Q&A: Larry Bird on the Pacers, Lance, and the Challenge of Small Markets

May 24, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird watches the game against the Miami Heat in game three of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Miami Heat defeated the Indiana Pacers 99-87. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

What is your job title and when did you start?

I’m the President of Basketball Operations. This is my fifth year as President. I was under Donnie Walsh for five years. He ran both sides, the business and the basketball side. He left for New York, and was the General Manager up there for three years. He came back here as a consultant and I left for a year. When I came back, I went to my same normal role. He went back to consulting.

What does your job entail?

I’m the head of all of basketball. I do everything from budgeting to getting the players. When I say that, there is more than just me. We have an analytics guy, a cap guy, an assistant GM and a GM. Even though I make all of the decisions, they have a big input in everything we do. My job entails looking over the budget, hiring the trainers and analytics, bringing in all of the players. You name it, and I’m a part of all of it. If it has to do with basketball, I’m a part of it.

You could be doing anything right now with your retirement. Why did you take this position?

I played in the league for thirteen years. When I retired, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to coach or not. I tried it for three years and enjoyed it. Then they asked me to stay to go into the front office. I thought, if you do it that way, you see all of the perspectives. You see it as a player, as a coach, and in the front office.

It’s been a great experience for me in a lot of ways. One of them is that I’ve gotten to see all of the ins and outs. As a player, you always see the front office this and the front office that. As a coach, you see the side as far as how to get guys to play together and utilizing the right kind of talent. Up here, you see all of the numbers. You see what everything costs. I’ve been a full circle.

Plus, I love the game of basketball. I love to watch it. I love being around the games and the practices. It’s been a fun experience for me.

What is the most difficult part about your job?

Losing. It’s always been losing. The main thing is trying to put a group of guys together that really think about the game like I do. They don’t have to play it the way I did, but they have to think it the way I do. They have to know when to pass, when to shoot, make quick decisions, and be mentally tough. They have to do the things necessary to come together as a team. I always believed in the team aspect of the game.

What is the ideal type of player your organization looks for?

We always look for a guy that’s long, athletic, has a good basketball IQ, tries to keep his team involved. I like guys that lead by example instead of by mouth. Everything that you always read about that instills greatness in a player is the competition and motivation. Do you have to stay on them to make sure they show up on time? Do you have to stay on him to work hard? You just want guys to be professional and do what it takes to get better.

What are the types of red flags that you see in players that you look for?

Not motivated. Won’t play when they have a little injury, and take longer to get back than most guys. Not good in the locker room and selfish. Anything that would probably turn you off turns me off as far as both a player and in everyday life.

When you decide who to put on your team, do you take into account the kinds of guys you wanted to play with as a player?

I see guys and say ‘yeah I could play with him.’ Do you know Paul George? When Paul was in college, he was long and athletic, he got in the passing lanes, he was a rebounder. But he was a horrible shot maker. He took a ton of bad shots. But through all of that, he shot 90% from the free throw line. Through that, you see that if he took good shots, he’d become a good shooter.

We always knew that he was a great defender and a great kid. We found out before the draft that he was a hard worker. We knew that somewhere down the road he was going to become a great scorer, and he did.

Do you think you success as a player and as a coach has given you credibility in your new role?

It’s probably what got me here. There are only 30 jobs in this league, and you have to have some type of in to get in here. I think that my playing career, then coming to coach here in my home state along with being around the game for so long probably gave me this opportunity. It opened doors for me.

Was being in your home state a factor in choosing to be a part of the Indiana organization?

There’s no question about it. I didn’t really know Donnie Walsh at the time, but I could tell that my work relationship with him was probably going to be a good one. So I took a chance to coach for three years.

What difficulties exist in the league today that did not exist when you played?

It’s still basketball. The players are still basically the same. I really believe that the guys are doing more strength and conditioning. There is more testing going on than there was back in the day. But things are a lot easier for these guys. Everything from the traveling to the hotels, even the food in the locker room. Things are set up much better now than they were back then. But it’s still basketball. You still have to compete and play.

Nov 28, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Lance Stephenson (1) complains after being called for a foul during the second half of the game against the Golden State Warriors at Time Warner Cable Arena. Warriors win 106-101. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

You recently lost Lance Stevenson. Do contract disputes ever become personal?

