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SPORTS: Pacers' comeback year extends post-season roll

April 25, 2005

Or to pile on a landfill.

A season on the stink.

In the hours and days following that fateful evening of Nov. 19 at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich., where a momentary lapse turned into a monumental set of calamitous circumstances, it seemed there would be little for the Indiana Pacers to salvage.

A championship was simply out of the question, and with the removal of that "One Goal"-the team's marketing slogan-it seemed the season would be nothing more than a long, laborious playing out of the string.

It was suggested the paying customers were not going to get anything close to full value for the price of their tickets, and that Conseco Fieldhouse would become an arena where the echo of the bouncing ball would reach to the highest rafters.

Who would want to watch this shell of a team as it went from a title contender to a bottom feeder in the weak Eastern Conference?

As it turns out, a lot of folks did, proving once again that most everybody loves an underdog.

Even as injuries were added to the insult of the unprecedented severity of suspensions imposed by Commissioner David Stern, the Pacers' dire situation worked in reverse: It made them more worthy of support.

Winning, essentially taken for granted before Nov. 19, became more precious.

And the late-season run that pushed the Pacers into the playoffs-accomplished without Jermaine O'Neal and Jamal Tinsley-was nothing short of inspirational.

That the Pacers fell back-as of this writing, they had lost three straight going into the regular-season windup with Chicago-does not diminish the feat of advancing to the postseason.

Is it possible to be a championship team without winning a championship? Certainly, there is no substitute for the real thing. Yet the Pacers, given their circumstance, have given championship effort, at least on most nights. And if it were possible to measure performance against potential, the Pacers would be at the top of those standings.

At the very least, what they have achieved is preferable to the recent suggestion in the local daily that the Pacers would be better off tanking what was left of the season and settling for a spot in the draft lottery.

I also add my voice to the local chorus nominating Rick Carlisle for the NBA's coach of the year. Perhaps no captain has ever steered his ship through more turbulent waters: The suspensions and injuries have caused individual Pacers to lose more than 400 games, and Carlisle has had to patch together nearly 30 different starting lineups.

Carlisle won't get the award, but his leadership and attitude throughout-the next excuse he offers will be the first one-have been remarkable.

And before we move on, let us not forget the overriding influence of franchise CEO Donnie Walsh and, in the last two years, Larry Bird, president of basketball operations. The Pacers have advanced to the postseason eight straight years and 15 of the last 16. That is a phenomenal record of consistent success.

In fact, the Pacers now are tied with the San Antonio Spurs for the longest streak in the NBA of making the playoffs. Taking it one step further, in the three major U.S. professional leagues (excluding the NHL), only two teams have longer playoff streaks: baseball's New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves (10 straight), neither of which have to contend with a salary cap. (For the record, the Philadelphia Eagles have the longest postseason streak in the NFL at six. The Green Bay Packers are next with five, followed by the Colts with four).

There are those who contend that making the playoffs means little if it is not followed by a championship. I disagree, having long contended that accomplishment in sport is defined as much by the journey as the destination. Perhaps that's a loser's lament, or the result of the fact that I live in a city that has not captured a major professional championship, unless you count the Pacers' ABA titles, leaving me with a serious case of rationalization.

Nonetheless, that the Pacers extended their playoff string this year is an amazing triumph over adversity, even if some of the adversity was self-inflicted.

We also should not forget that the Pacers worked with the NBA and the players association to divert $2.4 million from the fines back to local charities. No, it does not show up in the won-lost standings, or buy them home-court advantage. But in the court of good will, it was yet another victory.

No, that ugly videotape will never go away. But overall, given everything that happened on that night in Michigan and since, this has become a season to remember, rather than one to forget.



Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send email to bbenner@ibj.com.
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