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They’re still in recovery mode in Indianapolis, seemingly one of the least-likely locales to be designated Ground Zero for Players Behaving Badly. It has been this way for more than four years – and rebuilding the brand, once one of the NBA’s strongest, and rebuilding the image, once one of the NBA’s brightest, remains the daily duty of Indiana icon Larry Bird, the team’s president of basketball operations.
Progress has been incremental, but Bird believes the franchise has turned the corner, jettisoning the malcontents and malfeasance makers while welcoming a group of players whom the good folks of Indiana can embrace.
“We’re trying to put together and develop a team that the fans want to support,” Bird said. “They want to see our players do well on the court and stay out of trouble off the court. Which makes sense.”
Out of almost nowhere, the Pacers became the outlaws of the NBA, taking over that dubious distinction from the Portland Trail Blazers. It started on the court, with the still-lingering incident at the Detroit Pistons’ Palace of Auburn Hills in November 2004, when two Pacers (Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson) went into the stands to fight fans and a third (Jermaine O’Neal) was seen delivering an on-court haymaker to a charging fan. All three were hit with huge suspensions, Artest’s for the remainder of the season.
I remember visiting with Bird in April 2005, when the NCAA women’s Final Four was being held in Indianapolis. The Pacers had somehow made it through the season despite the many suspensions – they would also upset the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs a month later – but Bird, then working as Donnie Walsh’s deputy, wondered how long it would take for the franchise to recover.
“People think it’s already over,” he said then. “But, for us, it isn’t. I don’t know how long it will take.”
He says today he still doesn’t.
“I knew it was going to be long time,” he said. “The problem for us here is we lived it every single day. Other teams, they saw it and then went about their business. It didn’t affect them. They forgot about it. But we didn’t. We couldn’t. It hurt this franchise big-time.
“I knew then that we were going to have to go through major changes. No one likes to be part of a rebuilding program. But we had to make the changes we made in order to be able to move forward. Which we did.”
Artest was traded. Jackson, who later had some firearms issues, was traded. Jamaal Tinsley, another player who had a knack for finding trouble, was sent to the Indiana version of Elba. While still on the roster, his nameplate has been taken down in the locker room and he is, as they say, available. He has played his last game as a Pacer.
O’Neal was moved over the summer, to Toronto. There is only one player on the current Indiana active roster, Jeff Foster, who was on the team that fateful night in Detroit. (Foster was not, however, on the active roster for that particular game.)
Bird hired Jim O’Brien to coach the new group, bringing in an element of discipline and decorum. After one tough season in Philadelphia, O’Brien, too, was eager for another chance. Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy Jr., T.J. Ford and Rasho Nesterovic arrived; seven new names adorned the 2008-09 roster. Danny Granger developed into a keeper.
But regardless of who was wearing the Indiana blue and gold, Bird first felt that the franchise had to reconnect with what once had been an unconditionally adoring public. In the old days, had a Pacer had a bad game, he was more apt to find some baked cookies on his front porch than hear boos in the arena. That connection had been severed.
“Without question, repairing the image had to come first,” Bird said. “You had to do that before you could start to do anything else. We talked to fans, focus groups, did just about everything we could.”
INDIANAPOLIS - DECEMBER 2: Dan…
Getty Images - Dec 2, 10:07 pm EST
The fans still aren’t knocking down the doors at Conseco Fieldhouse, one of the NBA’s genuine attractions. But they’re coming at a far higher rate than they did a year ago, when the Pacers averaged a pathetic 12,222 and had only one sellout. So far this season, through 10 home games, the Pacers are up to 14,483 per game. They’ve already matched last year’s sellout number – the opening night win over the Boston Celtics – and they are the only team in the NBA that has wins over both Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Pacers came agonizingly close to beating the Celtics again last Sunday, failing to hold a three-point lead in the closing seconds of regulation before losing in overtime. That was during a stretch in which Indy played four games, one against the Lakers, one against the Cleveland Cavaliers and two against the Celtics. They went 1-3 in those games.
“I’m not crazy about our record right now,” Bird said of the 7-13 Pacers. “But I like the way the guys are playing. I like our practices. They’re focused. We’re getting the effort I want. And while we don’t have as many wins as I’d like, we’re getting there. They will come.”
They might come more often once Dunleavy, the Pacers’ No. 2 scorer last year, is able to play. He has yet to suit up this season, felled by bone spurs in his right knee. This is a guy who went wire-to-wire last season and had missed only 11 games in his first six years in the league.
But while the wins aren’t there yet, neither are the early morning calls from the Indy police department reporting a Pacer did this or that at a place where families would not tend to congregate. Bird hopes those days are finally gone.
These Pacers have placed a premium on citizenship, sportsmanship and being good fellows. A full six pages of the Indiana media guide is devoted to the team’s efforts in the community. Go onto the team’s Web site and you’ll see the following headlines: “Quality Players, Long-Term Flexibility, Bright Future” and “Expect a Different Look This Season.”
It’s on Bird now and he says he is up to the challenge.
“I think the biggest thing now is that we’re finally moving in the right direction,” he said. “But we still have work to do.”
I've been gone a week so I am just now catching up on old articles.
I am suprised no one commented on this article, I guess it say's what we all kind of new but I think it reconfirms (for me anyway) the fact that Bird and the owners actually "get it".
They understood that the fans want a winner, however they also want a team they can be proud of and support.
While I have never been a fan of Bird I will once again is confirm that since he has taken over the franchise officially I don't think the guy has made one move where I scratched my head or even disagreed with.
While I also am not thrilled with the record I am comforted by the fact that I think that we also have a management team that is not comfortable with this either and understands "us" the fans.