For the Indiana Pacers, success seemed to vanish with the five-inch Afro and the red-white-and-blue ball. In their ABA heyday in the early 1970s, the Pacers won three championships in five seasons; in their 13-year NBA lifetime, they have shown up in the playoffs twice and won one game.
Last year Indiana finished 28-54 and didn't get its seventh victory until it had its fourth head coach. Tracy McCaulley, an ardent if not always too sensible believer, still wears a Pacer smock to work at the team's gift shop in Market Square Arena. The words ON THE THRESHOLD OF A DREAM were ironed onto the smock at the start of last season and are beginning to peel off. "Some people would see it and say they didn't know about dreams," McCaulley says. "Seemed to them more like a nightmare."
Which is why the rest of the league has been rubbing its disbelieving eyes. With a 13-7 record as of Sunday, the Pacers, in second place in the Central Division, had a victory total they didn't reach until Feb. 26 last season. Exactly how much the Pacers have improved should be determined in the next week, when they complete a five-game Western swing that began with a 121-113 loss in Portland Sunday night.
Through a couple of trades, a coach who pushes basketspeak to a new level, a maturing of young talent and an attitudinal overhaul, the Pacers have quietly done an about-face. Not only that, they have become downright different, with a cast of characters that could conceivably be written up in everything from Psychology Today to Stern to The Ring to Road & Track.
December 25, 1989
Indiana's climb to respectability began last season when its coaching situation finally settled down. After going 0-7 and deciding the game was no fun anymore, Hall of Famer-to-be Jack Ramsay retired in November. Mel Daniels (0-2) and George Irvine (6-14) did interim shifts until team president Donnie Walsh plucked Dick Versace off the Pistons' bench. Versace had joined Detroit in '86-87, following a winning and controversial eight-year run at Bradley, where his teams were 156-88; after Versace left Bradley, the NCAA put the Braves on probation for recruiting violations committed in 1981.
As Chuck Daly's assistant with Detroit, Versace was expected to do advance scouting and catch a whatever-a.m. flight back to the Pistons for the next game. He pulled off that double 70 times a season. After interviewing 10 candidates, Walsh looked beyond Versace's combination of pink cheeks and spool of white hair and found what he wanted. "Because of his personality and charisma, people tend to undersell his abilities," Walsh says. "Dick has great communicative skills, and he has a very, very thorough basketball background."
The Versace vocabulary is entertaining. For kicks, he often spouts esoteric verbiage he may have learned at the knee of his mother while she was writing The Fifteenth Pelican, the book on which the TV show The Flying Nun was based, or from his twin brother, Steve, who has a doctorate in the psychology of self-destructive behavior. On the sidelines, Versace barks out messages to his players: "The sun came up" (we will run); "Sleep nights" (we will concentrate); "If it goes, it flows" (we will react); and his favorite mantra during games, "See it" (we will find the ball and help out in transition defense). On arrival in Indianapolis Versace deemed that the Pacers' most glaring weakness. Some players have even begun to echo another of his standbys, "We're here, so we might as well do it." Says Versace with a nod to bits of Daly's phraseology, "Some were actually...purloined."
Most of this was lost on the team he inherited. The Pacers had talent, but too often it got in its own way or it got lost in the fallout from finger-pointing. No chemistry—or, as Versace puts it, "no brand."
He concluded that the Pacers gave up too many easy hoops on the break, so he would call timeouts to remind them to jam the outlet pass, force the ball to the perimeter or avoid what he called a "celebration lag" after a basket. This would be the Pacer brand: a commitment to transition defense.
Their personnel was another matter. That was up to the 48-year-old Walsh, a lawyer and former coach of the Nuggets who became the Pacers' general manager in '86. "I realized I had to devote the rest of the season to building the team back up, and I couldn't afford any mistakes," Walsh says.
The first trade came on Feb. 20, 1989, after Indiana reached loss No. 10 in a 12-game skid. Walsh peddled forward Wayman Tisdale to Sacramento for shooting guard Randy Wittman, an Indianapolis native, and power forward LaSalle Thompson. "That was a no-brainer," Walsh says. Tisdale, a prolific low-post scorer, constantly needed the ball, but the 6'10", 245-pound Thompson was content to retrieve it. He averages 8.3 boards a game and had 16 in a 106-104 victory over the Bulls on Dec. 8. Thompson is a study in contrasts, a self-described mother hen who goes by the nickname Tank. He brought a smile to the locker room and some of the menace needed by any contender. "When you set a strong pick and rattle a guy's teeth," says Thompson, grinning, "that's a great feeling."
