Benner/Sports and Colts and Pacers and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: Pacers replace Colts as object of our optimism

December 15, 2011

The Indianapolis Colts have absorbed a ton of grief this season. Hey, winless gets as winless deserves.

But it would take at least another season like this for the Colts to experience the amount of ill will that has been tossed the Indiana Pacers’ way, starting with The Brawl seven years ago (has it really been seven?), then continuing with a series of numbskull activities by knuckleheaded players who tarred the franchise and branded it as a way station for overpaid, underachieving misfits.

For the Pacers, hauling the trash out and winning back the public has been a laborious, time-consuming effort, coming during a period that coincided with their professional football brethren captivating the market with nine straight playoff seasons, two Super Bowl appearances and one Big Prize.

Quarterback Peyton Manning replaced the Pacers’ Reggie Miller as our most iconic athlete. The Colts’ Bill Polian was the genius brain trust while the Pacers’ Larry Bird was the brain you couldn’t trust. The Colts had the affable coach, Tony Dungy, while the Pacers had the grump, Jim O’Brien.

The Colts built a 25,000-seat waiting list for season tickets while the Pacers sank to the bottom of attendance in the NBA, even last year when they made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.

And now, in a blink, it all has changed. Well, at least the Colts’ part of it has.

For the Pacers, we’ll see. And I can’t wait.

During the lockout, I was ambivalent about the national impact of spending a season without NBA basketball. But locally, it was incredibly important that the Pacers return to action as soon as possible.

That’s because the aforementioned struggles of the Colts have left our town yearning for something—anything—to cheer for. And the Pacers’ strong finish last spring and the enthusiastic breath (gale?) of fresh air provided by their then-interim and now head coach, Frank Vogel, made us—or, at least, me—look forward to the season that nearly wasn’t.

Add the infusion of the local guy who made good—former Broad Ripple High School and IUPUI star George Hill—and now free agent power forward David West, and there is an inescapable feeling that the Pacers are on the cusp of returning to relevance, if not dominance.

Even many of the NBA cognoscenti are elevating the Pacers in their preseason predictions to as high as fourth or fifth in the Eastern Conference.

The Pacers are still young and lack superstar talent, although I think second-year shooting guard Paul George could, soon, be a player fans would pay money to see. Beyond that, Bird and General Manager David Morway have assembled the depth that could be a valuable asset over the condensed 66-game season.

Certainly Vogel, in his first full season as a head coach, will have periods where his upbeat attitude will be challenged by down strokes. But not to be underestimated is his staff, including Brian Shaw, who has five world championship rings with the L.A. Lakers (three as a player and two as an assistant) and Jim Boylen, who has two rings as an assistant at Houston. They join longtime Pacers assistant Dan Burke.

Then there’s Larry Bird.

This could be Larry Legend’s last lap in basketball. Few things would please me more than to see his vision for the franchise validated. Certainly, Bird doesn’t need that. He’s perfectly comfortable with who he is and what he has had to do to guide the Pacers through their most challenging period since the early 1980s. Plus, he’s never much cared what anyone thought, except to prove wrong those who think he “can’t.”

There’s another reason I want to see the Pacers get it going again: Slick Leonard, the Pacers’ former coach and Mark Boyle’s longtime sidekick on radio broadcasts. Slick nearly died on one road trip last year but, fortunately, proved too darned ornery to check out permanently. Now he’s back for his 28th season. It would be great to see him rewarded with a long playoff run.

On a closing note of interest, former third-string but now starting Houston Texans quarterback T.J. Yates, who comes to Lucas Oil Stadium to play the Colts on Dec. 22, grew up on Indy’s northeast side before his parents, John and Carol, moved the family to Atlanta. His grandfather, Gene Yates, was an Indiana all-star basketball player at Anderson High School in 1940, as well as a state track champion.•

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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.

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