Bird connected with new Hall of Fame members
As a player, Larry Bird was there when the skinny kid with the big jump shot broke into the NBA in 1987. As a coach, he helped guide his transition from good to great. As a team executive, he oversaw the remarkably graceful end to a long, prolific career.
And now, Bird shares something else with Reggie Miller: a special place in the pantheon of the game.
Miller will join Bird in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame when he is enshrined with the Class of 2012 in September. So, too, will another former Indiana Pacers legend. Mel Daniels, a two-time MVP and three-time champion in the America Basketball Association, which merged with the NBA in 1976.
"Obviously I've seen Reggie play since he first got in the league, and there at the end I was fortunate enough to be able to coach him and see some of the heroics that he brought our team and his work ethic and his professionalism," Bird said Tuesday. "It was a great ride."
The first record Miller broke in his career was Bird's mark for 3-pointers by a rookie. It would not be the last.
Miller went on to score 25,279 points, the most in franchise history, 14th all-time and the fifth among guards (behind Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Oscar Roberts and John Havlicek). He was a five-time NBA All-Star, three-time All-NBA third team selection and won an Olympic Gold Medal in 1996 and a FIBA World Championship in 1994. He ranks second on the NBA all-time list for three-point field goals (2,560), seventh in minutes played (47,619) and has the most three-pointers (320) in playoff history.
What made Miller a Hall of Famer, however, went beyond the numbers — and even those memorable playoff moments against the Knicks and Bulls — in Bird's eyes.
"It's unfortunate for Reggie, a lot of people just look at some of the shots he hit," Bird said. "Obviously, you've got to take that into account. His durability, his ability to shoot the long-range ball, his demeanor, the way that he competed, it just didn't happen overnight. It was over the course of a career.
"I don't think it matters whether you win a championship or not. That's icing on the cake. It's just the fact, can you compete at the highest level against the greatest players?"
Bird said Miller and Chris Mullin, his Pacers' teammate from 1997 to 2000, have showed they can.
Under Bird, Mullin and Miller led the Pacers to reach three consecutive Eastern Conference Finals before breaking through to the NBA Finals that third season. They lost in six games to the Lakers of Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.
"I was very fortunate, we had a lot of guys — Sam Perkins, Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson and Dale Davis — when I was here coaching, and I think it was all because of Reggie," Bird said. "Not that those guys wouldn't work hard, but Reggie tended to stay after practice and do a lot of shooting.
"When I was here, we had all 13 guys out there after practice for at least an hour. It carried over. He really wasn't a vocal leader per se but he put the work in and the time, and he was here for a long time, he did a lot of things in our community, and I think Hoosiers really appreciate him."
Miller follows Daniels as the first two players primarily identified with the Pacers to enter the Hall. Mullin, Alex English, Adrian Dantley and Gus Johnson all spent time in Indiana but made their names elsewhere.
Daniels was the ABA's all-time leading rebounder (9,494) and fourth all-time leading scorer (11,739). A two-time league MVP in 1969 and 1971, he was a seven-time ABA All-Star and a member of three ABA championship teams with the Pacers.
"It's great for us as a franchise," Bird said. "Growing up and watching the ABA Pacers, my first professional game in the sixth grade was watching Kentucky and Indiana play in the ABA and following those guys. Seeing Mel and Reggie going in together is special."
Daniels was an assistant coach at Indiana State while Bird was with the Sycamores and spent 20 years with the Pacers franchise in a variety of front-office capacities.
"He used to come over with some of the guys and play against us in the summertime," Bird said. "It's really too bad that a lot of the young kids don't get a chance to see Mel Daniels and Roger Brown and that team play because they were very good. It was the ABA, I'm glad that now they're looking a little bit harder at the ABA players because I was fortunate to play with some of them, and I knew how good they were.
"Just seeing Mel with the numbers and how he played, the ABA Pacers had a very good basketball team, but when they made the trade for Mel that changed their whole world."
The same could be said of when Miller joined the franchise out of UCLA in 1987. Over the course of two decades, he helped lead the Pacers from the bottom of the NBA to a place of residence among the elite.
Indiana might one day be as good but it surely never will be the same.