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Ailene Voisin: Pacers earn applause for actions after fight
By Ailene Voisin -- Bee Sports Columnist
Published 2:15 am PDT Friday, May 13, 2005
Donnie Walsh is right. They make movies about this stuff: Small-market franchise is tagged with historic suspensions following a Nov. 19 brawl. Its second-best player is tossed for the season. The starting point guard is crippled by injuries. The community rallies around the surging team and its aging icon, Reggie Miller.
You want a rooting interest?
Go with the those Indiana Pacers.
In one of the more improbable stories in recent NBA history, a team that has known its share of financial insecurity and postseason heartbreak, has muscled into the playoffs, past the Boston Celtics, and into a 1-1 second-round tie with the Detroit Pistons. Even more impressively, the Pacers squared the series Wednesday at the scene of the crime - at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich. - where the beer cups flew, crazed fans stormed the court, punches were exchanged, and five Indiana players engaged in behavior that resulted in suspensions, with Ron Artest benched for the duration of the 2004-05 season.
That they are still standing is impressive.
That they are playing is amazing.
"This is the proudest I have ever been of a team," said Walsh, the longtime team president, from his office. "I find it inspiring. I remember looking toward the bench once this year and noticing that, with the injuries and the suspensions, our top 10 guys were in suits. And while I know it's easy to say that as professionals, you have to keep going, these guys really took it to heart. So the city loved them."
Several of these Pacers weren't so lovable in November, of course. As television replays have shown again and again and again, Artest, suspended for the season, bolted into the crowd after being hit with a beer cup. Stephen Jackson, punished for 30 games, sprinted after his teammate into the stands, a forbidden act regardless of intent. Jermaine O'Neal, the thoughtful, soft-spoken forward penalized 25 games - later reduced to 15 - took a running start before belting a wobbly fan near the bench. Anthony Johnson, another class act, was punished for five games, and Miller one game for leaving the bench.
At the time, the severity of the punishments seemed warranted. Commissioner David Stern was reacting forcefully but not unreasonably, undoubtedly moved by the sheer ugliness of the episode.
Yet in retrospect?
Time softens all blows.
Though too late to free Artest, the alternative is to appreciate the Pacers for their resilience, the retiring Miller for his professionalism, the coach (Rick Carlisle) for his leadership, and the entire organization for its broad-shouldered and unbowed dignity. There was never any prolonged whining coming out of Conseco Fieldhouse. There were no Pacers victims. Although Walsh and general manager Larry Bird twice lobbied Stern to trim Artest's suspension, they took their spanking and stubbornly proceeded to play with what they had, which for a while, wasn't very much.
Freddie Jones. James Jones. Austin Croshere. Jamaal Tinsley. John Edwards. That was the starting lineup when the Pacers visited Arco Arena on Dec. 3. Tinsley soon joined the ailing Jonathan Bender in the training room, and eventually, so did the injured O'Neal. Due to a late skid and the constant disruption, a playoff berth appeared unlikely.
"Everything that happened, really put a lot of stress on our franchise," continued Walsh, "right down to the people who sell the tickets. But I give a lot of credit to Rick (Carlisle). He never looked at who we had; he just approached every game as if we could win. It carried over to the players, the organization, and the city. We have built up a lot of goodwill here through the years, so when the hard times hit, they (fans) stuck with us."
That future film? This would be no "Hoosiers" remake. The Pacers have established their own unique, overcoming-all-odds history. This is a franchise that won three American Basketball Association (ABA) titles, yet due to financial troubles, almost moved to Sacramento in 1985. This is also a community and an organization that, following the ABA-NBA merger in 1977, combined forces to save the franchise yet again.
In an effort to sell the required number of season tickets to secure the club in Indianapolis, a local television station proposed a 24-hour telethon. Technicians and anchormen/women donated their services. Pacers players worked the phone banks. Others - among them Dave Robisch and Mel Daniels - joined youngsters selling door to door.
"The response was incredible," Daniels previously told The Bee. "Kids emptied their piggy banks. Dave (Robisch) collected $200,000 himself. We pleaded with people, 'Please save the team,' and they came through."
And here they are, challenging the Pistons with their play, not with their fists. Here they are, this small-market jewel of a franchise, returning home to an arena that is the envy of the league (and the joint public-private venture is another story), determined to delay Miller's retirement party.
"Even Stern has had some nice things to say about us," said Walsh, with a laugh. "I think he called us 'valiant' once."