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2006: STAR-LEDGER – Rose Still Singing Bird

June 24, 2008

March 09, 2006 — As Jalen Rose took the court for the opening tipoff
Tuesday in Indianapolis he turned toward a man sitting five rows from
courtside and bowed respectfully to him.

The man is a legend, a Hall of Fame player, the owner of three NBA
championships and three MVP awards. For Rose, the bow was an expression
of respect and appreciation for one of the most influential people in
his career, the man who just let him play ball.

"Larry Bird is a basketball god to me for what he’s done for my
career," Rose said Tuesday, after leading the Knicks to a 107-92
victory with a game-high 21 points.

"Yeah, I saw it" chuckled Bird, who is now the Pacers president of
basketball operations. "And then he goes out and kills us. He’s nuts."

Rose played for Bird for three years in Indiana, and the two developed
a close relationship that culminated in an Eastern Conference title in
2000, the same year Rose finally broke out as a regular double-digit
scorer and was named the league’s Most Improved Player.

To some on the outside, it was an odd relationship.

"Larry Bird was the Hick from French Lick (Ind.), and I was the Bad Boy
from Detroit," Rose said. "A lot of people thought our worlds would
collide. People were waiting for that, especially after my last season
with Larry Brown. But once Bird came in, he allowed me to play
basketball. Being around him and learning his demeanor and things about
shooting the ball, that was huge for my career. I can never repay him."

Bird first saw Rose play at the University of Michigan when Bird was
scouting for the Celtics, and he expected Boston to draft him. That
didn’t happen, but the two eventually united in Indiana, and their
worlds didn’t collide so much as blend perfectly.

Bird worked hard with Rose, rebounding for him after many morning
shoot-arounds and teaching him the finer points of shooting (if you
think Rose has a funny shot now, check the film before Bird came
along). When Rose would get out of control on the court, Bird would
summon him into his office and the two would talk it over amiably.

"He was always real receptive to coaching," Bird said. "I always felt
he’s a very underrated all-around player. He’s one of my all-time
favorites, if not the favorite."

Bird came along at the perfect time for Rose, right after Brown left
the club following the 1997 season. Rose struggled under Brown in their
first go-round in Indiana, nine years before they were reunited on the
Knicks this year. Rose wanted to play point guard, while Brown wanted
him to be a small forward, if he played at all.

In Rose’s only year under Brown he had 15 DNPs (Did Not Play) and
averaged a career-low 7.3 points per game. Then Brown left for
Philadelphia. Enter Bird, and for Rose, not a moment too soon.

"For him to be my coach," Rose said, "and to let the world know that
regardless of what happened here before with Larry Brown with me having
a career-worst season, he let the world know he was going to let me
play and get the most out of me."

Over the next three seasons under Bird, Rose’s role and numbers
steadily increased. He played in all 82 games in Bird’s first season,
and the next season he averaged 11.1 points per game, his career best
to that point. In his third season, the most successful of Rose’s
career, he averaged 18.2 points, 4.0 assists and 4.8 rebounds to earn
most improved player honors.

In the playoffs he was even better. He averaged 20.8 points in the
Pacers’ push to the Finals, and on that highest stage, a stage Bird
understands as well as anyone, Rose averaged 23 points — highlighted
by a 30-point effort in Game 1 and 32 in Game 5.

"Larry Bird gave me a sense of confidence," Rose said, "and he
validated me to the world. The world always knew me as a brash,
trash-talking kid from the Fab Five, with the big shorts and the big
mouth. But here’s this great player and coach. Larry Bird showed the
world that, yes, I
could really play."

BY DAVID WALDSTEIN — Star-Ledger Staff