In many NBA cities, pro basketball crawled back into our lives
last week like an unfaithful spouse, pleading for forgiveness and
promising never again to take our love and loyalty for granted.
The game returned with a black eye and a bloated midsection, and
the paying customers were being asked to drown their disgust in
$7 beers and welcome the scoundrels back.
This is an article from the Feb. 15, 1999 issue
Reconciliation will be easier in some places than others. In
Cleveland the devotion of Cavaliers' fans has been stretched to
the breaking point, much like the vastly expanded waistband of
Shawn Kemp's shorts. In Utah, where the Jazz has perhaps its best
shot yet at an NBA title, fans can only hope Rogaine will restore
Karl Malone's senses along with his hair. In Chicago (page 80)
only the uniforms remain the same as the six-time world champs
have apparently been replaced by the Rockford Lightning.
One hundred sixty-three miles southeast of Michaeltown sits the
one place on the NBA map that has been unaffected by lockout
fallout. Welcome to Indianapolis, home of the Pleasantville
Pacers. While the Bulls bid farewell to Michael, Scottie, Dennis
and Phil, their rivals down I-65 have lost no key components, not
even an assistant coach or their trainer. Larry Bird's flock is
essentially the same bunch that took the Chicago Bulls to Game 7
in last year's Eastern Conference finals.
Last Friday night, at sold-out Market Square Arena, Indiana wore
down the Wizards 96-81 and kicked off its quest to inherit the
Bulls' throne. Both the Pacers and their fans appeared to be in
midseason form, a step ahead of the weary Wizards. Said Indiana
forward Antonio Davis, "At the beginning of the game, I was
thinking, These guys are in just as good a shape as we are, but
then we got to the third and fourth quarters, and I thought, Wow,
maybe we are in better shape. Maybe all that work we did during
the lockout is paying off."
Lockout? What lockout? Indiana's players never stopped preparing
for the season that almost wasn't, and as a result the Pacers are
the trendy pick to win the league title in the year 1 A.J. Does
Bird, last season's NBA Coach of the Year, believe the Pacers are
the team to beat? "I thought we were the best team last year,"
he says. "These guys have been unbelievable. They go about their
business like men. They care about the league, the sport, each
other. And the thing they care most about is winning."
No Pacers appeared to have spent the summer trapped with Kemp in
the basement of Baskin-Robbins, and none were seen on TV making
inane comments about the labor dispute as Malone was. Most of
the players returned at their own expense to Indianapolis in
October, long before they were allowed to fraternize with Bird
or Indiana's other coaches. They practiced under the direction
of veterans Mark Jackson and Reggie Miller, who made sure things
were done the Pacers' way--even maintaining team ritual by
requiring rookie Al Harrington to bring the veterans doughnuts
and orange juice each morning. The players also paid for a
trainer and a conditioning coach to work with them, and any
Pacer who was late to practice was fined. "We might not win it
all this year," says Miller, "but if we don't, damn it, you can
be sure of one thing: We tried."
When Indiana player rep Davis went to union meetings, he found
out how unusual the Pacers were. "Guys would say to me, 'Man, I
can't get my guys to call me back, and we can't even find some
of them,'" says Davis. "They couldn't believe that I could pick
up the phone and get ahold of any of my guys by the end of the
Of course, all he had to do was call the gym. The Pacers spent
the fall practicing on the indoor court at the home of a wealthy
fan before moving to the team's regular practice facility in
December. In January the turnout (between eight and 11 players)
was occasionally higher than the temperature. "Some of this,"
said Miller, nodding toward the 11 players on the practice floor
on a nasty cold January afternoon, "comes from the bitterness of
Game 7 in Chicago."
Last year Indiana won 58 regular-season games and finished four
games behind the Bulls in the Central Division. It was a Pacers'
record for victories since joining the NBA, but it wasn't enough.
"We realize that we might have won it all if we had had home
court advantage," says Jackson. "And winning the home court this
year could come down to one rebound, one steal, one loose ball."
For Indiana it also comes down to one brief, weird and wide-open
season. When all is quiet in the Pacers' practice gym, the
window of opportunity can almost be heard slamming shut on
Indiana. By the end of March, seven of the Pacers' top nine
players will be in their 30s. Mullin is 35. Miller, Indiana's
leading scorer last year with an average of 19.5 points per
game, and Jackson are 33. Center Rik Smits is 32 and has a long
history of injuries to his size-21 feet. The Pacers' only
significant free-agent acquisition, Sam Perkins, is 37. "We know
we don't have a lot of time left, and maybe that's why we were
out here," says Miller.
The Pacers go into the season the way AARP members go into the
voting booth. What they lack in youth, they make up for in
numbers and determination. Many NBA observers believe it will
take a young, deep and well-conditioned team to prevail in 1999,
and Indiana has two of those three qualities. Miller and Smits
were All-Stars last year, but the Pacers can't ride them to the
Finals. "We need four or five guys to play well every night to
win," says Bird.
