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The Last Act of Larry Legend

The playMagic/Bird opened in New York City last week, turning the intense rivalry and deep friendship between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird from NBA theater into the Broadway kind. Perhaps it would have drawn more than lukewarm reviews if playwright Eric Simonson and director Thomas Kail had turned to Bird for more advice. Though he is no dramatist, Bird has produced a compelling one-man show over the years—a basketball life in three acts.

In Act I he was Larry Legend, the Celtics' hero who won three NBA championships, three MVP awards and inspired such devotion from his fans that to this day nearly everyone in New England and his home state of Indiana all but genuflects at the mention of his name. Act II required a costume change from a jersey into a suit, in a surprisingly successful three-year role as the Pacers' coach that included a trip to the NBA Finals. Now, it appears that the curtain might soon come down on Act III, in which he has been a quietly effective team president, rebuilding the Pacers into an upper-echelon team again, the likely third seed in the East in the upcoming playoffs.

Bird, 55, is planning to step down at the end of the season, according to a New York Post report, with the Pacers bound for a second straight postseason appearance after four consecutive years out of the playoffs. He nearly left a year ago, after his contract expired, but agreed to return on a year-to-year basis following an appeal from owner Herb Simon. The rumor of his departure may be premature—"No decision has been made. End of story," Bird said through a team spokesman—but it's not hard to imagine him deciding to return to his home in Naples, Fla., for good. With each career move he recedes further into the background, leaving center stage to others, like Magic, who made a splashy move last month as the public face of the group that bought the Dodgers for $2.15 billion.

So appreciate Bird now, before he exits stage left. We may not see another like him again. Has anyone pulled off Bird's trifecta—star for a team, coach a team, build a team—with so much success? Jerry West perhaps comes the closest; he did the first and the last, but not the second with distinction. Bird had the rare combination of playing ability, coaching patience and an eye for talent—a basketball man in full. He may have been most at home on the court, but he wasn't out of his depth on the bench or in the office. Far from it.

He has been overshadowed in retirement by his friend and rival, whose post-playing career has had a greater dramatic arc; it dipped and soared like a kite in the wind, from the depths of his HIV announcement 21 years ago to the heights of the Dodgers purchase. It's probably no coincidence that Magic has top billing in Magic/Bird—he'll always be the bigger celebrity. Once his playing days were over, the game in some ways seemed too small to contain Magic and his outsized personality. But Bird, even in retirement, never wanted to stray too far from the gym. In that area he has outdone most of the other former players of his caliber. While Magic was becoming a business titan, while Michael Jordan was trying to run a team and sharpen his golf game, while Charles Barkley was making a living with his wit, Bird was rolling up his sleeves as a coach and executive. It was harder labor than an ex-player of his stature needed to do, but this is the same player who used to mow his own lawn back in French Lick, Ind., during his off-seasons.

Bird put the lie to the conventional wisdom about superstars turned coaches—that those who can do, can't teach. He won the NBA's Coach of the Year award in his first season, in 1997--98, and had a .687 career winning percentage along with that trip to the 2000 Finals, before stepping down after the three seasons he had agreed to when he assumed the job. As the man in charge of building the Pacers, he has been equally successful, making a series of sound but subtle decisions—drafting center Roy Hibbert, who blossomed into an All-Star, and passing up bigger names to select Fresno State forward Paul George, a hidden gem—that made Indiana relevant again.

But those sensible moves haven't brought Bird a championship. He hasn't won a title since the first act of his career, and considering his hunger for competition—"I wish me and Magic could compete for something right now," he told David Letterman on television last week—the desire for at least one more ring might be enough to bring him back. He'll never know the joy of beating Johnson for the championship again, but maybe that's a gift from his friend—Magic has gone off to conquer new worlds and left Bird the only stage he ever wanted. It would be a shame if he left it now, when he is just finding his footing as an executive.

Although they share a theater marquee, Bird and Magic compete in separate arenas now, and the rise of the Pacers indicates that Bird is still a force in his. There is work yet unfinished, one last dramatic flourish perhaps to bring down the house. A third act should bring resolution, after all.

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