By Cliff Brunt, AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Pacers co-owner Herb Simon had become discouraged.
His team was losing, its attendance was the NBA's worst and his players were constantly in trouble with the law.
After CEO Donnie Walsh left for the New York Knicks last season, Simon seized the opportunity to become more involved with his struggling franchise by replacing Walsh himself.
Nine months into his new role as a hands-on owner, the 74-year-old Simon sees progress but acknowledges it will be difficult to reach his goals of rebuilding the team and its image while dealing with the financial downturn in a relatively small market.
"We've lost some consumer interest in us," Simon said in a recent interview. "It's challenging to come back and regain the faith of the community. In a year, we've made a pretty good turnaround. We're not finished yet."
The Pacers reached the Eastern Conference finals six times between 1994 and 2004 and made the NBA Finals in 2000. The franchise's reputation began to decline with the brawl between Pacers players and Detroit Pistons fans in 2004, and it hasn't recovered. The losses started piling up, and the fans bailed.
Simon believes the franchise can regain the respect he and his brother, Mel, worked so hard to build since becoming co-owners in 1983. Herb Simon's optimism comes primarily from two sources: Danny Granger's emergence as a superstar and an increase in attendance.
Granger has rewarded the Pacers' five-year, $65 million extension by becoming an All-Star for the first time. He averaged 25.5 points through Tuesday's games.
"We showed a lot of faith in him by giving him a long-term contract, and he didn't rest on his laurels, he got better," Simon said. "That's a special kind of person."
Attendance is up, from an average of 12,222 at the end of last season to 13,487 through Tuesday's games, a result of a furious marketing campaign and numerous special promotions.
But problems remain.
Though attendance has increased, it still ranks 28th out of 30 teams in the league, and far below the league average of 17,079 through Tuesday. Pacers executives say the team has lost money nine of the past 10 years, and is on pace to do so again.
"We had a very sharp decline in attendance over the past three years," Simon said. "This year, even though perception is better and attendance is up, the dollars aren't following because of the economy and the other factors."
The Pacers also still haven't gotten rid of Jamaal Tinsley. The point guard got into three late-night incidents in a 14-month span and was told to not come to training camp this year. The Pacers have said they won't buy out his contract, and they're still trying to trade him. They're having a hard time finding a partner, despite Tinsley's 11.9 points and 8.4 assists per game last season. Simon didn't want to discuss Tinsley, preferring to talk about the players contributing on the court.
"We're not only trying to change not only the quality, but the character and the spirit of the team," he said.
Though the Pacers are more competitive and entertaining this season, they still have a losing record. Like recent years, injuries have slowed the team. Forward Mike Dunleavy, who averaged 19.1 points per game last season, missed the first 34 games with a sore right knee. Point guard T.J. Ford has missed time with a back injury.
"I think to a large extent, even though we've had some problems this year with injuries and what have you, we've come a long way," Simon said.
Simon knows the degree of change he desires will take time to develop. He started making changes last year by hiring Jim Morris as president of Pacers Sports and Entertainment, Rick Fuson as the chief operating officer of Pacers Sports and Entertainment, David Morway as general manager of the team and giving Larry Bird control of basketball operations.
Simon took a risk by becoming involved in day-to-day activities. Morris said situations like this don't always work, but Simon's involvement has been positive. "The enthusiasm and the inspiration and the encouragement that Herb has brought to this franchise this year has uplifted, has changed the environment," Morris said. "He's an exciting person to work with."
Bird, the Celtics Hall of Famer who coached the team from 1997 to 2000, left and came back to the front office in 2003, did his part to help Simon change the franchise by bringing in seven new players.
He traded mainstay Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto for Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Maceo Baston and the rights to rookie Roy Hibbert, and picked up Jarrett Jack and the rights to rookie Brandon Rush in a trade with Portland. Ford and Jack, also a point guard, have played well and made Tinsley's absence a non-factor.
All have contributed, leaving Simon feeling good about Bird's performance. Simon said last year that Bird had "one to three years" to get some results.
"He's a special person, very talented and knowledgeable and a pleasure to work with," Simon said. "We're very impressed with what he's done."
For now, Simon plans to see the rebuilding effort through as CEO. He has no succession plan in place.
"I'm a young guy," he said, laughing. "I could do this for 20, 30 years, right? I have no time limit one way or the other. I'm not going to put a time limit on doing the right thing for the city or for the team."