It’s never personal with a player. That’s why you never want to talk to a player about negotiations. I was a player once, and I know how these things go. The agent is always trying to get the most that he possibly can for his client.

In the situation with Lance, we knew what we were going to pay him. That was what we were going to pay him. He was an unrestricted free agent, and he chose to go somewhere else. He was looking for more money, and he was going to wait a few months to see what was out there. We didn’t have that kind of time, so we just moved on.

How important is money when it comes to handling a team and what do you do to deal with that issue?

We’re a small market, so we have a budget. We have to stay within that budget. A lot of the markets are able to go over the tax or up to the tax. We’re not able to do that. We have to be cognizant of the fact that we have a certain amount to spend and we better be sure to use it in the right ways.

How did you learn so much about financing?

I had a lot of great training under Donnie [Walsh]. Under him, I learned a lot. I’ve been around the game a long time, so I have a good sense of what these guys are worth. With a budget, I can go so far with a number, but someone can always come in and take them away from me. It’s really not a level playing field, because there are teams that are willing to spend more.

We just have to be accurate in the guys we get. We can’t have guys making five or six million dollars and not play. They have to be in the rotation ready to play.

What makes being a small-market team so difficult?

It’s all about generating revenue. It’s big when it comes to gate receipts and advertisements. Our revenue is a lot lower than the major markets. We understand that. People tell me ‘if you don’t like it, go to a major market so you’ll have an opportunity to spend more money.’ That’s not the way I look at it. I look at it as it’s competitive and it’s a little tough for us, but we have to make our own way by playing by the rules.

You look at San Antonio. They’re a small market and they’ve had great success for a long time. That’s the model for the small-markets, and probably the whole league. They’ve done a great job of being under budget constraints as a small-market.

Do you think it’s important for players to take less money to build a stronger team?

I think the players deserve everything that they get. If people are going to pay you a certain amount to play, you should take it. If you look at San Antonio, most of those guys have already made their money. They’ve all had big contracts. When it comes down to it, they want to stay together. They have what they’ve got going on down there and they’re having success. I can see their point of view.

But if I was a kid and I had an opportunity to make a lot of money, I’d go make it. Then at the end of my career, I’d try to go find a team that has a lot of good players and take a little less money. But not when you’re young. Not when you’re 20, 21, 22. I think you have to make the money first. Anything can happen. Your career can be over in one bad play.

What do you consider the defining moment of your executive career?

I think the last two years going to the Eastern Conference Finals. We’ve been there before, but not with a group of kids that work hard, are competitive, are always on time, and doing the things they’re supposed to do. A lot of times you don’t win a championship, but if you get the maximum out of your players, that means everything.

What are some things that the league could do to make it easier on team executives?

I think [the league] could ease up on the scheduling. There’s a lot of teams that don’t get to play on Thursdays. So it’s really a six-day week for a lot of teams, while some of the better teams have a seven day week. They need to spread the games out more. There are too many four out of five nights and back-to-backs. I think the exhibition season is too long. They need to start the season earlier and spread it out a little bit.

Are you as competitive as when you played?

It’s a different kind of competitiveness. When I played, the ball was in my hands all of the time. I was able to make decisions based on how the game was being played. As a coach, it was in Reggie Miller’s hands. Up here, it’s in all of those guys’ hands. It’s a completely different feeling. However, the goals are the same. You want to win as many games as you possibly can and try to be successful.

Do you think your competitive nature helps you with your job?

There is absolutely no question. There are a lot of guys that are competitive, but when you count them up at the end of the year, that’s when you can tell. You separate the good from the mediocre. Everybody has a different way of doing things. We’re a little different than most teams. We believe in analytics. We’re 100% behind the fact that you have to do everything by the numbers. You still have to be competitive and decision makers. At the end, you just have to see how well you did.

Why is winning so important to you?

It always has been important, even at a young age. I always feel better [when I win]. I’m a better loser than I am a winner, because I always took winning for granted. I could never get over the losing aspect of the game. When I lose, my whole day, my whole week is miserable. Only when I get a couple of wins do I start feeling better.

Johnny Carver is a 19 year old freshman at the University of Arkansas. He is majoring in business management with an emphasis on sports management. He recently finished his first book “Ranketology: A New Way Of Determing Basketball’s Greatest Player,” based on a statistical algorithim that he created to determine the greatest player in the history of the NBA.