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BENNER: Pacers revival has to happen on the hardwood

October 24, 2009

First things first. Published reports out of New York that Pacers Basketball President Larry Bird intends to step down at the end of this season for reasons of “health” and “lack of enjoyment” are false.

I have it on good authority. Bird’s.

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” said Bird, who has two years left on his contract. “My health? I’m still trying to figure that [rumor] out, so I’m going to go get a physical in a couple of weeks to see what’s wrong with me. Maybe somebody knows something about me that I don’t.

“As for enjoyment, well, I don’t enjoy it when we lose. This hasn’t been a lot of fun the last couple of years and the stuff we had happen before that. That’s not fun for anyone. But I intend to do this job to the best of my ability and get this franchise headed in the right direction.”

That direction, says Larry Legend, is toward the playoffs, which the Pacers have missed the last two seasons. The Pacers begin that quest Oct. 28 at Atlanta. The Conseco Fieldhouse opener is Oct. 30 against Miami.

“We’ve got the pieces to get in the playoffs; to win a championship, no,” Bird said. “But this is not a year to make excuses. This is a year for our younger guys to step up and play better because they’re our future. That’s a must for the franchise.”

This is the basketball version of the battle for the hearts and minds of the populace. Not to mention their wallets, especially difficult given the additional factors of the economy, market size and the popularity of and community resources devoted to the Indianapolis Colts.

Bird has succeeded in his initial goal to “change the culture.” The characters have been replaced by good-character types. Winning—even if modestly on the plus side of .500—has to be next.

“Donnie [Walsh] told me when he was here, ‘Bird, you’ve got to have a competitive team or they won’t come,’” Bird said. “I always knew that and felt that, but with all the problems we had, there was no way we could do that right away.

“You know, playing was easy. Coaching had its tough moments. But I knew this was going to be the biggest challenge of my career.”

Then there’s the ongoing financial saga involving Pacers Sports & Entertainment and the Capital Improvement Board. Drawing paying customers back to the fieldhouse won’t solve those issues by itself, but it at least could lessen the flow of red ink and buy the franchise time.

“We’ve lost a lot of money the past few years and, as we’re trying to build a team, we’re also trying to cut back. [Owner] Herb [Simon] would never let us do anything to hurt the team, but we also know how much he’s losing and we’re trying to help out in every other area we can.

“Everybody feels it. Everybody. But we’ve had success here before and we’ll have success here again.”

Bird’s confidence lies in his youthful core of young talent and coach Jim O’Brien’s steady hand on the wheel. Danny Granger is an established star and Troy Murphy a solid complement, but Bird sees a big upside to last year’s rookie class, Roy Hibbert and Brandon Rush, and this year’s newcomers: draft picks Tyler Hansbrough and A.J. Price and free agent signees Dahntay Jones and Luther Head.

“A lot of people don’t think Hansbrough is going to turn out,” Bird said. “They don’t think Hibbert is going to be a solid player. Same thing with Brandon Rush. I tend to differ. I’ve watched Hansbrough since he was in high school, and all I see is a guy who works his [tail] off and prepares himself to get better. Dahntay Jones, he brings us toughness. Luther Head is not a good shooter, but a great shooter. A.J. Price should be our starting point guard of the future.”

Then there’s Mike Dunleavy, sidelined indefinitely again after a comeback from knee surgery. It could be argued the Pacers would have been a playoff team last year had Dunleavy been healthy. And not having Hansbrough (shin) for training camp is anything but a plus.

“We don’t have room for error,” Bird said. “But you go with what you have.”

Right now, Bird is going with his gut that tells him he is building a team “that plays basketball the way the people of Indiana want to see them play.”

The question remains: Even if he builds it, will they come?•

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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