For a few years now, even before that terrible night in the Palace of Auburn Hills, I've felt like my favorite franchise was adrift. I would watch games, write about issues on here, discuss our Pacers with friends and family, but while defending the Pacers against criticism I often felt the knawing, nagging ache in my gut that what I was defending didn't necessarily merit my effort.
I rooted hard for the Pacers as always, but I often felt the twinges of regret when I could see the problems beginning to grow within us, like a cancer spreading from inside our collective team soul. I praised Ron Artest and his unique talents, all the while knowing in my coaching background that championships can't be won with loose cannons and players so emotionally unreliable. I praised the toughness of Stephen Jackson, all the while knowing that his drama and baggage would end the end be too much for our particular group to withstand. I marveled at the talent of Jamaal Tinsley, arguing with others the merits of giving him more and more chances to shine, making excuses for him, blinded by his ability while all the while knowing deep inside that championship teams are not won by great players, but by great teammates.
I defended Shawne Williams, for his youthful indescretions, even though I know deep inside that mature and dedicated players create winning atmospheres, not the other way around. I watched silently for the most part when Anthony Johnson proclaimed a few years ago that we needed a "culture change", and tried to look on the bright side when such changes were slow in coming.
Having hope while expecting to be disappointed is a cautious and unfilfilling way to be in fandom. I have written in my essays on here many times my criticisms of Pacer ownership, franchise marketing, and questioned the heart and desire and intellect of my favorite teams upper echelon. We floundered like a ship in the night, searching frantically for a light in the harbor, where none existed. Instead our Pacers were drifting in the darkness, fixing the leaks as even more were to spring. A very recipe for apathy, many of my friends in regular life, my fellow loyalists, and long time residents of Indianapolis have affirmed this by staying home away from Conseco Fieldhouse.
But, my faith is being rekindled, and that is what I want this thread to be about today. Regardless of the likely scenario that the Pacers will come up short of the playoffs, their effort has been inspiring to me, and deserves to be recognized and honored here by me today.
I really feel that the next season will be a renewal of Pacer Pride throughout Indianapolis and the entire state. In a league where routinely individual players, front offices, and coaches almost quit on each other and their fans, this particular group of Pacer players have done the opposite. They have represented us with class, dignity, and honor. They still are not a good team, and still have many flaws that we will all pontificate about all summer long. But we have so much to be thankful about this season, because I really do think important cultural changes in how our franchise operates and looks at things have been achieved, and will carry on.
I want to praise our head coach, Jim O'Brien. Jim is not perfect.....his system has some pure basketball flaws I don't agree with, his personality isn't the most exciting or dynamic, and I doubt that he ever wins a championship as Pacers coach. But, even though it took a while, I think he will someday be known as the man who began to slowly change the accountability and "laissez faire" attitude that permeated through our lockerroom. O'Brien has excelled in getting alot of mileage and improvement out of players who aren't that talented with a system that while frustrating has at least been entertaining to watch. He is a no nonsense professional coach, and someone who gives instant credibility by working hard, and being a steady hand.
Next season, I expect he will better know his personnel, and probably won't have to deal with a team so limited talent wise as this one. He will be able to mold our new pickups to fit what he needs, and we will be better just because of the stability and professionalism he brings us. To go from being a good coach to a great coach, he will need, in my view, to be more flexible in adapting to his personnel strategically speaking, coach better during game situations, and will need to learn to rely on his assistants more than he does now, particularly during games.
I want to commend the attitudes of players like Travis Deiner, Mike Dunleavy, Danny Granger, Jeff Foster, Troy Murphy, and others, for playing hard and as well as their abilities allow them to. They have showed toughness, willingness to work and expand their games, and an overall ability to play the right way.
I want to commend and praise guys like Ike Diogu, Shawne Williams, Kareem Rush, Andre Owens, Flip Murray, and even Marquis Daniels. All these players are flawed, and many of them won't return in 2008-09. But in an era where players who shouldn't still routinely whine, *****, and complain both in private and in public, these guys have remained loyal and steadfast thru a difficult season, which they have starred at times and not played at all during others. Several teams rot at their core because guys at this level quit on themselves, the staff and each other, but we have seen or heard none of that. They have behaved themselves, acted and played like men, and played with honor and dignity though not talented enough to help us win big. They make mistakes clearly, but have done so with purity of spirit, while trying to play the right way. I have enjoyed them being a part of my favorite team.
