SPORTS: Indiana's 'Mount Rushmore' will try to fix Pacers

April 21, 2008

The first time Herb Simon ever met Jim Morris, it was to ask him for money. Fifty grand.

To be fair, it wasn't Morris' money. It belonged to Lilly Endowment Inc. Simon was at the endowment, which Morris directed at the time, to ask for a grant to support the Jewish Community Center.

He got the money.

This past week, Simon had another request of Morris ... to replace Donnie Walsh as president of Pacers Sports & Entertainment.

Again, Morris said yes, although you might wonder why a man who could have virtually any job in the state (except president of IU, the one he was best suited for) would want to take on the role of turning around a ship many are convinced is professional basketball's current version of the Titanic.

Furthermore, why would Simon, wealthy beyond means at an age when he could be content to spend most of his time in the luxury villa of his choosing, decide to become, as he described, "the hands-on, hands-on" co-owner of the Indiana Pacers by taking on the roles of chairman and CEO?

Simple. Because they care.

Sure, they care about the bottom line. But they also care about the Pacers as an institution in this city. They care about the fans and businesses that have supported the franchise. They care about its reputation and that corny old slogan, "Pacer Pride."

With Indiana basketball icon Larry Bird, the Pacers' president of basketball operations, they now form the triumvirate that is committed to restoring the franchise's damaged image.

As I sat at the press conference April 16 in the Fieldhouse, looking at Bird, Simon and Morris at the dais, it occurred to me that they are something of an Indiana Mount Rushmore: giants of basketball, commerce and Indianapolis revitalization, respectively. But even the best of men with the best of intentions will be challenged to quickly breathe life, excitement and community support back into the Pacers.

It will start, of course, with winning.

Well, duh.

But let's be honest: The furor over the Pacers' off-court shenanigans would have been less if the Pacers had been contenders. That the incidents occurred as the team was sliding south of .500 and out of the playoffs has been a double-whammy.

It's romantic to wish that a group of choir boys leads the Pacers and Indianapolis to an NBA championship, but it will only be winning-by the way, did I mention winning?-that will ultimately rekindle the fire.

That said, the Pacers are also on such a short leash in the public relations arena that even the slightest off-court incident runs the risk of reversing any good will the team can try to build ... unless they're winning.

So, the initial task lies with Bird.

"I have a full understanding of what's ahead of me," he said. "We've got a lot of holes to fill ... [but] to blow it completely up and go rock-bottom, I don't think so. There are four or five guys we have that we can build around."

Yet the Pacers can't dance alone and just willy-nilly let loose players-Jamal Tinsley, Jermaine O'Neal are the two most often mentioned-just because the paying customers want them out of here.

"You have to have a [trading] partner to make those things happen," Bird added.

For his part, Morris said all the right things. He mentioned the word "community" repeatedly and reminded everyone that the Pacers "are part of the signature of Indianapolis."

He pledged that the Pacers' goal would be "to be the most sponsor- and fan-friendly institution we can be," and then recalled a slogan he used often from his days running the United Nations World Food Program: "We're going to do more, do it better and do it together."

Finally, there is Herb Simon, who (with his brother and co-owner Mel) has seen the Pacers this season tumble to the lowest attendance in the NBA. As written earlier, he could be sitting on a beach somewhere. He could even throw up his hands and put the team up for sale (something he emphatically said would not happen). Instead, he's inserting himself fully into the quest to resurrect the franchise. His message to the fans:

"We're going to go back to the basics and do everything we can to improve the product and the enjoyability. Just give us an opportunity to do it."

A quick fix in the NBA is rare, but there certainly is no shortage of determination to make the Pacers again a source of pride, rather than derision. Here's hoping.

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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