When the Pacers obtained small forward Chris Mullin from Golden
State, it became clear that they wanted to make a serious title
run this season, and the hell with the future. At 34, Mullin is
nearing the end of a career that someday may earn him a spot in
the Hall of Fame, and the Pacers are nearing the end of the
Reggie Miller-Rik Smits era that once seemed so promising.
Indeed, last season the Pacers looked stale and failed to make
the playoffs for the first time since 1988-89.

Last May, when the Pacers hired one Larry B. (Bird) to replace
another (Brown) as their coach, they got Mullin's attention.
Although Mullin and Bird were teammates on the original Dream
Team, in the 1992 Olympics, Mullin has always regarded Bird more
as a role model than as a peer. Going back to his high school
days in New York City, Mullin was a fan of Larry Legend.
"Larry's the guy I looked up to and basically learned to play
from," he says.

In his 12 seasons with Golden State, Mullin was more or less a
lefthanded version of Bird, only without the supporting cast
that Bird had enjoyed in Boston. The resemblance was strongest
not so much in the numbers that Mullin put up, though they were
plenty impressive (five consecutive seasons of averaging at
least 25 points), but in his selfless approach to the game. "He
plays the way I liked to play," Bird says. "He'll know when to
pass and when to cut and when to shoot. He's a playmaker. He's
an average defensive player, like I was, but he seems like he's
always around the ball. He'll make everybody better, instead of
just worrying about his points."

In other words, he figures to be more than adequate as the small
forward replacement for the erratic Derrick McKey, who has never
served as an offensive catalyst. (McKey, recovering from a
ruptured right Achilles tendon, probably won't be available for
backup duty until around Christmas.) When Mullin is on the
floor, he and shooting guard Miller will give the Pacers a
wicked three-point presence that should stretch defenses and
open up the inside for 7'4", 265-pound center Smits. In
addition, Mullin's ball handling and playmaking ability will
take some of the pressure off point guard Mark Jackson, who last
season supplanted the Jazz's John Stockton as the league leader
in assists.

"Playing against [Mullin]," Bird says, "you always had to watch
him. He's sneaky. He could get points off of garbage, and he was
one guy we knew could always make the big play at the end of the

Mullin, a career 86% free throw shooter entering the season,
should help the Pacers improve in that department. (Last season
the team shot only 72.2% from the line, 21st in the league.) He
won't shore up the Pacers' spotty defense--he's too slow
afoot--but Bird is hoping that new assistant Dick Harter, a
noted defensive specialist, can make a difference in that area.

For his part, Mullin is tickled to finally be on a team that has
plenty of beef. Last summer, when he was a teammate of the
Pacers' 6'9", 230-pound forward-center Antonio Davis in a
charity game in California, Mullin couldn't help but feel
wistful. "I just looked up at him," Mullin says, "and thought,
Wow, this is nice here, having a guy with that kind of body on
my side." Well, besides Antonio, his side will also have
forwards Dale Davis (6'11", 230) and rookie Austin Croshere
(6'9", 235), new backup center Mark West (6'10", 246) and Smits,
who is coming off a season wrecked by foot surgery. (Smits says
he still has a trace of pain: "The area on my [right] foot that
was bothering me has gotten smaller. It used to be a big area,
and now it's a tiny little ball.")

Although Mullin says he's looking forward to learning from Bird,
the truth is that he'll probably help the rookie coach more than
Bird will help him. If Mullin fails to come up with a reasonable
Bird imitation, however, it may be time for Pacers president
Donnie Walsh to consider a complete overhaul of this team.

For Mullin, at least, it's a now-or-never deal. He thinks it's
going to be now. "On a team that's going to play a style that
fits my game," he says, "I don't think we'll be talking about my