INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- The Indiana Pacers have replaced one Hall of Fame member with another on their bench.
Isiah Thomas was hired Thursday to make his coaching debut with the Pacers, a route Larry Bird took three years ago that ended this year with a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
"Here I go again, following in his footsteps," Thomas said of Bird. "Everything I learned about winning in the NBA came from basically two people -- Magic Johnson and Larry Bird."
Bird decided three years as a coach was enough, even though they were the most successful seasons for Indiana since the Pacers entered the NBA in 1976. Thomas was apparently the choice of Pacers president Donnie Walsh ever since Bird left on June 19, although the selection was stalled due to Thomas being the owner of the minor league Continental Basketball Association.
"I feel he's got the leadership, intelligence and determination to be successful as an NBA coach," Walsh said.
Thomas reportedly signed a four-year, $20 million contract, but he and Walsh declined to discuss terms. He plans to get to work immediately, heading to Boston where the franchise's summer league team is playing this week.
"My greatest gift that I have in life is basketball. It's something that I've been blessed with in terms of being able to play the game, and also being able to understand the game," Thomas said. "Not being able to exercise that gift over the last couple of years, I really found a void in myself."
Thomas arrived in Indianapolis on Wednesday. He and Walsh insisted they had no agreement until early Thursday evening despite frequent reports that he had been offered the job.
"We had some obstacles and some hurdles to overcome. Neither one of us were sure that we would overcome those obstacles, but through the diligence of the lawyers and the creative brainpower of everyone we came up with some solutions," Thomas said.
Selecting a staff and meeting or talking with his players, including six who are now free agents and can sign with other teams on Aug. 1 are immediate priorities for Thomas. The list includes starters Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Rik Smits and Jalen Rose.
"What I've said to Donnie is I would like for him to assist me in making sure that we hire the right assistants and that I bring the right type of staff and personnel together," Thomas said.
He said he'd like to mix the team's younger players with its veterans to become a more versatile team that plays "more up-tempo" with a lot of defensive pressure to create turnovers.
Dick Harter, an assistant under Bird who was also an assistant when Thomas was playing for the Detroit Pistons, may be re-signed by the Pacers.
"I would like to sit down and talk with Dick. Dick and I have a long relationship. We knew each other in Detroit and I have a great tremendous respect for him," Thomas said.
Like Bird, Thomas becomes a coach after compiling impressive marks in 13 years as an NBA player, 12 as an All-Star. Four years ago, he was selected as one of the league's 50 greatest players.
Thomas was told by NBA officials that he had to sell his ownership of the Phoenix-based CBA, a nine-team developmental league, to accept any NBA coaching job.
Earlier this week, Thomas paid off part of the $750,000 he owed former team owners -- one of the last obstacles before he could coach the Pacers.
Thomas, who bought the CBA in October for $10 million, has worked out a plan which will allow him to quickly divest himself and begin coaching duties with Indiana immediately. Thomas has reportedly signed a letter of intent to sell the league to the NBA Players Association.
An NBA spokesman could not immediately say whether the league office had approved the agreement.
Pacers general manager David Kahn said a procedure had been worked out allowing Thomas to divest himself from the CBA before the team opens training camp in October, even if the deal with the Players Association fell through.
"The combination of Isiah Thomas and his willingness to divest himself from the CBA, and David Kahn's working it out ... has basically allowed this moment to take place," Walsh said.
Kahn declined to be specific about the specifics of the divestment, but said he was satisfied that there is a procedure in place.
"It's a real surprise to me that they did it this quickly. I'm extraordinarily surprised," said Jay Frye, a former owner of the CBA's Fort Wayne Fury.
"We have no idea what the (divestiture) agreement is," Frye said. "He (Thomas) still owes us a lot of money, so we're interested to find out."
Thomas's link to Indiana goes back more than 20 years, to when he was recruited out of his hometown of Westchester, Ill., to play for Bob Knight at Indiana.
"I understand how special a place Indiana is with its basketball tradition in terms of its basketball heritage," Thomas said.
Thomas, who averaged 16.0 points as a sophomore when he was a first-team All-America and led the Hoosiers to the NCAA title before passing up his final two years of college eligibility, was uncertain what type of coach he will be.
"I think it is a process that we'll all watch to see what kind of coach I'm going to be. I can honestly tell you I don't know what kind of person is going to come out of me once I get on the sideline," he said.
Thomas retired as a player after the 1994 season with 18,822 points, 9,061 assists and 1,861 steals -- all Pistons records -- along with NBA championship rings in 1989 and 1990.
He averaged 19.2 points and 9.3 assists over his NBA career. He then became vice president and part-owner of the Toronto Raptors and more recently worked as an NBC analyst on NBA games.
He was voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in May and will be inducted in October.
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