The Indiana Pacers Long Road Back to Respectability by Jeffrey Littrell

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The Indiana Pacers have had as colorful a history as the red, white and blue ball they used in their first ABA season in 1967. Of the nine seasons that the ABA existed, the Pacers were in the NBA Finals five times, winning championships in ‘70, ‘72’ and ‘73. The superstars were Roger Brown, George McGinnis, and  Mel Daniels ( soon to be inducted into the Hall Of Fame alongside Reggie Miller ). They also had Darnell “ Dr. Dunk “ Hillman, who sported an afro that Questlove would kill for, and three-point sharpshooter, Billy Keller. They were coached by Bobby “ Slick “ Leonard. Slick was one of the boys, despite his mutton-chop sideburns and loud leisure suits and he caroused frequently with his players. Despite his southern charm, he possessed a fiery temper, once punting a ball into the cheap seats after a perceived injustice.

Apr 25, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Members of the three Indiana Pacers ABA Championship teams pose for a team photo after being honored in a halftime ceremony at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

Other colorful moments were a “ Save The Pacers “ telethon in 1977 to boost season ticket sales, lest new ownership might move the team elsewhere. Also, the first female to ever sign an NBA contract was Olympic star Ann Meyers, who signed with the Pacers in 1980, but did not pass the tryouts.

The other high point in Pacer history was of course, the Reggie Miller era. Fans booed when general manager Donnie Walsh selected Reggie over I.U.’s Steve Alford, but the savvy Walsh was soon vindicated. Reggie became a superstar and a fan favorite, while Alford floundered in the NBA, starting three games in four seasons of play. Miller led the Pacers into battle against the rival New York Knicks, famously miming “choke “at his nemesis, Spike Lee. In 1999-2000, the Pacers reached the NBA finals for the only time in their history, but lost the series to the Lakers, 4-2.

With every high point for a franchise, there comes a low point, and the Pacers low point began on November 19,2004. The Malice In the Palace. The epic throwdown between the Pacers and the Pistons, set off by a fan’s moronic decision to throw his beer on Metta World Peace (formerly known as Ron Artest). The immediate fallout was mutiple player suspensions. Loose cannon Artest was gone for the season and the playoffs, totaling seventy-three games, an NBA record for a suspension. The brawl seemed to set off a string of legal problems and bad headlines for the team. There were failed drug tests, arrests, strip club shoot-outs, and general fan discord. Larry Bird, now an executive, was forced with trying to weed out the bad apples, draft effectively, and work around a tight salary cap. They sent home troublemaker Jamaal Tinsley, essentially paying him NOT to play.

In 2007, Bird fired his old friend Rick Carlisle, replacing him with Jim O’Brien. Things only got worse from there. O’Brien coached the team from ‘07 to ‘11, his record being 121-169, never once sniffing the playoffs. His rotations puzzled both fans and beat writers, with O’Brien constantly shuffling the line-up, as if it was drunkenly drawn from a hat. The team frequently blew fourth quarter leads, as O’Brien just sat there, looking perplexed. Popularity among fans suffered during this time due to the team’s poor play and off-court headlines. Also, while the Pacers struggled, the city’s football Colts were among the elite in the NFL. During O’Brien’s tenure, the Colts record was 49-15, with a 2006 Super Bowl win. Attendance has yet to bounce back, as the Pacers even this year, ranked next to last in NBA attendance. Pacer fans were preparing the tar and feathers when Bird finally sent Jim O’Brien packing in early 2011.

Continue to page 2 for the rest of the road back

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