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."

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