Indiana is the last refuge for wayward souls, foundlings, the obscure and incorrigible—sort of the Boys Town of pro basketball. One can look at the bleak, snowy fields surrounding Indianapolis and imagine a candlelit scene with (Father) Jack McKinney talking in a desperate Irish brogue to his huddled, uneasy Pacers. Outside, the wolves are howling. "Fellows," says Padre Jack, "we all have to stick together."
By the end of last week, this he-ain't-heavy, he's-my-brother philosophy had taken lowly Indiana to six straight victories and a solid hold on second place in the Central Division. What's more surprising, the Pacers' 27-18 record indicates they could wind up with not only their first winning season since joining the NBA in 1977 but also their first trip to the NBA playoffs. And all of this is being accomplished with a group of migrant workers like Mike Bantom, obscure draft choices like Louie Orr and reborn losers like George McGinnis and Billy Knight. Not to mention a coach, McKinney, who a year ago was thinking more about relearning how to walk than how to juggle a lineup.
Meanwhile, the rest of the league and, judging by the Pacers' abysmal attendance, the fans back home in Indiana, have waited all year for the Pacers to stop building sand castles that won't wash away. After all, guys like demon Johnson and Dudley Bradley will never have any basketball shoes named after them, but in their own way—or, perhaps more accurately, in the way McKinney has designed for them—Johnson and Bradley help win games.
Take last week. On Wednesday night at Indianapolis' Market Square Arena, Johnson, a center from Florida A&M, who once asked a teammate to rough him up during practice so he could get accustomed to the physical side of pro ball, was on the floor when Indiana scored 18 straight points against New Jersey in a 112-103 victory. The next night in New York, Bradley, a 6'6" guard who's one of the poorest three-point shooters on the worst three-point-shooting team in the league, hit a bomb to send the game into overtime, and Indiana went on to beat the Knicks 116-115. Then on Saturday night, in Indianapolis against powerful Milwaukee, again it was Johnson, heretofore a 7.1-point scorer. Clemon scored 17 points in 17 minutes, and the Pacers won 106-102. "I don't know if they're for real," said the Bucks' Marques Johnson, "but if they play like they did tonight, they'll be around a longtime."
The Pacers figured to be buried in the standings long before Christmas. McGinnis was the only recognizable name on the roster when the season opened, and at 30 and with a penchant for chain-smoking in the locker room and downing soft drinks during time-outs, he seemed to be looking back at his best years. In Philadelphia, where Big Mac had performed from 1976 to 1978, the rap against him was that he couldn't play with Julius Erving. No sooner did he arrive in Denver in 1979 than it was said he couldn't play with David Thompson. Then in March 1979 he suffered a serious injury to his left ankle. That and losing seemed to turn things sour for McGinnis. His scoring average fell to 14.7 in 1978-79. Suddenly he was just another player.
This season McGinnis hasn't recaptured the touch that enabled him to score 24.8 points a game in four seasons in the old ABA and 20.5 for his NBA career, but the Pacers don't need those points. Counting Forward George Johnson, who's out with a left knee injury now, Indiana has six men in double figures, and a seventh, Bradley, is at 9.6. McGinnis plays about half a game, and when he's in there he's sweating. Against Milwaukee, he asked McKinney during a time-out if he could guard Marques Johnson, which is asking for a chance to be embarrassed, and McGinnis had a hand up when Johnson missed a 10-footer that could have tied the game in the last 15 seconds.
During the off-season, McGinnis went hunting and killed a bear, using—perhaps unnecessarily—a gun. Just ask Referee Jess Kersey. McGinnis trampled Kersey last season and was suspended by the league for two weeks, an incident that contributed to a growing feeling that McGinnis was up to no good on the court. "I'm sure a bunch of people thought a lot worse things than that," says McGinnis. "I know they call me a loser, but I know what I can do. I'm not saying we're winning now because of George McGinnis. But I'm a factor."
McGinnis isn't the only Pacer who has been burdened by a bum rep. Every veteran, with the exception of second-year man Bradley, has been traded, sold or cut loose at least once. McKinney was almost killed in a bicycling accident last year and, upon recovering, was told that he'd lost his job with the Los Angeles Lakers. Then he stepped into an uncomfortable situation at Indiana, replacing favorite son Bob (Slick) Leonard. Leonard's popularity can easily be gauged by the fact that despite his nickname he's now successfully selling both insurance and real estate.
"I think it all goes back to the coach," says Mike Newlin of the Nets. "McKinney has a system and he has them convinced it's the way to go. Take James Edwards. In other years he wouldn't pass the ball. Now he's showing some diversification." Edwards, Indiana's starting center, is averaging almost twice as many assists—2.7 per game—this season as last. He and the rest of the Pacers obviously believe their coach has the answers. "Jack's the most honest guy I ever played for," says McGinnis.
McKinney has worked miracles juggling his lineup to compensate for a rash of injuries. McGinnis has missed 12 games with assorted hurts. Forward George Johnson, who got indifferent marks during one-year stretches at Milwaukee and Denver, seems to have found his niche with the Pacers, having led Indiana in rebounding eight times over a 14-game stretch before hurting that knee on Dec. 19. Guard Don Buse, acquired in a trade with Phoenix, still is working his way into shape after a preseason knee injury, and last week Johnny Davis, the Pacers' mercurial playmaker, hurt his knee and will be sidelined, probably for a week. This means that a huffing, puffing Buse is in the starting lineup, with backup being provided by a rookie, Jerry Sichting, who averaged 9.9 in his college career at Purdue and has already been cut by one pro club, Golden State.
McKinney has also made excellent use of the Pacers' top draft choice (taken in the second round), the Indiana rubber man, Orr, a spindly forward who has the knack of slithering in and up for offensive rebounds. Orr is 6'9" and weighs, he says, 190 pounds, up from his fighting weight of 167 during his early college days at Syracuse. Orr was the 29th player taken in the draft, but he has made a big contribution, largely because while he appears to be all skin and bones, he's really mostly guts. "You can't measure heart in weight." says the Pacers' Davis. "Louie has a lot of heart. He's playing like a veteran." In Indiana's overtime win against New York last week, it was Orr who scored six of the Pacers' nine points in the extra period, and his last two baskets came off offensive rebounds.
Last Saturday night Indiana, whose attendance is down almost 2,000 a game, to 8,754, at Market Square this season, had its biggest crowd of the year—14,505—for Milwaukee, and the Pacers responded with a good showing, taking a lead that bulged to as many as 12 points in the third quarter. Then Milwaukee Guard Brian Winters got hot—make that unconscious—with 10 straight baskets, many of them with Pacers all over him. Suddenly Milwaukee had a two-point lead with three minutes left. From that point on, however, the Bucks scored just one basket, a dunk by Marques Johnson, while the Pacers made six free throws and got a big basket from Bantom to win by four. "We showed our character tonight." said McGinnis. "A lot of teams would have folded when Milwaukee came back like it did, but we hung in there and beat a good team. We're getting better. By the playoffs, we could be as good as anyone." As long as they stick together.