SPORTS: Our Pacers could use all the help they can get

June 11, 2007

Morris has no point guard skills I'm aware of and, ultimately, it will be up to the new head coach, O'Brien, to improve the on-court product in a way that's more palatable to the Pacers' eroding fan base.

But as a point person in engaging the community-in particular the corporate community-there are few, if any, people in this city who have both the contacts and the respect of which Morris can boast.

Even after five years away from Indianapolis trying to bring life and nourishment to the poor as executive director of the United Nations' World Food Programme, Morris' local impact and influence has ebbed only slightly, if at all.

As for the Pacers, Morris'task is certain to include re-engaging other business leaders in understanding the long-term value of the Pacers to this region despite the team's slide and the off-court actions of a few that smeared the entire organization.

Given the current environment, feeding the world's hungry might be the easier assignment.

The reaction of the hiring of the other Jim-O'Brien-is a case in point. Callers to talk radio and other outlets for instant reaction weren't happy. Actually, they were flat ticked.

Larry Bird, who made the choice--obviously with the blessing of Walsh, along with owners Herb and Mel Simon-was skewered for making an uninspired selection of a veteran coach lacking marquee appeal.

I never imagined a time when Larry Legend would be so unpopular in his home state. You'd think he was the one who went into the stands in Detroit.

The knee-jerkers evidently wanted someone with pizzazz and sex appeal. Hey, Eva Longoria wasn't available.

What the Pacers got was a professional coach, a basketball lifer who did remarkable work taking bad situations in Boston and Philadelphia and quickly making them better. The Celtics went from a non-playoff team to the Eastern Conference finals in a year. I see nothing wrong with that picture.

While O'Brien hedged at being labeled a "disciplinarian," he also made it clear he will demand-as his players should want-discipline in their approach and their routine. I don't think he's a guy who will let the little things slide until they become big things.

Yes, you wonder if "old school" works in a league that sometimes resembles kindergarten. It's a "well, duh" statement, but I'll make it, anyway: Only time will tell.

And while O'Brien was careful to praise Jermaine O'Neal and said he thought the pieces were in place for a return to the playoffs, I would be amazed if a major shakeup isn't coming. The Pacers as currently constituted-in particular, point guard Jamal Tinsley-do not inspire confidence from the masses.

Still, the Pacers don't need to start over as much as they need a fresh start. New coach, new system (another great addition is the return of the savvy Dick Harter as an assistant) and a new approach.

At the very least, we should give O'Brien until, say, Thanksgiving before writing him off.

Now, notes on a couple of unrelated matters:

Rumors continue to circulate about the status of IU football coach Terry Hoeppner's health. I will not share what I've been told because it's just that: rumor. My thoughts and prayers are with Hep and his family. Any concerns about "the program" are secondary.

I was intrigued by a quote in last week's IBJ from a guy who said the city's unsuccessful Super Bowl bid "robbed us of our next really big event." Two questions: How can you be robbed of something you never had? And is he aware of the 2010 Men's Final Four or those little races at the Speedway?

But we all make mistakes and I did last week. Can I blame it on age? The mind was thinking "Salt Lake City" but my fingers typed "Portland" in a reference to teams from former American Basketball Association towns playing for the NBA's Western Conference title. Sorry for the lapse in synapse.

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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