Basketball: Bird and Jordan in duel of legends

Ian Whittell wonders if the end of a basketball era will be a happy one

THE end of sporting eras do not come along very often. The passing of the metaphorical torch back through the generations is even more rare. Tonight in Chicago, that is a distinct possibility for the world of basketball when Michael Jordan's Bulls face elimination in the deciding seventh game of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals - the equivalent of the American championship's semi-finals - against the Indiana Pacers.

This is unfamiliar territory for Jordan, 35, whose domination of the sport has been so complete that his team have not been forced into a deciding seventh game in a play-off series with him in the line-up since 1992. What makes tonight's situation all the more fascinating is the fact that the dominant personality on Indiana's team does not belong to a player - although the Dutch centre Rik Smits and the shooting guard Reggie Miller are among the game's true elite - but their coach Larry Bird.

No current opponents of Jordan can claim anything like the status bestowed on the Bulls player by an adoring American public. But Bird, in his first year of coaching after an illustrious playing career, is arguably the biggest name still active in the game today after Jordan himself. Bird, who helped reinvent the sport via his rivalry with Magic Johnson in the unforgettable Boston-LA Lakers match-ups of the 1980s, had drifted around the Boston outfit in perfunctory roles since retiring in 1992.

It took the Pacers to take the bold step of appointing him coach at the start of the season. Their reward has been instant, with Indiana compiling the fifth best record in the league, reaching the Conference finals for the third time in their history and Bird collecting Coach of the Year honours at the first attempt. "He's absolutely the coach of the year," said the Pacer point guard Mark Jackson. "I think it's a no-brainer, because he's allowed us to be ourselves."

Bird has avoided the pitfall that has been the undoing of so many great players-turned-coaches. Asked how he would cope with the frustration of dealing with players who lack the ethereal skills Bird once possessed, the coach had a simple explanation: it was something he had been forced to accept his entire life. "Coach does not shout and scream," said Smits. "If you are not playing at 100 per cent effort, he does not shout at you; he just replaces you with someone who will."

An obsessive perfectionist as a player, Bird has surprised many by coping with the fallibility of his players. They have been eager to emulate the standards of a coach who won three NBA titles as a player.

Of course, the individual standing in the way of Indiana's first ever NBA finals appearance and a meeting with the Utah Jazz is as dominant a performer as the Pacers coach ever was. "We haven't played a game seven in six years," said Jordan, looking ahead to the decider. "We have to go out and play hard because there is no tomorrow. Come 6.30 on Sunday it's do or die. Someone's going to be happy and someone's going to be sad."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
people
News
20. Larry Page: Net worth: $23 billion; Country: U.S; Source of wealth: Google
business
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
A collection of 30 Banksy prints at Bonhams auction house in London
art
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Recruitment Genius: PA

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A PA is required to join a leading provider of...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness