Rik Smits: Larry Bird ‘was not what I expected’ as Pacers’ head coach

By Alex Kennedy

Throughout Larry Bird’s NBA journey, he succeeded in every role he attempted. As a player, he had one of the greatest careers of all-time; the 12-time All-Star won three championships, three MVP awards and two Finals MVP awards. Then, after retiring, the Hall-of-Famer thrived as a head coach and general manager with the Indiana Pacers. Bird became just the second person in NBA history to be honored as Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year (joining Pat Riley).

Bird coached the Pacers from 1997 to 2000, going 147-67 in the regular season and 32-20 in the playoffs. Indiana advanced to at least the Eastern Conference Finals in each of Bird’s three years on the sideline, and they made the NBA Finals in 2000.

Pacers center Rik Smits played under Bird for all three seasons, becoming a first-time All-Star in Bird’s first year as head coach. In a recent interview with Legends Magazine, Smits spoke candidly about Bird’s coaching style and what it was like playing for him.

“He was not what I expected,” Smits said with a laugh. “Not at all. I mean, he was a great guy. But the first thing he did was hire [assistant coaches] Dick Harter and Rick Carlisle. Dick Harter was the defensive coach, Rick Carlisle was the offensive coach, and they basically did all the coaching. Larry just clapped his hands and said, ‘Let's go guys!’ (Laughs) Larry made the substitutions, but we knew the exact second we would come out of the game because every game was the same. [When] he came in, he ran the heck out of us. He said, ‘Hey, you guys know what you're doing, you're in the NBA for a reason. I'm gonna make sure you're in the best shape possible.’ And he did! I mean, our shootarounds on the day of the game were probably harder than some of the practices we had with past coaches. He ran the heck out of us. We were in great shape. But as far as coaching, the assistants did most of the coaching during the game. He was more of a motivator. 

“He might've given a pointer here or there, but I was expecting him to be more of a teacher, you know? And he wasn't. He did spend more time with Jeff Foster and Jonathan Bender because those were the rookies coming in. He would work with them after practice and stuff, but not with any of the [veterans] who were there. When he came in, he explained this. He said, 'I'm gonna run the shit outta you and make sure you're in the best shape possible.' It was just a different coach than what we'd had before. It was what we needed because Larry Brown was the complete opposite. Larry Brown thinks he's the teacher and, you know, everything you did, Larry Brown thought it was wrong and he’d want to teach us something else. And that's why he didn't last. He probably lasted the longest with us of any team. But yeah, the two Larry’s were the complete opposites of each other. But we had success with both.”

Carlisle and Harter both went on to become head coaches in the NBA. Carlisle is currently the Pacers’ head coach, and he also had head-coaching stints with the Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks. He won a championship with the Mavs in 2011 and won the NBA's Coach-of-the-Year award in 2002. Carlisle has 917 career wins (and counting) as a head coach, which is 14th-most in NBA history. Harter was the Charlotte Hornets' head coach from 1988 to 1990 – the first head coach in franchise history.

One of the biggest ways that Bird impacted Smits was by introducing the center to his longtime physical therapist, Dan Dyrek. Smits had been dealing with nerve damage in both feet, which required surgery. After working with Dyrek, the difference was night and day. While the internet would have you believe that Smits retired due to his feet, he insists that’s not true.

“No, that never [factored in]. The feet were fine,” Smits said. “When Larry Bird came in my last three years, he had a great physical therapist out of Boston, Dan Dyrek, and he took care of those feet. Those were never a problem again. Early on in my career, I had that, and then the rumor got started that [my feet] are why I retired, but that wasn't true at all. I felt it was right. Bird was retiring and Isiah [Thomas] was coming in. There was gonna be some changes. It was just the right time. I wanted to retire at the top. I considered coming back and gave it some thought, but I was ready to be home with my son and my family and start enjoying life, so that’s what I did.”

Smits’ feet felt so good that he actually continued playing basketball several times a week after he walking away from the NBA.

“[After I retired], I still played a lot of [rec] league basketball,” Smits said. “We’d go to different gyms and stuff, and I owned a gym for a while, so I was playing ball probably two or three times a week. Then, on the weekends, we’d do tournaments. I did that into my 40s. … It doesn’t add up at all. My feet are fine; I don’t have any issues with that.”

Smits is a beloved Pacer, who will be returning to Indiana for NBA All-Star Weekend – his first time attending the event since he played in the 1998 All-Star Game.

“I'm excited! I always said if it comes to Indiana, I'm gonna go,” Smits said. “And the Pacers actually invited me. They invited some of the old players to come and I think they're gonna have a little get-together on Thursday or something. I'm excited to see who shows up.”