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Larry Bird thought the referees kept giving his Indiana Pacers the short end of the stick against the Chicago Bulls in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. Bulls head coach Phil Jackson singled Bird out as a faulty messenger.

Bird said the Bulls, and especially Michael Jordan, received preferential treatment from officials during the course of what became a seven-game slugfest. Jackson not only denied this assessment, but he also said Bird himself often benefited from whistles during his playing career.

Larry Bird lamented the number of foul calls in the Chicago Bulls’ favor during the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals

Larry Bird’s first season as head coach of the Indiana Pacers proved successful. Aside from bringing a godlike persona to the organization, Bird led the Pacers to 58 wins — 19 more than the year prior — and won the NBA Coach of the Year Award for his efforts.

Having cemented themselves as contenders during the regular season, the Pacers then steamrolled through the first two rounds of the playoff. Indiana lost just two games en route to the Conference Finals, building confidence ahead of a showdown with Michael Jordan and the Bulls.

But that confidence turned to mush when the Pacers lost the first two games of the series. Bird stewed.

Larry Legend demanded the officials gave his guys a “fair shake” after Game 2. He appeared especially peeved (h/t Indianapolis Star) at Scottie Pippen‘s defense on Indiana point guard Mark Jackson.

“You know what I’d like to see? I’d like to see Scottie Pippen guard Michael Jordan all the way up the court the same way he guards Mark Jackson and see how long he stays in the game.”

–Larry Bird (1998), via the Indianapolis Star

Bird’s players said something similar. Both Jackson and Reggie Miller believed the majority of the calls through the first two games benefited Chicago.

Phil Jackson did not buy Bird’s complaints for a single second.

Phil Jackson responded to Bird’s complaints by stating the former Boston Celtics great got all the calls

L-R: Former Indiana Pacers head coach Larry Bird barks out instructions during a game in January 1998 and former Chicago Bulls head coach Phil Jackson yells to the officials during the 1998 NBA Playoffs
Larry Bird (L) and Phil Jackson (R) | Left to Right: John Mottern/AFP via Getty Images and Craig Jones/Allsport/Getty Images

Jackson probably felt a drip of irony in Bird’s whining. After all, the Zen Master saw Bird garner plenty of whistles in his heyday.

The Bulls’ head coach bristled at the idea that refs had let the Bulls skirt the rules through the first two games. He also suggested (h/t Chicago Tribune) Bird’s allegations held less authority.

“Coming from anybody but Larry Bird, people could accept it a little bit. But everybody knows what Larry got in his career, so it’s real tough for people to say, ‘Hey, Larry, you know exactly what you got in your career as a player.’ He’s probably one of the premier players for getting calls. He certainly can’t complain about refereeing at this level.”

–Phil Jackson (1998), via the Chicago Tribune

Jackson also brushed aside Bird’s theory that the Pacers could not defend Jordan the same way that Pippen guarded Mark Jackson, saying Pip routinely shadowed MJ in practice and provided Jordan with the ultimate test.

“If [Bird] wants to come to my practices, he can come to my practices. I’ll charge him a minimal fee. He can come in and watch. Scottie plays Michael all the time, and I never call a foul on Scottie.”

–Phil Jackson (1998), via the Chicago Tribune

Jordan issued a similar sentiment, saying Bird “sounds more like a coach” when he complains about physical play, via the Indianapolis Star, adding he and his Bulls teammates of old lamented all the calls the Hick from French Lick received during his legendary Celtics career.

But while everyone in Chicago went for deniability, the roles were soon reversed.

The Bulls soon offered their own gripes with the officiating

Just when it looked as though the Pacers’ season approached a massive cliff, they turned the tide.

Indiana won Game 3, as six different players scored in double figures. The Pacers evened the series in Game 4 thanks to Reggie Miller’s game-winning jumper, which featured Reggie shoving MJ in the chest to create separation.

Now, the Bulls grew more irate. Jordan said after Game 3 that Chicago did not get any calls driving to the rim. Jackson suggested that Bird’s comments played a role in Pippen receiving two early foul calls.

Both teams suddenly found themselves in a war of attrition. The Bulls blew the Pacers out in Game 5, only for Indiana to force a do-or-die contest after winning Game 6 at home.

Chicago eventually outlasted Indiana, fulfilling Jordan’s bold proclamation. But the officiating dialogue between Bird, Jackson, and the rest defined what was the toughest test of the Bulls’ dynastic reign.


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