INDIANAPOLIS -- Larry Bird can again lay claim to something that has always defined him: winning.
After years of struggles and sharp criticism from an Indiana fanbase that once worshipped him as one of the state's most prominent natives, the Pacers president has his team back near the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Pacers entered Saturday's action with a 27-19 record, creating an optimism around the franchise that has been absent for years.
"There's places we want to go with this team," Bird told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "We think we've got talent to do it. It's just how we compete every night, and if we're going to get better from now to the end of the year. We feel if we get better, we have an opportunity to do something special."
Last season, the Pacers were 17-27 when Bird fired coach Jim O'Brien. Interim coach Frank Vogel then took a young team with core pieces Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough and Darren Collison and guided it to the playoffs. The Pacers challenged the Chicago Bulls before losing the first-round series 4-1.
After the season, Bird met with team owner Herb Simon, and the team announced it would keep him as president. Indiana then added George Hill in a draft-day trade, hired Vogel as the full-time coach and added free-agent forward David West.
Though things have changed, Bird might not stick around. He's only committed to run the team through this season, and says he will talk with Simon about his future at season's end. Amid recent reports that he wouldn't return, Bird said no decision has been made.
"It's the same thing as exactly what happened last year," he said.
Bird was hired as team president in 2003 and shared the basketball decisions with then-CEO Donnie Walsh. The infamous brawl between Pacers players and Pistons fans took place in 2004, shaking up a perennial title contender and prompting the team to make talent-depleting trades. Anyone who ever got in trouble on or off the court was shipped away, with Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley and Shawne Williams being the most notable casualties of the housecleaning.
Bird took full control of basketball decisions after the 2007-08 season, when Walsh left to become the New York Knicks' president. Financial restrictions slowed his progress, and the Pacers went 36-46 in 2008-09 and 32-50 in 2009-10.
Dealing with losing was a challenge for a man who won three championships with the Boston Celtics, was an Olympic gold medalist and coached the Pacers to the NBA finals in 2000. Through it all, he stuck to his plan.
"My job was to change the culture, change the outlook of this team, bring in the players that I like, really revamp this whole organization," he said. "Criticism comes as part of the job. I understand that."
There's much less to question now. Under Bird's leadership since the end of the 2007-08 season, the team has hit several home runs on draft night.
In 2008, the Pacers made a move to acquire Toronto draft pick Roy Hibbert, and the 7-foot-2 center was a first-time All-Star this season. He averages 13.1 points and 9.0 rebounds while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field.
"When he got to Georgetown, he was just a big guy that was overweight and had a little skill," Bird said. "Through determination and hard work, Roy's turned himself into an All-Star-type player."
In 2009, Indiana drafted Tyler Hansbrough, who is a key part of the second unit. The man Bird refers to as a bull averages just under 10 points.
In 2010, the team picked up Fresno State's Paul George on draft night. At the time, Pacers fans weren't thrilled about the choice. This season, he is averaging 12.2 points and 5.2 rebounds while shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range. He participated in this year's rising stars challenge and slam dunk contest, and now Vogel is touting him as a contender for the NBA all-defensive team.
"Nobody really knew who he was," Bird said. "He had a nice couple of years in college. He's long and athletic. He's got a lot of talent. Through his determination, he's gotten better every year."
In 2011, the team traded its draft pick for San Antonio guard George Hill, an Indianapolis native. Bird said all the players obtained from those draft night moves have a common thread.
"The first thing I think of is the work ethic," he said. "They do whatever is necessary to get better every year. They have a commitment to the game. They want to get the most out of their talent."
With talent, there still has to be direction. Vogel, just 38 years old, has thrived while blending the skills of new assistant coaches Brian Shaw and Jim Boylen with those of holdover Dan Burke.
"He's handled himself like a true professional," Bird said. "He's been around coaches that's had experience and had success in this league and he's learned a lot. I think he's done an exceptional job with these players. I think they trust him and they believe in him and that's why they're winning some games."
One thing Vogel hasn't figured out is the Bulls, who have built a rivalry with Pacers since last year's playoff series. Indiana won in Chicago on Jan. 25 and celebrated, then Chicago got payback with a 92-72 win March 5. They meet in Indianapolis in the regular-season finale on April 25.
"Right now, we're their little brother," Bird said. "We're not as good as them, but if we play them, we feel like we can beat them. You can always say you feel like you can beat them, but until you do, it means nothing. This year, if we play them, we feel like we've got an opportunity to do something great. I think the guys will step up and meet the challenge."
Indiana's fans haven't bought in completely. The Pacers ranked last in the league in attendance last year, and it's only slightly better this year. Bird said he hopes the fans start paying attention soon.
"Our goal is to put the type of team that Indiana wants out there," he said. "They're hardworking guys, good guys and a team that's going to win. Hopefully, they'll notice us and come out and support us. You never know where that's going to go, but we need all the help we can get here. We want our fans to enjoy our team because it is their team."
Bird still is working to fill holes, adding a needed scoring element when he acquired Toronto guard Leandro Barbosa before the trade deadline. And though Granger has been the face of the franchise for years and is averaging 18 points this season, Bird believes the team needs another piece to become a true championship contender.
"We don't have a true superstar on this team, that go-to guy every night that we need," he said. "It would always be nice to have a superstar on your team, but we don't, so we have to share the wealth."
The Pacers, still well under the salary cap, could be a player in free agency after this season. Bird believes that could provide an opportunity to truly get the team back to an elite level.
"We're not even close to where I think we're going to go with this franchise," he said. "We've got a long way to go. We've got a core group of young players that are going to be pretty good, and we've brought in some guys I think are positive moves, but we're nowhere near where I think this franchise needs to be and where I want it to go."
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