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Bird's anger management skills put to test

SAN JUAN -- Larry Bird has had more than a few challenges in his basketball career as a player (the Lakers, Sixers, and Pistons) and a coach (the Bulls, Knicks, and Lakers). Now comes the latest hurdle, an individual by the name of Jermaine O'Neal. O'Neal is inarguably the best player on the Indiana Pacers, the team Bird is now running. O'Neal also is inarguably a mighty angry fellow these days because the man he wanted to coach the Pacers, the man who he said he was told would be coaching the Pacers, is no longer coaching the Pacers. That man, of course, is Isiah Thomas, whom Bird fired Wednesday.

Here's just a taste of what O'Neal had to say on Wednesday. Picture eyes like daggers and you get the basic idea:

"The slump at the end of the season [when Indy went 14-19] and we're still 16 games [actually 14] over .500. What else do you want? I thought in this league, you're [judged] on what you did, wins and losses. [Aside to Jermaine: You might want to ask your new coach, Rick Carlisle, if he feels the same way.] He is 16 games better than the year before [actually only seven] and he's taken one of the youngest teams in the league and made them contenders and gave us confidence to say that we feel we can come out of the East and get to the Finals. That was our goal. But all of a sudden now we're not really trying to get to the Finals. We're trying to get guys together and compete. I didn't come back to Indiana to compete. I want to win the Finals."

You never want to make your star player angry, which Bird, as the undeniable supernova in his days in Boston, knows all too well. Before O'Neal signed his contract extension in July, he said, he was told that Thomas would be back. He had said before that he wanted to play for Thomas -- and Thomas only. He said he would not have signed the seven-year deal had he known that Thomas would not be back and now he feels "deceived" by the higher-ups and he's not sure he wants to stay in Indiana.

Here's a guess: O'Neal will get over it. And what did he think -- that Thomas was going to stay on for seven more years?

The main question about the Thomas firing is not that it happened. We all knew it was a when, not an if, once Bird took over. The question is more the timing. But it's classic Bird. He's not impulsive. Once he makes up his mind, that's it. But he's a deliberative sort who takes his time.

Maybe he never intended to keep Thomas. We'll have to wait for Part III of the trilogy for that one. He could have insisted that Thomas be axed before he came aboard. But he didn't. My guess is that all he needed to do was watch the Pacers' pathetic performance against Boston in the playoffs to give him all the evidence he needed. And remember, there were ample pre-Bird opportunities for Pacers president Donnie Walsh to extend Thomas beyond the upcoming season -- and Walsh never did it.

Thomas deserves props for developing some of the younger players. But the Indiana team after the All-Star break and in the postseason was a disgrace. Players disappeared. Rotations were weird. The sight of Ron Mercer trying to play point guard in the Celtics series pretty much summed it up.

Bird may have some fence-mending to do with O'Neal, even though he came on board after O'Neal verbally committed to stay. But he is the one who fired Thomas. We don't know if rift-mending is one of Larry's strengths or not. We do know that in the past, his speech might have gone something like this: "I'm Larry Bird. Live with it." He could get away with that as a player when he called out teammates with impunity. He got away with it as a coach, leaving Travis Best and Antonio Davis standing on a runway because they were minutes late for an exhibition charter. But being the head of basketball operations can be different; all he has to do is ask Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, or Michael Jordan.

Listening to O'Neal, it sure sounded as though Bird will at least need to sit down and explain what happened and why he did what he did. You don't want your meal ticket feeling he was lied to. You want him to be comfortable, mentally and financially. O'Neal certainly has no complaints about his paycheck. It's the other comfort zone Bird may need to address.

Foot out the door

Faced with a foot operation that would idle him for another year -- and might not even work -- Eric Montross called it a career last week. In his eight playing seasons (he sat out last year), he was with six teams, was traded five times in deals that involved 25 players, and never really played any better than he did that first year in Boston, 1994-95. He averaged 10 points, 7.3 rebounds, and was named to the All-Rookie second team. "I was given a chance to start and to play big minutes," Montross said in a phone interview from his North Carolina home. "That's something every rookie dreams of. That was a fantastic opportunity and I did well there." Montross said his first head coach, Chris Ford, remains one of his favorites. "He was a coach I identified with," said Montross. "He was hard-nosed, a hard worker, no b.s. I identified with that because I came from a school [North Carolina] where when the coach said something, you did it. I really respected him." His final coach, Lenny Wilkens, could not have been more different. "His coaching style wasn't what Toronto needed; it didn't fit with the young guys," said Montross. "But Lenny was a guy I have a lot of respect for and, as a veteran, you can understand his appeal." Montross said he consulted nine foot specialists and even went to (ugh) Duke for a medical review. Everyone told him the same thing: We can operate, but we don't know if it will work and you'll be out at least a year rehabbing. That settled it. "What do you do?" he said. "I'm 31. I have a young family with two kids, 5 and 3. Toronto made an offer to me in the organization, but it was not the right time to make a commitment. I'm not slamming the door on any NBA opportunity. At this point, my family has to come first. I need to take a few months to see what I want to do. But I know I'm not one to sit on the couch." Montross signed an 11-year deal with the Celtics -- rookie deals now are for five years, maximum -- and made almost $20 million playing in the NBA. One guy who'll miss him is Vince Carter. "As far as having a big body out there, yes, we'll miss him," Carter said. "We need to get someone to replace him. He gave us a presence out there, which is what we needed. He was great at throwing his body around. And, he's a Carolina guy. He knows how to play." . . . Here's a sobering thought for coaches. With the firing of Thomas, five of the eight Eastern Conference teams that made the playoffs last season made coaching changes. That includes Detroit (Larry Brown for Carlisle), Philadelphia (Randy Ayers for Brown), Milwaukee (Terry Porter for George Karl) and New Orleans (um, Tim Floyd for Paul Silas) in addition to the Pacers. The only playoff returnees: Byron Scott (who still has received no extension beyond next year), Jim O'Brien, and Doc Rivers . . . Brown, by the way, caused more than a few jaws to drop when he suggested that had Thomas been fired earlier, the Pistons would have hired him instead of Brown. The Pistons have had numerous opportunities to hire Thomas in the past and have resolutely chosen not to do so.

