Pacers co-owner expects a rebound
Herb Simon says team has a lot to make up for to fans
The Indiana Pacers' coaching staff will be overhauled next season, and perhaps its roster as well.
The executive front office, meanwhile, will remain intact in tweaked form. Co-owner Herb Simon and Donnie Walsh confirmed that Walsh will return as CEO in an open-ended arrangement.
It is the role Walsh intended for himself when he hired Larry Bird as team president four years ago, an arrangement that changed after the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Nov. 19, 2004. Bird will be in charge of basketball decisions. Walsh will oversee the operations of Pacers Sports and Entertainment Inc. and be available for advice.
"Donnie is going to be with us as long as he wants," Simon said in a telephone interview with The Star.
"The only question is when he wants to retire. I'll never stop him from doing that, but I hope he stays as long as I'm here. He's done a remarkable job, both on the court and in the office."
Simon, meanwhile, believes better days are ahead for the Pacers. If nothing else, the law of averages demands it after three consecutive difficult seasons, including this year's failure to reach the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.
"How long are you going to be snake-bit?" Simon wondered. "There are only so many snakes."
Simon discussed other issues related to the franchise in a wide-ranging question-and-answer session.
Question: How do you view the state of the franchise at the moment?
Answer: I'm very disappointed over what's happened the past couple of years. Things got away from us. We owe the fans and the community a lot to make up for it and put back a team that can be respectable and earn the praises of the community again.
Q: As you look back at the past few years, do you second-guess any decisions made by the franchise?
A: You can't go back and second-guess. We were bitten by some bad luck. And some of it is our own doing. You can't avoid responsibility. Starting with the (brawl) in Detroit, which was a perfect storm, things regressed. It's a three-year drought. We still made the playoffs two years, but something was taken out of that franchise from that situation. We're determined to re-create the good feelings we've had over the years, starting now.
Q: Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh have taken a tremendous amount of criticism recently. Do you believe it's warranted?
A: We all deserve criticism. This is where we are. They're big boys and they can live with it. They know what they can do to improve it. We've got some real good experience between Donnie and Larry. Donnie built the teams that stayed in the playoffs for nine straight years and Larry's got a world of knowledge. Together, we have a powerful front office.
Q: Will any off-court issues that come up in the future be handled differently?
A: I want to get it straight that we're very supportive of the players. If there are problems we'll deal with them, but until they're really guilty of something, we have to support them. Now, will there be a better understanding among the players and coaches and Larry that some of this activity has to be curtailed? I know Larry has already spoken to the players and they're very supportive of a more controlled situation during the season. They're good people. You talk to anyone . . . as people, they're very nice people. Sometimes mistakes are made, but we can't let that happen.
Q: How close do you believe the team, as it stands now, is to being competitive again.
A: I went over this with Larry and Donnie. They feel we have very good players. Maybe we have to tweak the team a little bit. We'll always be looking to improve the team. Maybe we have to change the atmosphere. Maybe a new coach will change things and get everyone closer together. We need a new start.
Q: Has all that's happened the past few years affected your level of dedication?
A: Yes. Quite frankly, it's embarrassing to me and my family, some of these things that have happened. We know how dedicated we are to Indiana. You just don't ever want the fans to not feel proud of our team. I'm doubly dedicated and I made it clear to Donnie and Larry that they have to be doubly dedicated.
Q: Do you have a timetable for becoming a playoff team again, or a contender?
A: That doesn't mean anything, even if we had one. We feel we're a playoff team now. Injuries and outside influences and loss of confidence, or whatever it was, hurt us. We'll get everything moving again. We're a playoff team right now. But I'm not the basketball expert, I want you to know that.
Q: In what ways would you like the team to be different next season?
A: As a fan, I'd like to see a more up-tempo team and a more interesting system. That's as a fan.
Q: What can you do to win back the fans, other than winning?
A: We're going to do everything we can to explain what we're doing, to let them know we're not going to slip again and make sure every Pacers fan will be proud to come to our games. We've always been that way. I just want to think of this as a three-year malaise.
Q: Do you expect fans will come back if you have a winning team next season?
A: I hope so. I hope people look at our history (as owners since 1983) and don't let the last three years affect their outlook too much. Mel (his co-owner and brother) and I and the Simon family have stood for good values and we've tried to run a first-class operation. We're spending more money than a market this size should spend on talent. We haven't tried to avoid responsibility. We just fell down. Now we have to recoup our form and go on. I hope people take our whole history into account.
Q: How long do you want to remain as an owner of this franchise? (Herb is 71 years old and Mel is 79.)
A: I've set no time limit. I don't even like to think about that.
Q: How many seasons has the team turned a profit since you took over as owners?
A: The word profitable is a funny word. There are a lot of ways to measure that. In this market it's very difficult to be profitable. The last couple of years the losses have been significant, for various reasons. Mel and I never got this team to make our fortune on it. We wanted to keep it in our community and make people proud of it. We wanted a winning team and a championship team. Money hasn't been our motive. Not that we like losing money, but we're here to put the best product out there that we can.
Q: Could you have imagined what you were getting into when you bought this franchise?
A: No. Absolutely not. No one likes to be embarrassed in their own hometown. But that's over.
Call Star reporter Mark Montieth at (317) 444-6406