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SPORTS: Pacers are walking a tightrope-and doing it well

July 14, 2008

The Indiana Pacers, abandoned by so many, are re-establishing their relevance.

Given up for dead, the Pacers have a pulse.

Leading them out of the wilderness is the hands-on owner, Herb Simon; the thoughtful, prudent and brilliant community leader, Jim Morris; and our Indiana basketball icon, Larry Bird.

The draft-night wheeling and dealing created an instant buzz about the Pacers, the most positive since the brawl in 2004. It showed that, if I may lean on the cliché, there is light at the end of the tunnel and, no, it's not an oncoming train.

Whether T.J. Ford, acquired in the Jermaine O'Neal deal with Toronto, can finally give the Pacers a dependable, capable point guard won't be known until, say, the dead of winter. All I know is, he's not Jamal Tinsley, and for now that's good enough.

More important, salary cap relief, the kind that allows a team to make a play for instantimpact veterans (see Celtics, Boston), is on the way. They've lifted the rock-no, make that the mountain-of O'Neal's contract, which would have bled $45 million from the payroll the next two years. Tinsley is soon to be gone, one way or the other. Shawne Williams has been given the ultimatum, shape up or ship out. He should keep his bags packed.

Before the Pacers can become, again, an outstanding team on game night, they first have to become an outstanding team in the locker room and on the practice court. The first steps in achieving those goals have been taken.

If nothing else, the Pacers are undergoing a personality transplant.

Rookie Brandon Rush, fresh from winning the national championship at the University of Kansas, has officially become a Pacer. He says he wants to become the next Reggie Miller. OK, in this city, there will only be one Reggie Miller, but I like the youngster's bravado. Reviews are mixed on the big kid from Georgetown, Roy Hibbert, especially whether his lumbering style will fit into Jim O'Brien's fast-paced attack.

But the good news is that both Rush and Hibbert arrive not as 19-year-olds with the oft-incumbent lack of maturity, but as college seniors who played for proud, disciplined programs and coaches.

Danny Granger, who I predict, barring injury, will be an all-star next February, is soon to have his contract extended. Beyond his talent, he's a quality person whose feet are planted firmly on the ground, unless he's going for a rebound. Mike Dunleavy has been merely a perfect fit into O'Brien's system. If no one else, those two are worth the price of admission.

Speaking of which, the Pacers are offering season tickets that average a mere $7.30 per game. Yes, they're in the cheap seats. That's why they call them the cheap seats. But the organization also points out that 8,000 seats in the fieldhouse cost $25 or less.

In the meantime, Morris, the new president and CEO, has been meeting with folks from all around the city. He's not there to talk, but to listen and take notes. He is eliciting feedback on how every aspect of the product can be improved. He is looking to connect the Pacers with youth organizations throughout the region. He wants to see little boys-and girls-wearing Pacers gear again. He wants the in-game atmosphere in Conseco Fieldhouse revamped and improved.

Here in July, it's all well and good. But the two most important aspects of the turnaround are still in the offing. One is ridiculously simple to say, but much more difficult to execute: winning. More than anything, that's what will put fannies back into those empty seats.

The second is this: Despite the personnel changes, despite what may happen with the in-game environment, despite what the Pacers might continue to do to show they're a great community partner, they're still on public relations probation ... one 3 a.m. phone call away from seeing all their budding good will destroyed.

Morris et al. have vowed there will be no misfits on the roster. Then again, in the environment of professional sports, there is only so much management can do to protect the laborers from themselves or others. In that light, perhaps the Pacers' most significant off-season move has been to bring in former Pacer Sam Perkins in the role of counselor, mentor, brother and father.

However it plays out, it won't be from a lack of diligent effort and creative thinking on the Pacers' end. Then again, it's not overstatement to say this is the most important juncture in the franchise's history since the Simons bought it 25 years ago.



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. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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