By Mike Wells
The sigh on the other end of the phone was long and heavy.
Pacers' key dates
• Tuesday: Training camp opens. Practices are closed to public.
• Oct. 8: FanJam at Conseco Fieldhouse, 4-7 p.m., free to public.
• Oct. 11: Preseason opener vs. New Jersey, 7 p.m.
• Oct. 26: Final preseason game at Utah.
• Nov. 1: Regular season opener at Charlotte.
• Nov. 3: Home opener vs. New Orleans Hornets, 7 p.m.
Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird wasn't lost for words. His comments might be brief, but they're usually to the point.
Bird, who along with CEO Donnie Walsh put together the Pacers' roster, said what many of the team's fans have felt the past couple of seasons.
"These have probably been my toughest years I had in the NBA," Bird said last week. "The last couple of years have been very trying. It's tough because you know you have a good team, and you know it's up to the team to play together and do the right things, and they don't."
The Pacers went into the past two seasons as legitimate title contenders, only to have those aspirations erased by incidents that left embarrassing blemishes on the franchise.
The players' behavior took a toll on what once was a loyal fan base. From each Ron Artest disturbance to Stephen Jackson repeatedly cursing at coach Rick Carlisle during games, their actions turned off fans.
Those who came to Conseco Fieldhouse booed.
More troubling, many just stayed away.
The Pacers, who open training camp Tuesday, promised change. They brought in 11 new players. They've humbly reached out to the community by taking out newspaper ads and filming television commercials. Their faces are on billboards around the city promoting their new attitude: "It's up to us."
"We're trying to acknowledge things are going to change and go back to the value system that we've had for most of the time in the last 15-20 years," Walsh said.
Acknowledging a problem
The Pacers averaged 16,180 fans -- their lowest total since 1997-98 -- during a disappointing 41-41 season. Walsh and Bird looked around the Fieldhouse during the playoffs and saw even more empty seats; they averaged 15,898 fans to three home playoff games.
They didn't need to see another Peyton Manning-to-Marvin Harrison touchdown to know they weren't Indianapolis' favorite son anymore.
"A tough team to embrace," is how former Pacers point guard and current New Jersey Nets television analyst Mark Jackson explained the poor attendance during the playoffs.
"I felt when we ended the season, when we said we were going to make changes, they were relative to the smaller crowds and people booing, those types of things," Walsh said. "That was an acknowledgment something had to change because we hadn't had that before."
Wins and losses play a significant role in fan support, but a likeable team is just as important. That's why Walsh and Bird targeted players with good character to help unify a divided locker room.
They brought back noted hard worker Al Harrington. They acquired Darrell Armstrong, a 12-year veteran just months removed from playing in the NBA Finals, to provide leadership. They added athleticism, hoping an up-tempo offense breeds more excitement, more victories.
They also brought back the player fans loved to boo and wanted to see traded, though they did so with an asterisk. Stephen Jackson has promised the Pacers he's not the same moody malcontent who questioned everyone from game officials to Carlisle last season.
"The reason I believe he'll be different is because he approached me and said he spent the summer evaluating himself," Walsh said. "He said he knew he had to change some of the things he's done in the past and he's determined to do that."
'A good group of guys'
Indianapolis once reached out to save the franchise, holding a telethon in 1977 to raise money to keep the Pacers in town.
This summer, the organization reached out to fans while sharing their message of rebirth.
The Pacers staged parties for season-ticket holders. Bird reportedly invited more than 250 guests, including those on the fence about renewing their season tickets, to his 350-acre estate in August where they could enjoy the team president's hospitality and ask questions about the direction of the franchise. Bird's party brought in more than $150,000 in new season-ticket sales, according to the Street and Smith's Sports Business Journal.
Walsh declined to discuss the number of season tickets they've renewed or added.
"(Season-ticket sales have) picked up in the past month or so and I think we're getting back to where we should be," he said. "We know that this is a world where you have to go out and prove yourself. That isn't always wins and losses. It comes from how the team plays, the effort they give and what type of team you put on the floor.
"I'm really looking forward to the city getting to know these players individually. I think we've got a good group of guys here."
Some players walked into camp last year already upset over contracts and potential playing time, intangibles that carried over to the regular season. The current players have formed their own version of the "Get Along Gang."
"We've been together off the court more in the past month than we have in the past two years," forward Jermaine O'Neal said. "We've gotten together to watch football. We've had cookouts and gone bowling. We know that if we don't like each other, the business can't work to its best.
"We have put this city through a lot the past couple of years. We can come in with a clean slate and not think about the last few years."
I'm glad they finally figured that out. No more of this "we don't have to like each other, we just have to respect each other" and then expecting the chemistry not to be an issue crap. It's not that you love everybody on the team, but you have to work at liking each other to give the team a positive environment.We know that if we don't like each other, the business can't work to its best.
I'm very happy to hear all of this. I'm also happy it's nearly time for fans to evaluate if this offseason will produce the desired results. Bring on training camp and the season.
Take me out to the black, tell 'em I ain't coming back. Burn the land and boil the sea, you can't take the sky from me.
I think things will be different. How much? Who knows, Our off season certainly couldn't make things worse. We were 41-41 and while we lost talent we certainly have quite the influx of new talent. We only gave up 2 starters AJ and Peja. We will miss Pejas outside shooting but if were going to play uptempo it may not be that big a loss. It remaons to be seen whether Williams and White will get significant minutes. We know Als going to start and Tins will be great if he can stay healthy. We could win anywhere from 41 to 61 games.
Didn't *see rules*Ron say the same thing a year ago? I guess it remains to be seen. Once the officials know your a crier do you where that label for your career?That begs the question, if Jackson had not approached DW and said the things he did say, would Jackson be elsewhere right now
"He wanted to get to that money time. Time when the hardware was on the table. That's when Roger was going to show up. So all we needed to do was stay close"
Darnell Hillman (Speaking of former teammate Roger Brown)
Winning cures all, but this article says I lot of things I enjoy hearing.
UB, I am still not sure we did not try to shop him, but simply could not find any takers.
I guess only time will tell, but I'll tell you one thing. I think it would be pretty bad- to get to chill out in Larry Birds crib.
Haven't we heard this before. Remember JO chirping about him and Ron being BFF?"We've been together off the court more in the past month than we have in the past two years," forward Jermaine O'Neal said. "We've gotten together to watch football. We've had cookouts and gone bowling. We know that if we don't like each other, the business can't work to its best.
Come to the Dark Side -- There's cookies!
"Dean Wermer, could you find it in your heart to give us just one more chance?"
I finally read something from Wells I liked.
The Pacers are working hard to do everything possible to build a respectable franchise, and that's awesome. The guys suiting up just need to figure out what playing pro ball means to them individually, and use that as inspiration to win a championship. This team is very close, imo. I like the guys we've got, but we'll see.