SPORTS: Remember who led Pacers out of the wilderness

May 7, 2007

I put my faith and trust in people who have proven themselves over the long haul.

Which is why I choose to be one-one of the few, I'm guessing-who believes Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird will pull the Indiana Pacers out of their tailspin.

As of this moment, the Pacers executives have no coach, no draft choices and, in the minds of many, no hope, particularly for the immediate future, with an emphasis on "immediate," for we have little patience or tolerance for long rebuilding projects.

Then again, with regard to the Pacers, we haven't had a lot of practice at rebuilding. It has been a generation since things seemed so bleak. The Pacers of the early 1980s were beset by absentee ownership and still caught in the financial throes of the one-sided NBA-ABA merger. Game time at Market Square Arena meant two things: lights on and curtains down to hide the empty seats.

Into the ownership breach stepped the Brothers Simon, who provided the financial resources and then the wisdom to turn control of the day-to-day operations of the franchise over to Walsh.

In time-time-Walsh assembled the pieces to make the Pacers first competitive, then a contender, and not just for a season or two.

It does bear repeating: The Pacers made the playoffs 16 times in a 17-year span under Walsh's guidance. By any measure, that's phenomenal. They were among the NBA's final four five times in a seven-year stretch and six times over 11 years.

Only now, many consider Walsh an idiot. How quickly we forget in this what-haveyou-done-for-me-today? world.

I first met Bird in 1974 when he was fresh out of Springs Valley High School and a member of the Indiana All-Stars for their series with Kentucky. Indiana's coach that year was Kirby Overman of New Albany, who gave Bird scant playing time in the twogame series. I remember a frustrated Bird leaving Hinkle Fieldhouse in near tears following the second game, vowing to prove to the world that he could play with anyone at any level.

We all know how that turned out.

I also recall the skepticism when he became coach of the Pacers in 1997. The following May, he was being saluted as NBA coach of the year. Two years later, he had the Pacers in their only NBA Finals.

Now, as the man clearly in charge of the business of Pacers basketball, Bird faces the greatest challenge of his professional career.

He has to come from behind.

Of course, we can all pinpoint the moment the Pacers' fortunes made that 180-degree turn: that November night in 2004 against the Pistons, when all hell broke loose. Who really knows how it might all have played out had that beer not bounced off Ron Artest's noggin.

The reality is that, 2-1/2 years later, Walsh and Bird are piñatas swinging from the ceiling, taking a whack from just about everyone. Hey, they are big boys drawing big paychecks. And, yes, they've made some mistakes, probably none more basic than trusting professional athletes to behave as professionals. Imagine.

I would surmise that level of trust also extended to now-ex-coach Rick Carlisle, who somehow has been absolved of responsibility for what the Pacers have become. I like Carlisle, and I'm certain he will land on his coaching feet in another town, but to lay all the Pacers' shortcomings on Walsh and Bird falls at least one-third short of the mark.

Carlisle, after all, was the micro-manager on the court who let the inmates run the asylum off the floor. No matter the hand he was dealt, Carlisle didn't distinguish himself when it came time to play the cards. By comparison, he made the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy look like a hard guy. As a result, the Pacers evolved into a soft team-marshmallows mentally and physically.

I heard over and over again-probably said it myself a couple of times-that Bird needed to be the disciplinarian. And I'm certain he was, especially in the wake of the offcourt incidents. But to do so inside the locker room would have meant usurping the role of Carlisle who, in this case, was not just Bird's employee, but also his friend and the man he'd given opportunity to, both long ago as a Boston Celtics teammate, as his assistant coach with the Pacers, and finally as his hand-picked head coach.

As for Carlisle's successor, I have neither clue nor recommendation if Reggie Miller isn't interested. But I do believe Bird and Walsh will find the right guy. For what they've meant to the Pacers' past, I-for one-trust them with the team's future.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and 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 e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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