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NBA FINALS / GAME 3: INDIANA 100, LAKERS 91 | BEHIND
THE SCENES

Birds of a Feather Flock Together in This Midwest Nest

June 12, 2000|TIM BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — The bald, goateed, man who sits behind Larry Bird during Pacer games is Joe Qatato.

"Quirky," the Pacers call him, because Bird does, and has for more than two decades.

Qatato met Bird in 1979.

He was a student at Emerson College in Boston and a public relations intern with the Boston Celtics. Bird had just left Indiana State and in many circles was a basketball legend already.

"It started probably when I first got in the locker room," Qatato said Sunday afternoon, two hours before Game 3 would begin. "We just got to know each other. It grew into a mutual friendship."

In the decades that followed, years Qatato spent as everything from the equipment manager to the masseuse, they experienced three NBA championships. Qatato was one of five people in attendance when Bird married his wife, Dinah, at a friend's home in Terre Haute, Ind. He was there when Bird went into the Hall of Fame.

So when Bird accepted the Pacers' offer to coach on May 8, 1997, Qatato got a telephone call two days later. He remained with the Celtics in Bird's absence, but his loyalty was stronger to Bird than it was to the organization.

"When The Legend asks you to come," Qatato said, "you don't even think twice."

He can stay: By title, Qatato, 40, is special assistant to Bird and equipment manager for the Pacers.

Bird, however, has told the Pacers he won't return as a coach next season, and hasn't decided if he will remain involved in the organization in another capacity.

This is why Bird must like Qatato. He has predicted the question.

"What happens to me?," Qatato said, smiling.

He laughed.

"I think at the end of the season I sit down with coach and president Donnie Walsh and see where I'm going, whether it's in this position or another position, or if I'm even here with the Pacers," he said. "I don't know. That's up to the organization. I'm sure we'll sit down and see what's in store for me."

Walsh said Qatato will have a place with the Pacers.

"Joe has always been a part of Larry," Walsh said. "Larry's got a real genuine feeling for Joe. And Joe does the job. Joe's got a job here."

Bird's guy: Qatato has worked without Bird before, in a locker room that also saw the hasty departures of Kevin McHale and Robert Parish and a Celtic dynasty, and it wasn't as good as when he was around.

"Yeah, there was something missing there," he said. "My friend wasn't there. I just did my job and went on with life. It was different, but I went on with what I had to do."

He will again soon. It's just a fact.

"Yeah, because I love the game of basketball," he said. "I like being around our players and the game itself."

He'll stay in the game.

"I hope so, if that's my calling," he said.

It's just Quirky: The nickname? Bird gave him that, too. Easier than Qatato, probably.

"It stuck," Qatato said. "There was no rhyme or reason to it. He thought that's what I looked like, I guess, or put a name to what I was. And that's what I was. Some people don't even know my real name."

Hearn OK: Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn took a nasty fall about 90 minutes before Game 3 while trying to walk between the scorer's table and the bench.

Hearn's foot caught behind him and he fell hard on his left elbow and side. Broadcasting partner Stu Lantz and Walsh, who was sitting in the area, went to Hearn's aid, helping him to his feet.

"I'm all right," he told them, smiling and walking ably to his post at courtside.

Hearn has broadcast every Laker game since Nov. 21, 1965, a streak of 3,216 games.

The exception: "In 49 states it is basketball--but this is Indiana."

They run that message on the video screen at Conseco Fieldhouse before every game and the locals get very excited about it.

But it's not as if their lives are wrapped up in the game.

For instance, there was this Pacer fan, a woman, explaining additions to her nearby farm.

"We have three cows," she said. "Recently, we bought three longhorn steer. People ask us why we bought three longhorns. We said, 'Because they're cool.' "

At the buzzer: Even if the Lakers and Pacers fail to accomplish anything historically significant in the series, it appears their buildings will.

The research is ongoing, but these NBA finals have pit teams with new arenas, probably for the first time in league history.

Indiana's new building has a delightfully homey atmosphere, culled in part from Baltimore's Camden Yards. Yes, a baseball stadium.

"From Camden we got the idea of the retro look, the color of the seats and the concourses," Walsh said.

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