In May 1997, Boston Celtics icon Larry Bird became the head coach of the Indiana Pacers, a team that had an intense rivalry with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. His Airness never defeated Larry Legend (the player) in the postseason, so he was likely looking forward to getting the chance to beat his pal whenever the Bulls and Pacers met.
Despite Bird joining a talented Pacers team led by Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Chris Mullin, Antonio Davis, Jalen Rose, and Mark Jackson, Jordan was unsure how the Hall of Famer would do as the head coach. However, he learned pretty quickly that Bird was the perfect man to lead Indiana.
Michael Jordan didn’t know how Larry Bird would fare as a coach
Following his fifth championship in 1997, Jordan did an extensive interview with SLAM Magazine in the summer. During the conversation, the five-time MVP was asked how he thought Bird would do as the Pacers’ head coach, and he gave a thoughtful and honest answer.
“That’s a great question. I don’t know,” Jordan said. “If he sustains the change in the attitudes of some of the players, and if he gets them motivated as a coach, I think he’ll be around for a while. But if he succumbs to some of the frustrations that a lot of the player-coaches go through, with the players not taking the same approach as they once did, then it will be very difficult.”
Jordan never doubted Bird’s coaching ability. However, he wondered if the Pacers players would work as hard as the Celtics legend wanted them to since Bird was an intense competitor and worker during his Boston career and likely wanted things done a certain way.
Fortunately for Bird, he connected with the Pacers players right away and won a plethora of games in Indiana.
Larry Bird won 147 games with the Pacers
Bird compiled a record of 147-67 with the Pacers. He won the 1997-98 Coach of the Year Award and guided Indiana to the 2000 Finals, where the team lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.
The Pacers went 2-2 against Jordan and the Bulls during the 1997-98 season. Chicago won 62 games and was the No. 1 seed in the 1998 Eastern Conference playoffs. Meanwhile, Indiana won 58 games and was the No. 3 seed in the East.
Basketball fanatics jumped for joy when they saw that the Bulls and Pacers would battle in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. Although Bird was coaching and not playing, the series was still sold as him going up against Jordan.
During the Bulls’ dynasty, Jordan only played in two Game 7s in the playoffs. The first one took place in the 1992 Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Knicks, while the second one came versus the Pacers in 1998. Chicago and Indiana played a legendary series, with Jordan getting the last laugh.
Michael Jordan led Bulls to seven-game series win
The Bulls had home-court advantage against the Pacers in 1998, and they are lucky they did. Neither team won a game on the road in the epic seven-game series, although Indiana was close to shocking Chicago in Game 7.
Behind 28 points from Jordan, 21 from Toni Kukoc, and 17 from Scottie Pippen, the Bulls beat the Pacers in Game 7 by only five points. It was a troublesome and exhausting series for MJ, who made sure to let Bird know how he felt after the series ended.
“Enjoy yourself, dog,” Jordan told Bird in the United Center hallway. “You bi—, fu– you. Y’all gave us a run for our money. All right, take care. Now you can work on that golf game of yours.”
Jordan capped off his final season with the Bulls by defeating the Utah Jazz in the ’98 Finals for his sixth championship and sixth Finals MVP. Bird and the Pacers almost upset Chicago, but in the end, Black Jesus finally got the best of the Great White Hope.