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BIRD DESERVES THE CREDIT FOR PACERS' FLYING START

Perhaps some club owners are wondering about the big bucks they paid out for coaches this season. Not all the money has gone to waste: Chuck Daly has kept a staggering Orlando team playing well, Rick Pitino has brought some excitement back to Boston and, despite injuries, Phil Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich, Jerry Sloan, Pat Riley and Del Harris all have kept their teams in contention.

But the early vote for Coach of the Year goes to the Pacers' Larry Bird, and not because of his team's best-ever 17-9 start.

It's because Bird wasn't supposed to be able to coach. Remember? Star who couldn't relate. Too long away from the game. Too much of a hick.

Forget it. Just as Bird defied the stereotypes (can't jump, too slow) to become one of the greatest players in NBA history, he is likewise showing he's more than a pretty face on the bench.

OK, he's not a pretty face. But he can coach.

Bird hasn't been afraid to keep his best players out of the fourth quarter, often sitting Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson late in games. But he's always communicating. Although Jackson didn't play in the fourth quarter of a game against Toronto, Bird told him he was the player of the game, that the Pacers "wouldn't be where we were without him."

Bird also has done what only the great coaches do: Get the best out of a player who is flawed. Jalen Rose, run out of Denver and ignored by ex-Pacers coach Larry Brown (who now coaches Philadelphia) last season, has become a key contributor as Bird moves him in and out of situations to fit Rose's game and temperament. Rose is even playing defense. Assistant coach Dick Harter says Rose "has the ability to become one of the top 20 defenders in the league."

The Pacers are one of the NBA's top defensive teams, one of six yielding fewer than 90 points a game, and among the top six in defending opponents' shooters.

"They're just a great team right now," Brown acknowledges. "They're one of the best teams we've played against. They really are a team. I think Bird's done an amazing job with them. They're playing much better than we ever played."

It's what's upstairs

Suns coach Danny Ainge, no Zen master, often consults John Niednagel, who is listed as the Suns' psychological adviser and studies brain types. Brain typing can identify personality traits and motor skills, and Ainge, who has developed some knowledge in the field, says it helps him determine which players might succeed in a certain situation.

Niednagel says there are 16 brain types. Only one NBA player, Dikembe Mutombo of the Atlanta Hawks, has the brain type labeled INTB, which is identified as the most intellectual, the brain type for Albert Einstein.

Mutombo said he was flattered, but admitted he'd never heard of Einstein. "Was he ever in the Congo?" Mutombo asks.

Deep-Sixed

Can't the NBA just move all its teams to Florida, Arizona, Texas or California? Said Jerry Stackhouse after being traded from Philadelphia to Detroit: "If I had my druthers, I'd go to Phoenix, Miami or San Antonio."

That said, the Pistons have a chance to make a bit of a run with another scoring option in Stackhouse. And after averaging 26 points his first two games with the Pistons, Stackhouse might opt to stay, which would leave the Bulls chasing Detroit in about two years.

"For me to fulfill my potential," Stackhouse said, "it's good to be in a situation where the ball is being shared."

And speaking of Allen Iverson, you know it's not going to last long with Brown, who offered after a loss to Minnesota last week, "We've got guys who want to 'ball,' as they call it, but they don't have a clue how to play."

'Zo is a go

Just as Miami's Alonzo Mourning was about to make an early return from knee surgery last week, he saw Jerry Rice get hurt again as the San Francisco 49ers wide receiver made an early return from knee surgery.

"I kind of thought about it," Mourning said after scoring 24 points with nine rebounds in his return in Washington last week. "I was fortunate nothing like that happened to me."

Calipari lawsuit dismissed

A judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a sports writer against New Jersey Nets coach John Calipari and the Nets organization.

Dan Garcia of The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., claimed in his lawsuit that he suffered "extreme humiliation and emotional distress" after Calipari called him "a Mexican idiot" following a March 20 practice.

The lawsuit, filed in state Superior Court in Paterson, N.J., in July, charged Calipari and the Nets with four counts, including infliction of emotional distress, assault and negligence.

Calipari apologized publicly four days later and was fined $25,000 by the NBA.

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