SPORTS: Anyone glad to see Walsh go has a short memory

March 31, 2008

Twenty wins in 1982-1983. Twenty-six wins in '83-'84. Twenty-two wins in '84-'85. Twenty-six wins in '85-'86.

You think the Pacers are having a tough time putting butts in seats today? Today's problems aren't even close to those curtained-off Market Square Arena days of the early '80s when the average crowds dipped to as low as 4,800 in the '82-'83 season. It began to rebound only after Walsh took a chance on a marketing whiz-and exsportswriter-named Ray Compton and adeptly began to assemble the pieces that would form the nucleus of one of the more remarkable runs in NBA history.

It included 16 playoff berths in 17 years, one NBA Finals, six trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and four Central Division championships.

This was a guy who lost the coach and the nucleus of his NBA Finals team only to go to the reassembly line and produce a franchise-record 61-game winner four seasons later (and never miss the playoffs in between).

Over a 10-year period, the Pacers had the best winning percentage (.602) of any team in the Eastern Conference, including the Pistons, but today's bandwagon bailers don't remember that.

They want to tell you about the players Walsh missed on-the Jamal Tinsleys and Jonathon Benders? Fine.

But here are his hits, starting with the alltime biggest, Reggie Miller, for whom he was booed when selecting Miller ahead of Steve Alford on draft night. There was Mark Jackson (twice). Rik Smits. The Davis boys, Dale and Antonio. Chuck Person. Detlef Schrempf. Derrick McKey. Jalen Rose. Sam Mitchell. Chris Mullin. Byron Scott. Sam Perkins. LaSalle Thompson. Travis Best. Al Harrington (before his ego took over). Jermaine O'Neal (before his knees went south).

Walsh picked the perfect coach at the perfect time, Larry Brown, knowing Brown's demands for perfection, professionalism and discipline were precisely what a young team needed to ascend to the next level.

Then, to great skepticism, he tapped as Brown's replacement Larry Bird, who merely guided the Pacers to the greatest threeyear run in their NBA history.

Without the Simons' ownership, without their wisdom to put Walsh in charge, without Walsh's dynamic leadership, it is possible we'd have no Conseco Fieldhouse or the Pacers (or the Fever, or the Big Ten tournaments, or the myriad of events that take place there).

And it was Walsh who sought the input of junior members of the Pacers organization and joined them in the fervent belief that the new fieldhouse needed to be reflective of Indiana's unmatched basketball history and tradition. For many of those distinctively Hoosier touches, we have a native New Yorker and a North Carolina grad to thank. Instead of just a building with seats, we have a monument.

In all my years of dealing with Walsh, he always was kind, respectful and available. He was reluctant to take credit but always willing to take responsibility, especially in the tough times. Walsh accepted criticism in stride. You could rap him in the paper that morning and he would treat you with respect that afternoon.

In the storybook world, it wouldn't have ended like this. His reputation as one of the most respected executives in the NBA wouldn't have been sullied by a drunk in Detroit and the subsequent actions of three or four knuckleheads. For now, the real world has trumped the storybook, although it appears further chapters are to be written in another locale, perhaps in a return to his New York roots.

Walsh has said he's not interested in recognition for his achievements here, that the names in the Conseco rafters belong to players and coaches. I agree. That said, there should be some kind of permanent tribute prominently placed. It's certain the Pacers organization will deliver in an appropriate and fitting way.

He says he's leaving because he stayed too long. I say it's because people's memories are too short. In any case, we wish him well.

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. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. To comment on this column, send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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