Then, while denying all interest in the Mavericks' Detlef Schrempf even to his closest confidants on other teams, Walsh obtained him on Feb. 22 for forward-center Herb Williams. The 6'10" Schrempf had been sorely miscast in Dallas as a small forward and shooting guard, and he languished on the bench. For Indiana he has bulked up 15 pounds, to 215, and plays inside, but he still has the latitude to use his rare skills: the touch to hit the three-pointer, the power to rip a rebound and the speed to run the break. He has rapidly bloomed into one of the league's top sixth men. "Arnold Schwarzenegger," Versace calls him. Most of Schrempf's family is in Leverkusen, West Germany. It's a long way from Indiana, but winning is a major consolation. "We're just a bunch of young guys, messing around and having fun," Schrempf says.
Indiana is 30-22 since the acquisition of Thompson, Wittman and Schrempf. The moves unclogged the low post to provide more spacing on the floor, allowing playmaker Vern Fleming to penetrate while opening up scoring opportunities for Chuck Person and Reggie Miller. Miller has particularly benefited, averaging almost 23 points since the trades, 10 more than in his first season and a half. He has added a midrange floating jumper to his long-distance shot, and at 6'7" and a spindly 185 pounds he's surprisingly physical. When he was kidded over the off-season in his native Los Angeles by Mike Tyson, he did back down—"Indiana? Indiana what? What were you all, like 10 and 72?"—but now he willfully engages the NBA's reigning heavyweight. "Bird and Magic, that was a matchup for the '80s," Miller says. "In the '90s, it's Air versus Hollywood." For the record, Jordan out-pointed "Hollywood" on Dec. 8, 36-22.
While the trades certainly have worked out, perhaps the two key adjustments Versace has made involved Rik Smits and Person. Smits, the No. 2 pick in the '88 draft after the Los Angeles Clippers' Danny Manning, figured to come along slowly in the pivot behind incumbent Steve Stipanovich. Smits grew up in Eindhoven in the Netherlands and had played the game for only a couple of years before moving to the U.S. to attend Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "When I first saw him I said, 'This guy's a dog with fleas,' " recalls Person. "He was out of shape, thin, couldn't catch it and could only shoot it if nobody was on him."
Smits is a pleasant, shy fellow who brightens less at a discussion of hoops than of his fascination with Cadillacs. His first was a '76 Coupe De Ville he got in college. "A 500 engine and 8.2 liters," he says. "It was the first roomy car I ever sat in." Thanks to his penchant for fouling, he put in more time in his half-dozen vintage Caddies than he did on the court last season. Stipanovich had a history of knee problems that eventually ended his career, and when Versace arrived he had to force-feed Smits to his teammates—and force his teammates to feed Smits.
Versace let Smits play through foul trouble and built an offense that wouldn't freeze him out in the low post. Though Smits still doesn't rebound or pass that well and can be muscled out of position—"You've just got to have an attitude you're not going to take any crap from anybody, and he isn't there yet," Thompson says—he has added a hook and a move into the lane to his baseline turnaround and faceup jumper. His touch is deft. In a 136-117 win over the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 6, he sank 12 of 17 field goals, and his percentage for the year is .543, despite a paltry 10 stuffs.
In the locker room after the Denver game, Person made a point of whispering encouraging words in Smits's ear. Person had been an unpopular first-round pick by Walsh in 1986—Pacer fans preferred Indiana native Scott Skiles—but was named Rookie of the Year. In the two seasons since then, he has struggled with his roles on the court and as a captain this season and last. Five days after saying he wanted to assume the leadership role, he showed up late to a shootaround. He either shot too little or was selfish, spoke out too often or was silent. Person took a lot of the heat for the Pacers' prolonged funks but was still expected to bail them out in the clutch, as he did when he made a last-second jump shot to give the Pacers their two-point win over the Bulls on Dec. 8.
Person admits to some errors in judgment and believes many of those came from his frustration with losing. Versace has given Person free rein offensively, and while Person's scoring average has dipped slightly from 21.6 last season to 20.4 as of Sunday, his spirits are soaring. "He reminds me all the time, every day, whatever you want me to do, I'll do it," Versace says. Adds Person, "People think we're a team of bad draft picks. We're going to take those picks and stick them up everyone's butt."
How successful Person & Co. will be depends largely on the continued development of Smits and whether the Pacers can survive their cruel schedule for the rest of this month. "A lot of people think they're halfway lucky, but they're for real," says the Pistons' Mark Aguirre. At the very least, Indiana is finally on the threshold of something good.