these men, the ones who rescued it from the obscurity and ruins of the 1970s.

These are the men who elevated the game to prime-time viewing and abandoned it once their bodies grew old and they could no longer keep pace with the children who now reign.

But they will have the final word.

Didn't Larry Bird always take the last shot for Boston?

Wasn't it Isiah Thomas who kept opponents guessing, feinting dribble drives and performing feats nobody expected?

Who was more clutch than Kevin McHale?

And now they are doing it all over again, calling the shots from the front office. They're not just directing offenses and defenses, they're shaping franchises as well as the league.

I wonder what Michael Jordan is thinking. The game's greatest player is sitting in the stands after being rebuffed in Washington and Milwaukee.

He has to watch like the rest of us as Danny Aigne reshapes Boston, Joe Dumars runs the show in Detroit and John Paxson, his former teammate, steers the course of his beloved Chicago Bulls.

I wonder if Jordan can make the transition as effortlessly as Bird, Indiana's first-year president who has guided the Pacers to the top of the Eastern Conference?

As a coach, Bird guided the Pacers to the NBA Finals, and now, after a few years away, he's positioning them for another championship run.

As a player, he was ruthless. Dennis Johnson, a former Celtic, tells a story about Bird once threatening to beat up a teammate if he didn't play well.

As an executive, Bird is equally cutthroat.

The re-signing of Jermaine O'Neal exemplified his savvy. Bird made sure he secured the deal before firing Thomas, who coached the Pacers from 2000-03 and was a big reason O'Neal remained in Indiana.

"They did what they had to do," O'Neal said. "In hindsight, I guess it was pretty smart. At the time, I didn't like it one bit. But we've gotten past that."

The Pacers have a commanding lead in the Central Division and Bird isn't done retooling. He has spent several weeks in Europe this season scouting talent in preparation for this summer's draft.

Said one NBA scout: "If you think he's an aw-shucks country bumpkin, you're wrong. He's got a great basketball mind."

As a player, Bird's chief nemesis was Magic Johnson, who briefly tried his hand at coaching before settling on minority ownership of the Los Angeles Lakers.

It's unfortunate that Magic couldn't complete the crossover. On the court, he saw the game better than anybody. He was the quintessential point guard, but he couldn't impart his wisdom without the ball in his hands.

"Being a guard," Thomas told reporters in New York when he took the job as president of the Knicks last month, "it's your natural instinct to take over."

They have taken to calling him "Little Emperor" around these parts, where Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is known as "The Boss."

Thomas has been the talk of the town since taking over last month. He has remade the roster with trades. He brought back two of New York's favorite sons in Stephon Marbury and Lenny Wilkens.

Thomas has been cold-hearted in his treatment of disposed coach Don Chaney. He undermined Chaney's authority and sat on David Letterman's couch last week and joked about his coach's future.

But what would you expect from somebody who has always enjoyed the limelight and despised losing? And Chaney, for all of his nice-guy qualities, never won in New York.

And while Thomas has worked quickly, McHale needed time before fielding a championship-contending team in Minnesota. Point guards are always quicker to the basket.

The former Celtic did dirty work below the rim and his infractions often went unnoticed by officials. His mishandling of Joe Smith's contract, however, drew a severe penalty that nearly crippled the franchise.

Still, McHale persevered. What else would you expect? Didn't he always play famously in the fourth quarter while hampered with five fouls?

It fits his Midwestern personality that it took seven straight first-round playoff departures before he traded for a pair of veteran malcontents in Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. The moves, which should have been made years ago, have propelled the Timberwolves to the top of the Midwest Division.

It makes sense that McHale, a Hall of Fame power forward, has put the future of his team in the hands of Kevin Garnett just as Thomas, a masterful point guard, is relying on Marbury, another diminutive playmaker.

Bird's star is O'Neal, but the Pacers are prospering because their president has instilled a work ethic and approach to winning that mirrors his steely demeanor. Can't you see it?

In Reggie Miller, Ron Artest and O'Neal. Each of them embodies qualities that made Bird the finest forward of his generation. In them, his legacy endures.

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com.


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