On its way to the second-best record in the East last year,
Indiana had no one in the league's top 15 in scoring or
rebounding. "We could use another scorer," says Miller, who was
hoping the Pacers would beat the New York Knicks to Latrell
Sprewell. Indiana president Donnie Walsh says he tried to pry
the game's preeminent coach-choker away from the Golden State
Warriors (with Bird's blessing), but he couldn't top the Knicks'
offer of John Starks, Chris Mills and Terry Cummings.
The Pacers aren't likely to get much help from their young legs.
Harrington, the 25th pick in the first round of last June's
draft, comes to Indiana straight from St. Patrick's High in
Elizabeth, N.J., and has yet to move into his own apartment. He
was the last Pacer off the bench in the season opener (after the
home crowd begged Bird to put the kid in the game) and was
scoreless in three minutes, missing his only two free throws.
Assistant Rick Carlisle says of Harrington, "Some days in
practice he's the best player on the floor. Other days he looks
like he's 18 years old." On the day Harrington met Davis at an
Indianapolis health club last summer, he asked if he could stay
at Davis's house for the weekend. That was in July, and as of
last week the kid was still sleeping in the Davises' spare room.
"We're constantly calling his mother back in Jersey and asking
questions: 'Does he have a curfew? What does he eat?'" says
Davis. When Antonio and his wife, Kendra, went out of town for a
weekend with their three-year-old twins, Antonio Jr. and Kaela,
they left Harrington alone and found out what he eats. Cereal.
"For two days, that was it, nothing but cereal," says Davis.
After Harrington spent most of a Saturday afternoon on the
telephone with a friend back home, Davis found a way to save
himself money. He bought his young houseguest a plane ticket and
sent him back to New Jersey for a weekend. "Believe me, it was
cheaper," says Davis.
"People ask me if I have any regrets, should I have gone to
college?" says Harrington, who will turn 19 on Feb. 17. "I think
this has worked out great for me. This is the perfect situation
for me to learn. Antonio has treated me like family, and all
these guys have been like brothers. Now all I have to do is show
Coach Bird I'm ready."
If Harrington is anywhere close to being ready, he'll get some
minutes. Bird used all 13 of his players on opening night, mainly
because he knows his aging veterans will have to play four--and
sometimes five--games a week for the next 12 weeks. "They just
keep bringing people at you in waves," said Washington coach
Carlisle calls the Pacers a "component-oriented unit." Meaning:
This team needs lots of guys to show up in May and June, just as
they did in October. "We're talented, but we're not superstars,"
Not superstars? Not even Miller? Surely, the NBA's alltime
leading three-point scorer would take exception to such a
characterization. Miller came out of UCLA in 1987, all big talk
and big shots, a Hollywood kind of guy who was just in the
Hoosier State for a brief layover on his way to New York or back
to L.A. That was 12 years ago, and check it out: Cheryl's little
brother is still there, rounding out a terrific career amid the
snow-covered cornfields. "I used to think I wouldn't stay here
for long," he says. "When I got to Indiana, I questioned this
place a lot, and all you need to do is step outside [in the
cold] to know why. But it's been great to be in a city where
they love basketball. All they know is basketball--well,
basketball and corn."
In one way Miller may now stand alone in the NBA. With Bird on
the bench and Jordan retired, Miller is probably the best clutch
shooter in the game. "In my 42 years of coaching, I've never
seen anyone who could hit the big shot when you need it like
Reggie," says assistant coach Dick Harter, "other than Larry, of
While the Pacers were competitive before Bird took over last
season, Miller believes Larry Legend brought a new work ethic
and added a hard edge that could push Indiana over the top in a
short season. The Pacers went the final 63 games of the season
without back-to-back losses. The occasional "night off," a
time-honored tradition for many NBA veterans, isn't tolerated in
Indiana. "We're not pretty, we're not flashy. We play like our
coach played--basic, simple, fundamental basketball," says
Miller. "We move the ball, we dive on the floor, we play
together. You know what we are? We're a Larry Bird team."
Bird relishes the idea of the three-month free-for-all that will
pass for the regular season. To any player who complains about
five games in a week or three games in three nights, he says it
could be worse. It could be practice. "When I was a young
player, we sometimes played three in a row, and I loved it," he
says. "Any night with a game meant no 2 1/2-hour practice that
Like all other NBA coaches, Bird huddled with his assistants,
frantically preparing in the days after the lockout was settled.
The only difference is that his assistants have their desks in
his office. Bird shares a windowless room on the first floor of
Market Square Arena with Harter and Carlisle. "Larry's the most
secure, unthreatened, unselfish guy I've ever met," says Walsh.
"All he wants to do is win, and he never stops to worry about who
gets the credit."
Next season the Pacers move into a new building, a retro arena
with lots of brick and ABA banners and genuine roll-out
bleachers. The plan is to capture the look and feel of an
old-time Indiana basketball field house. A year ahead of
schedule, they've got a coach and a team and a commitment that
fits that motif perfectly. They may not bring an NBA
championship banner with them into their new home, but you can
be sure of one thing: Damn it, they'll have tried.
the floor, we play together. You know what we are? We're a Larry