INDIANAPOLIS - When Jim O'Brien was fired as the 76ers coach in 2005 after his first and only season, few saw the move coming. O'Brien, on the other hand, said he expected to be canned.
The Sixers compiled a 43-39 record in 2004-05, an improvement of 10 wins from the previous season. They earned a playoff berth, losing to the Detroit Pistons, 4 games to 1, in the first round.
And even though the Sixers made noticeable strides, O'Brien, now in his first year as the head coach of the Indiana Pacers, realized his tenure as coach would be a brief one.
"I told my agent and my staff in late December, early January, it would be one year and out," O'Brien said following yesterday's shoot-around in preparation for last night's game against the Sixers at Conseco Fieldhouse. "
Why did O'Brien have that vibe so early into his job?
"I am a very keen observer of humanity," O'Brien said, without elaborating.
Three weeks after the season ended, Billy King, who was the Sixers' president and general manager at the time, fired O'Brien and hired current coach Maurice Cheeks.
"I told my agent, my staff before I went into the office that I was going to get fired, so I wasn't surprised," O'Brien said.
It was no secret that O'Brien didn't see eye to eye with certain members of management, including King. Everybody inside the organization sensed that. Apparently O'Brien did, too.
O'Brien insisted that the moment he got the news, he didn't have the slightest bit of disappointment. (Of course, the Sixers still had to pay him approximately $8 million over the next two years.)
"I had the last two years that were the best years of my life," O'Brien said. "It's every team's prerogative if they sign you to a contract and decide your services are no longer required, then you get on with your life."
Despite collecting paychecks and spending time with family and friends, O'Brien said he missed the game terribly. Now O'Brien has revived what had been a struggling Pacers team that finished with the same 35-47 record last year as the Sixers.
Replacing Rick Carlisle, O'Brien has the Pacers off to a quick start, having entered last night 13-12.
While he didn't sound sentimental about leaving Philadelphia, O'Brien, who hails from the city and played at Roman Catholic High and St. Joseph's University, said there were many things he enjoyed about his one season with the Sixers.
At the top of the list was coaching Allen Iverson, a claim that some other former Sixers coaches won't make.
"I enjoyed having Allen Iverson every night at 7 or 7:30," O'Brien said. "I [enjoyed] seeing him have the type of year he had, where he averaged 32 points and eight assists, and a lot of people said he couldn't play point guard."
Actually, Iverson averaged 30.7 points and 7.95 assists, but O'Brien's point was well-taken.
"I thought he was outstanding with us," O'Brien said.
And there were other satisfying parts of the job in Philadelphia.
"I enjoyed the relationships with different players, Kyle Korver, Marc Jackson in particular," O'Brien said.
And he cited how proud he was at the Sixers' late-season run, when they won eight of their final 10 games.
True to his low-key nature, O'Brien said that last night's game wasn't special.
"It's the most important game in the world only because it's the one we were playing now," he said. "Despite my roots back there and getting fired by Philadelphia, it is just one of 29 teams that come on the schedule and you have to beat."
O'Brien was criticized Tuesday by center Samuel Dalembert, who claimed the Sixers coach didn't play him enough in the regular season.
"I don't even know how many minutes he played that year," O'Brien said. "I know if we don't defend him well, he will be dunking on our heads."
O'Brien says he takes great pleasure at seeing the development of Sixers forward Andre Iguodala, who as a rookie started all 82 regular season games and the five playoff contests under O'Brien.
"Andre is a class act, and I knew that the day after we drafted him, sitting down with him and his parents and brother," O'Brien said. "There is no finer person than Andre Iguodala."
Unlike some players such as Dalembert, Iguodala appreciated his association with O'Brien.
"He is a guy who gave me the opportunity to play in the NBA and start as a rookie," Iguodala said. "He really helped me become an NBA player."
And in that respect, O'Brien's contributions can still be seen as Iguodala and Korver have become leaders of this year's team.