On Media Day Oct. 1 in Conseco Fieldhouse, all was well in the Indiana Pacers’ world. New coaches. New hope. New optimism. New season. New attitude.
Save poor Shawne Williams’alarm clock-and, just askin’, but when was the last time you overslept an
appointment with a judge?-and the lingering legal issues still facing Jamal Tinsley and Marquis Daniels, the feeling of looking forward and a fresh start was palpable.
For those of you who have not yet met, or heard speak, the Pacers’ new head coach, Jim O’Brien, he’s impressive. Says the right things. Exudes the right kind of confidence. And the franchise has wisely built its preseason advertising campaign around him.
Yet, of course, for now it’s nothing more than blah, blah, blah to a skeptical public that’s turned its back on the team. The bond that lasted for so long here no longer exists. It’s as if the Pacers have been relocated to St. Louis, and you have a bunch of ticked-off Missourians saying, “Yeah, well, show me!”
But in addition to O’Brien, there’s another guy who gives me a sense of cautious optimism regarding the Pacers. That’s because I remember Larry Bird’s Pacers from 1998 to 2000. And for all the Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie that marked those teams, I also remember this: They were junkyard dogs on defense.
And if this Pacers team is to become a playoff contender again, O’Brien has made it clear it will start on the defensive end.
So say hello, again, to Dick Harter. This venerable coach-who has so much knowledge of the game that when he lifts his head off the pillow, he leaves behind impressions of X’s and O’s-is back as the Pacers’ assistant specializing in defense.
He’s now 76 years old, though you’d never imagine it unless his bio told you so. He was Bird’s defensive architect on those great Pacers teams, and he served under O’Brien similarly as O’Brien guided the Boston Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals in 2002 and put the Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs (where they haven’t been since) in 2004.
Like O’Brien, he spent the last two years out of the game, wondering if his career on the sidelines was over. Now he’s back with the Pacers for the third time. The first was as Jack Ramsay’s assistant in the late 1980s and, of course, the back story is that O’Brien is married to Ramsay’s daughter, Sharon.
“I’m happy being back, doing what I do,” Harter said. “I anticipate coaching forever and ever. When you love something so much, you want to do that.”
Harter and O’Brien are Philly guys, through and through. Harter is a Penn grad who later coached there (as well as at Oregon). He’s known O’Brien since he was playing high school ball. He’s known him so long he calls the 55-year-old O’Brien “Jimmy.”
“Jimmy’s a very sound basketball mind going back to his high school career where he played for a very good fundamental coach in Speedy Morris (who later coached at LaSalle University) at Roman Catholic
High School in Philadelphia,” Harter said. “Jimmy’s uncle, ‘Obie’ O’Brien, was one of the great high school coaches of all time in Philly, winning many championships. Then Jimmy went to St. Joseph’s and played for (former Pacers coach) Jack McKinney. His whole career he’s been with good people, including Rick Pitino. He’s got a wonderful background in the fundamentals of basketball, not just defense but the entire game.
“He’s a lifer. A basketball guy from the get-go.”
Ditto for Harter, who is charged with putting his defensive imprint on this team, in making the players believe they can win by
stopping the other guys.
“It’s not the Dick Harter defensive principles; it’s the Indiana Pacers’ principles headed up by Jimmy O’Brien,” Harter said. ‘I would have never connected with Jimmy back when I joined him with the Celtics if he wasn’t interested in really getting after it defensively. I know we will be a good defensive team. I am very confident the emphasis will stay on defense and the players who don’t buy into that system are not going to get the minutes and the happiness they would like.”
On the day before the first official practice, Harter couldn’t wait to get back into it.
Other than his wife, Mary, this is the love of his life.
“It’s going to be fun,” he said. “It’s going to feel wonderful. The first guy that steps in front of someone and takes a charge or dives on a loose ball or makes a great play on the offensive end-oh yeah, it’s going to feel wonderful.”
New season. Old coach. I like the mix.