During the 1982-83 NBA season, dingy brown curtains encircled the second level of 17,096-seat Market Square Arena in Indianapolis and with good reason: to hide the 6,000 empty seats up there as the Indiana Pacers struggled to a 20-62 record before home crowds averaging 4,768. The strange thing about this was that the Pacers didn't hide themselves instead of the seats. Even stranger was the fact that last Saturday night the curtains had to be raised as a sellout crowd, many of whom were decked out in black tie, attended the first act of what Indiana's new owners hope will be a long-running hit show.
The Toast of the Town was not only the theme of Indiana's gala opener—complete with valet parking, a champagne reception for season-ticket holders (more than 5,000, quadruple last season's total) and a laser light show—but it also describes what the Pacers hope to become. The Philadelphia 76ers interrupted the clinking of glasses long enough to score a 124-112 overtime win, but that hardly dampened the spirits of those present.
"This was just great," said the Pacers' Jack McKinney, not sounding like a losing coach. "It's good for basketball and good for the league, but it's mostly good for us. Our guys aren't used to seeing all these people in the stands—at least cheering for us. Usually a big crowd meant people had come out to root for Larry Bird, Moses Malone or Doctor J."
If indeed they came out at all. The Saturday crowd was almost as large as the total attendance at Indiana's first five home games last season. And many of those who came Saturday were celebrating the fact that the city still had a team to cheer for at all.
After the Pacers' miserable showing last year, there were rumors in Indianapolis that the club was either going to move to another city, merge with another troubled franchise such as Cleveland or Utah, or simply disband. Before that could happen, however, Mel and Herb Simon came upon the scene. Co-owners of Melvin Simon & Associates, one of the nation's largest owner/managers of shopping centers, the brothers weren't exactly rushing to invest in the Pacers, but they soon did so as a matter of civic pride.
An enticement for the Simons, who got league approval for the purchase on May 9, was that there was a 50-50 chance Ralph Sampson, the 7'4" Virginia senior, would end up a Pacer. But on May 19, the Houston Rockets, winners of only 14 games in 1982-83, won the coin flip with the Pacers for the first draft pick and chose Sampson. Indiana settled for Missouri's 7-foot center, Steve Stipanovich.
The day after the flip, Pacer front office personnel wore T shirts bearing the inscription RALPH WHO? and management began treating its team as if it was starting from scratch. Indiana even lowered ticket prices. "It's like we're an expansion franchise," says President Robert Salyers, the former general manager and the man many people credit with holding the franchise together last season when then president Frank Mariani was nickel-and-diming it to death.
Something that injected life was the Toast of the Town idea, which sprang from the fertile imagination of Sherry Koerner, the team's special sales and promotions director. After a local formalwear company offered the team free use of tuxedos at any time, the seed was planted. "Blowing money is just as bad as not having it at all," Koerner says. "But this is a new beginning with new ownership. Sometimes you get an idea and you have to run with it." Fortunately for Koerner, she didn't have to run very far when the Simons saw the bill.
And if the owners are new, the team is, too. Only one of the Pacers, Forward George Johnson, has more than three years of NBA experience, and five are rookies—Stipanovich, guards Sidney Lowe and Jim Thomas, Forward Leroy Combs and Center Granville Waiters. Says Koerner, "Stipo's been great. If Sampson were here, I'm sure he'd be adorable, too, but maybe people would have thought he was a jerk."
On Saturday, Sampson made an 18-point, 12-rebound debut with the Rockets and Stipanovich got eight points and nine rebounds against Philly. That is about the difference between them.
Fortunately for Stipanovich, he—unlike Sampson—is in a situation in which great expectations aren't focused on him and his team. That was painfully apparent during the season's opener Friday night in Milwaukee, a 104-83 loss in which Stipanovich had five points and five rebounds. But Herb Simon wasn't discouraged. "They just couldn't concentrate because they're too busy thinking about Saturday night," he said.
Against the 76ers, the Pacers jumped out to an 8-1 lead en route to a 29-22 edge at the quarter, a 54-49 margin at halftime and an 82-77 advantage after three quarters. Even when the Sixers came back to take a 106-103 lead with 14 seconds remaining in regulation, Johnson calmly canned a three-pointer to force the game into overtime.
It was at that juncture that the Pacers lived up to Salyers' "expansion team" label, scoring only six points in overtime. The exciting game would no doubt bring many of the fans back. How often they'll return, however, will no doubt depend on whether Indiana can play like a Toast of the Town should.