Jermaine O'Neal needs to be commended too. I have my doubts about him and his future in Indianapolis for sure, but this is not the thread for that. He has worked hard to come back from an injury that in truth may never fully heal, just to play at 70% of his abilities. I have and will criticize Jermaine's game, his style, his contract, his injury prone nature, and even some of his statements, but I will never question his ability to be a good teammate, and his desire to be good and do good for the franchise and the city. It would have been easy for Jermaine to pout to the media, or to just coast in and collect his checks, but he has tried to help us the best he can, in a situation that gains him nothing but a greater likelihood to change addresses. Even with his flaws, Jermaine has done his best, and I'm proud to have him as a part of the franchise, however long it may last.
I am not quite benevolent enough today to totally include David Harrison and Jamal Tinsley in my praise. It is with these 2 players in my view that the full work of what I am talking about, which is building a championship atmosphere full of great teammates, is not complete. I believe it is extremely likely that these guys will not return, and for that I am happy. No intelligent team with smart management will touch these 2 individuals, but that doesn't eliminate all that many of NBA teams in reality.
I want to commend the job of Donnie Walsh, without him I don't think we still have the Pacers in my home state. He gave our franchise a direction, a purpose, and a gravitas that it hadn't had for years, and I thank him for his service and wish him the best.
Having said that, the most congratulations I want to extend to the end of this season belong to the Pacers ownership and to Larry Bird. Why you ask? I may be whistling in the wind, but I really believe that Larry GETS IT. Perhaps it is that he and I grew up in similar backgrounds 25 miles apart, and that he was my childhood hero like so many of you reading this. But somewhere deep inside me I believe that Larry understands people, understands winning, understands the very fabric of success begins with a banning together of tough individuals banning together to achieve one common goal. I think Larry understands the state of Indiana, and understands how we as a people think, what we crave and what we will and won't settle for. Somewhere in my gut I think Larry Bird will be better at this job that anyone else believes he will. Good ole Southern Indiana common sense, with an undeniable pedigree and unquenchable hunger for winning I believe will prove him very successful, far beyond what any of us can imagine right now.
I think the Simon brothers are starting to get it too. I believe the Walsh era had grown stale, and the brothers business sense finally kicked in to get them to realize it. They smartly jettisoned the two headed monster and made the right move at the right time. They have become, to me anyway, more engaged and alert to what is happening, and more willing to roll their sleeves up and get involved to fix the marketing and personnel issues we face. Maybe it is just me, but I feel a sense of LIFE, RENEWAL, and ENERGY coming from them and the franchise that I just haven't felt for a long time. I feel like the page has turned, we've seen it as dark as it can get here, and now it is morning in Indianapolis again.
I've been writing for a while now about the Pacers lack of clear direction and planning. Problem solved.
I've been writing about a lack of pride in how we play. Problem on the way to being solved.
I've been writing about a lack of talent. Jim O'Brien is developing some of it we didn't know we had, and more is on the way.
Sometimes you cannot appreciate how spectacular the lights in the harbor look until you have been adrift in the deep dark night, staring at the sky while dangers gather overhead. I feel like we have weathered the storm, that the good ship Pacers is back on course, and that the beacon ahead is beckoning us toward Championship cove. It will hardly be easy to steer the ship home safely, but I have renewed faith in the worthiness of the crew, and the abilities of the Captains.
I will have more to say about the upcoming draft, and we will eventually talk about the various moves we could make personnel wise in the offseason. That is fair, and I will look forward to the debate.
But before we do this, I wanted to thank the Pacers efforts for playing with a pride and heart worthy of champions glory, even if their abilities and talents are not. Because of this, we are much much closer I believe to being very good again quicker than any of us can imagine, I believe that with all my heart.
As always, this is just my opinion.