Thomas ousted by Bird as Pacers coach

Posted: Thursday, August 28, 2003

INDIANAPOLIS Larry Bird insisted he took his new job with an open mind about the future of coach Isiah Thomas.

The Indiana Pacers' president of basketball operations needed only seven weeks to come to a decision.

Bird wasted little time in making his first major move, firing Thomas on Wednesday and immediately targeting former assistant Rick Carlisle as his successor.

''I just had a gut feeling this wasn't going to work,'' Bird said of a surprise move that came only two months before the start of the season.

Bird said he didn't feel comfortable with the Pacers' direction after a second-half swoon that knocked them out of first place in the Eastern Conference and into third.

Bird also said there were other problems with Thomas, who was with the U.S. men's basketball team at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico earlier this week. Thomas returned to Indianapolis on Wednesday.

''I spoke to him one day in a meeting, and I talked to him one day on the phone. The communication wasn't really there,'' Bird said.

Thomas said he was looking forward to working with Bird.

''I was disappointed that Larry and I didn't get a chance to work together,'' Thomas told the AP late Wednesday in a phone interview. ''I truly felt we would have been good together. I'm disappointed we don't get a chance.''

Thomas arrived in Indianapolis early Wednesday and went straight to Conseco Fieldhouse, where he met with Bird.

''I said I'm disappointed he didn't give himself an opportunity to know me,'' Thomas said of the conversation. ''I think he would have liked me had he got to known me.''

Jermaine O'Neal, the Pacers' best player, said he would not have re-signed with Indiana if he had known Thomas was going to be fired. Visibly angered and upset by the move, O'Neal said he will address the situation with the Pacers' front office next week after the Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico concludes.

''Am I disappointed? Hell, yeah. I'm extremely disappointed for multiple reasons,'' O'Neal said. ''I was told he would be here before I re-signed.

''If your boss told you your ace is going to be there for you if you come back, and once you come back not even a month later he's not there, that hurts. That hurts a lot. He was more than a coach to me. He was like a father.''

Carlisle and Bird's relationship dates to the 1980s when the two were teammates with the Boston Celtics. Carlisle also was an assistant for Bird from 1997-2000, but was passed over by current Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh in favor of Thomas.

Carlisle spent the past two seasons as coach of the Detroit Pistons before being fired in May. Carlisle spoke with Bird on Tuesday night and said he was interested.

''He's my first choice,'' Bird said. Bird said he would have fired Thomas even if Carlisle was not available.

Numerous phone messages left for Carlisle were not returned.

Bird and Thomas were contentious rivals from their days of leading the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons to NBA titles in the 1980s.

When he was hired July 11, Bird walked off the podium at a news conference and shook hands with Thomas but neither smiled.

The Pacers were 131-115 in the regular season under Thomas, making the playoffs all three seasons but never advancing past the first round. Speculation swirled toward the end of the season that Thomas would not be back for the final year of his four-year contract.

Walsh, however, said Thomas would return, though they wouldn't discuss an extension. Walsh said on Wednesday he agreed with Bird on the decision to fire Thomas.

Walsh said Thomas would ''possibly'' have remained on if Bird had not been hired, though he had similar concerns the Pacers wouldn't regroup under Thomas.

''I would have been very worried about going into the season because I would agree that I think that it could blow up early,'' Walsh said. ''And if it did, then we'd be in a worse situation.''

The team said it would honor the final year of Thomas' contract.

Bird guided the Pacers to the 2000 NBA Finals and the best three-year record in their NBA history during his time as coach.

''I've always said, three years and you need a new coach,'' Bird joked.

Indiana had the best record in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break this past season, making Thomas the All-Star coach, but went 14-19 the rest of the season and lost in the first round of the playoffs to Boston.

Pacers players had continued to voice support for Thomas. O'Neal said before he re-signed with the team last month that he would not play for anybody but Thomas with the Pacers.

''I think he'll be disappointed, but I also think that he'll sit down and talk to us, and we'll have a conversation with him about why it was done,'' Bird said.

The re-signing of O'Neal and free-agent Reggie Miller, along with the trade of All-Star Brad Miller all fell on Walsh as he eased out of his role as head decision maker.

This one was Bird's.

''I think a new coach coming in is going to bring some freshness, a new style and hopefully he can play the game the way I like it to be played,'' Bird said.

Bird said the new coach would likely bring in his own assistants.

The biggest criticism of Thomas was his inconsistent rotations. While most players preferred a set role, Thomas made his decisions on his own feelings for a particular game and team matchups.

Thomas, who led Indiana to the 1981 NCAA championship, retired as a player after the 1994 season, averaging 19.2 points and 9.3 assists over his 13-year NBA career, all with the Pistons. He won NBA championship in 1989 and 1990.

He then became vice president and part-owner of the Toronto Raptors and later worked as an NBC analyst on NBA games before joining the Pacers.

''Now we have to look at our team and see if we have the chemistry on the team that can win together and work together,'' Bird said. ''This is just starting.''

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