Larry Bird embarked on his shortlived head coaching career in 1997 and immediately led his hometown team, the Indiana Pacers to the top of the East. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds the moment you remember that Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls were around. Having faced Jordan as a player, Bird had some key words of advice for his players.
Michael Jordan vs. Coach Larry Bird
Jordan entered the league when Larry Bird was right in his prime. MJ hit his prime as Bird was on the tail-end of his career. And so, in a strange way, Bird saw Jordan grow over the years. And this included not just the development of physical gifts but the strengthening of his mental fortitude.
Reporters were curious how Bird intended to use this knowledge against Jordan, this time as a head coach of a basketball team. His answer perfectly summarized Jordan’s abilities, especially in the clutch.
“The thing with Jordan is, you can be ahead by 10, and two minutes later the game is tied. I’m going to tell my guys if they can stay close until the last two minutes, then we have a chance. Who knows? Michael might actually come down and miss a shot. I doubt it, but he might,” Bird said, per Sports Illustrated.
Speaking of the devil
Bird uttered those words when he was named head coach of the Pacers. He had not coached the team yet in a high-octane environment. But Bird knew what he was talking about. He guided the Pacers to a 58-24 record in his first season as head coach. He would lead his team to the Eastern Conference Finals against Jordan’s mighty Bulls.
Bird’s players took his words to heart. Yes, they didn’t win, but they stretched the series to a Game 7. It was only the Bulls’ second series that extended to a Game 7 during their back-to-back 3-peats. The first one was the 1992 Conference Semifinals against the New York Knicks.
Another consolation prize is that they got Jordan’s stamp of approval. In “The Last Dance,” Jordan named the Pacers one of the toughest teams he’s faced.
“Indiana was probably the toughest, outside of Detroit. They were tough. Every time I’d go in that f***ing game and come out, I got a new scratch. It became personal with me,” Jordan said.
Since Jordan and Bird were good friends, they met up backstage right after their series ended; also seen in “The Last Dance” is their heartwarming embrace.