He was part of it

A reader e-mailed the following. After seeing the 1981 Celtics championship trophy on display at the Basketball Hall of Fame, he noticed that Wayne Kreklow's name was not on it. But if you look at the team picture, Kreklow is there. The explanation: Kreklow was there for the team picture but was waived in January. However, Bill Fitch, who coached the team, was so impressed with Kreklow's work ethic (the kid appeared in 25 games) that he made sure Kreklow received a world championship ring . . . Speaking of the Hall of Fame, the enshrinement ceremony is this Friday, and Bill Walton will again be on the main stage. Every inductee must be presented by a Hall of Famer along with another individual of his own choosing. Incoming inductee Robert Parish chose Walton to be his presenter, which means Big Bill will have had the honor of presenting two members of the Big Three, Parish and Bird. (Red Auerbach presented McHale.) The Hall did not have information on who also would be with Parish; former teammate Clifford Ray might be a guess. (We can safely say it won't be Fitch or Bill Laimbeer.) Among the other inductees with NBA ties, James Worthy has chosen former North Carolina coach Dean Smith to be his Hall of Fame presenter. (He should have chosen Magic Johnson. Without all those passes, Worthy wouldn't even be under consideration.) Jerry West will present Chick Hearn's widow. Former Celtic (for a spell) and Miami assistant coach Bob McAdoo will present Dino Meneghin, one of the all-time great European players. And former Celtic (for a spell) Dave Bing will present Earl Lloyd, the first African-American to play in the NBA . . . Brown, the US national team coach, on the continuing maturation of Allen Iverson: "I've been with him for six years, but this is the best two weeks he has ever played. He's just trying to do the right thing, to take what's available. We don't go to him like we went to him in Philly, but he would probably tell you it's more fun here because when you're open, everyone shares the ball. I think he makes other players better and the people around him make him better." Iverson said he might even take this pass-first, shoot-second mentality back to Philly. We'll see.

Try to remember

Attention, Danny Ainge: Argentine bulldog Andres Nocioni is someone worth thinking about down the road. He's tough as nails, a bit wacky, and has a desire to give the NBA a try, although he's quite comfy playing in Spain. Nocioni is only 23, and his contract has a large buyout. "Athleticwise and talentwise, he and [Fabricio] Oberto probably have the best chance for the NBA," said Argentina guard Pepe Sanchez of his teammates without an NBA home. Nocioni is a bit of a wild one, a 6-foot-7-inch version of Kenyon Martin, if you will. He picked up a technical three minutes into Argentina's must-win game against the Dominicans and was consigned to the bench for the rest of the game, which Argentina won comfortably. "He's a little crazy," Sanchez said. "But that's good for the NBA." This Argentina team was missing two players who could have made it even deeper: Carlos Delfino, a first-round pick last June who is the property of the Pistons, and Walter Herrmann, who had planned to join the team but then lost his mother, sister, and girlfriend in an auto accident while training and understandably pulled out. But here's another Argentine to keep an eye on: Guillermo Kammerichs. He's a baby on this team at 23 but has an Andrei Kirilinko-type game and wingspan . . . Former Boston College head coach Bob Zuffelato, who has been with the Raptors from the beginning, is moving to Rhode Island, where he'll be the team's main scout. In his 10 years with the Raptors, Zuffelato has been a director of scouting, director of player personnel, assistant coach, assistant general manager, chief cook, and bottle washer. Zuffelato was at BC from 1969-77, first as an assistant to Chuck Daly and then as the head man . . . You always wonder what goes on with some of the international teams in competitions such as the Olympic qualifier. Brazil has a team with two NBA players (Nene and Leandro Barbosa) and two others who will soon be in the NBA (Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter). But in a must-win game Wednesday against Puerto Rico, Barbosa, a 6-3 point guard with Scottie Pippen-like arms, played only six minutes -- and not at all in the second half. Brazil lost the game by 2 points and did not qualify for the Olympics . . . Longtime Puerto Rico national player Jose "Piculin" Ortiz is still a factor at the age of 39. He has kept himself in remarkable shape and told the local San Juan paper that he wants to keep playing until he's 45. He's been playing for Puerto Rico since the age of 16 and also had a brief stint in the NBA with the Utah Jazz. Back here in 1999, he announced his retirement from international competition. But he never did retire. He said he's still open to joining an NBA team. "I can still be a solid contributor for any team that needs a skilled big man," he said. He's also open to the possibility of coaching.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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