Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Pacers and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: Bird's trust goes unrewarded in new debacle

August 21, 2010

So many topics, so little space.

I am reminded of the “Animal House” scene in which a horrified Flounder surveys what is left of his brother’s borrowed automobile as Otter says, “Face it, Flounder; you [messed] up. You trusted us.”

Instead of a punch line, though, it had to feel like a punch in the gut when Pacers President of Basketball Larry Bird received that phone call informing him that second-round draft choice Lance Stephenson had been arrested for assault on his girlfriend in New York City.

Face it, Larry; you messed up. You trusted a 19-year-old with a questionable past.

You also trusted a private investigator who dug into that past and the dozens of others you must have talked to before (a) drafting Stephenson and then (b) signing him to a guaranteed contract not necessary for second-rounders.

On the morning after the draft, I recall my wife reading about his previous issue with the law (he had pleaded down to a lesser charge stemming from the groping of a 17-year-old girl at a bus stop) and his reputation as a talented but sometimes selfish sulker at the University of Cincinnati.

Remember, these are our Pacers, still trying to cleanse themselves of the taint of past transgressions from players long gone.

“Why would they risk taking a chance on this guy?” she asked.

I responded that they wouldn’t unless they were 100 percent certain of the vetting process.

If Stephenson is found guilty—and we must keep in mind that notion of presumed innocence until proven otherwise—Bird and the Pacers will have no option but to send him packing, even if the luggage could contain a sizable buyout of that guaranteed contract earned mostly because of Stephenson’s impressive play in the summer league.

Even if cleared, Stephenson will bring with him a cloud of suspicion, an unwanted distraction for a franchise looking to find favor both on the playing court and in the court of public opinion.

And in the short term, Stephenson’s arrest inflicted significant collateral damage upon the tremendously positive news of the trade that unloaded Troy Murphy and his fat contract and brought in the point guard of the now and future, Darren Collison, as well as veteran James Posey.

On that deal, Bird trusted his instincts that if the Pacers were patient and stayed the course, they could land Collison. And I’m dead certain that after emphatically emphasizing to Stephenson that playing for the Pacers brings with it a higher level of responsibility, Bird trusted that his message had gotten through to the 19-year-old.

Trust rewarded. Trust betrayed. But with all the peripheral issues the Pacers are facing, the scale doesn’t seem balanced.

Moving on …

• Incoming NCAA President Mark Emmert is making significant changes to the senior management structure of the association, which is to be expected.

Sadly, however, Senior Vice President Tom Jernstedt will not be part of the team moving forward. Jernstedt, who has been with the NCAA for 38 years and guided the growth of the men’s (and women’s) basketball tournament and Final Four, sent an e-mail to friends and associates announcing he would be leaving the NCAA.

I devoted an IBJ column to Jernstedt when the Final Four was here last spring, so it would be redundant to revisit. But I would be remiss if I didn’t remind readers of Jernstedt’s significant impact on Indianapolis. Without his subtle-but-strong influence, it is unlikely Indy would have been chosen as the NCAA’s new home. A story not well known is that Indianapolis did not make the initial list of finalist cities, but Jernstedt and then-NCAA President Ced Dempsey insisted on a second list. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Here’s hoping we can put Jernstedt’s wisdom to work here in other capacities.

• The announcement of the Crossroads Classic at Conseco Fieldhouse featuring Indiana University, Purdue University, the University of Notre Dame and Butler University adds yet another exclamation point to what will be an extraordinary stretch in the city’s sports history. In the span of approximately 100 days, Indy will host the inaugural Big Ten championship football game, the Crossroads Classic, the Super Bowl and the Big Ten basketball tournaments.

You know, if we keep at it, this sports thing just might work out.•

__________

Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

ADVERTISEMENT

Recent Articles by Bill Benner

Comments powered by Disqus