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SPORTS: Pacers look to their roots to reconnect with fans

October 6, 2008

On Oct. 8, the Indiana Pacers are going to treat us older folks to a nostalgic trip.

They're going to take on the New Orleans Hornets in a preseason game at the Pepsi Coliseum.

Before things like corporate naming rights came along, it was simply known as the Coliseum.

It was that "other" basketball venue in town, playing second fiddle to Butler (now Hinkle) Fieldhouse. But when the Pacers entered the American Basketball Association and began dribbling those red, white and blue basketballs down the hardwood, it quickly turned into the place to be.

I was a freshman in college at the old IU Extension campus in Indianapolis but already had finagled my way into the sports department of The Indianapolis Star in 1967-1968, the year the Pacers came into existence. We'd sneak out on our "dinner" hours and take in a half before heading back to work.

Larry Staverman was the coach, and the roster contained the likes of Freddie Lewis, Roger Brown and Bob Netolicky, all of whom would go on to become Pacer legends, and home-grown talent such as Kokomo's Jimmy Rayl, Muncie's Ron Bonham (Indiana Mr. Basketballs both) and Indy's (Attucks) Bobby Joe Edmonds.

There was a decided Big Ten/Midwest flavor to the roster, with Matt Aitch (Michigan State), Oliver Darden (Michigan), George Peeples (Iowa), Jimmy Dawson (Illinois), Ron Kozlicki (Northwestern) and Jerry Harkness (Loyola-Chicago), who later became a local sportscaster and remains to this day an Indianapolis fixture. Rayl, of course, went to IU and Bonham to Cincinnati. Netolicky was from Drake and Brown from Dayton, Ohio.

Also on that roster for a brief stint was Reggie Harding, a gifted but troubled 7-footer who couldn't leave the street life behind. He was later shot and killed in his native Detroit.

The Pacers were a marginal team that first year (they finished 38-40 and were swept in the opening round of the playoffs), but they succeeded in whetting Indy's appetite for pro basketball, especially for those who remembered the Indianapolis Olympians from the early 1950s.

The pieces fell into place the next year. Mel Daniels was acquired in a trade from Minnesota and a plucky guard named Billy Keller arrived from Purdue. Oh, and after a 2-7 start, Staverman was fired and replaced by Bobby "Slick" Leonard.

Slick lit the fire and the Pacers quickly became an elite franchise, advancing to the ABA Finals, then-with George McGinnis joining the roster-winning three of the next four league titles. Crowds packed the old barn during the games, then afterward packed Netolicky's bar, Neto's in the Meadows, until the wee hours.

The Coliseum was smoky and dimly lit, but it was a wild, crazy atmosphere, stoked by booze, Leonard's no-holds-barred style and, of course, success. You can't compare teams from different eras, but I swear, I'd take the Pacers of the early '70s in their prime anytime against anyone.

It was a heady time, and the Pacers' popularity helped set the stage for Market Square Arena to be built. MSA then served as the catalyst for subsequent downtown development.

Just as we recall the impact of MSA and, later, the Hoosier Dome, we should never forget the significance of the Pacers during that time when Indianapolis began to believe it could be more than just a town that staged a big race once a year.

So now, four decades and multiple evolutions later, the Pacers return to the place it all began-just for a night-while trying to take the first steps in reconnecting with a skeptical public, much of whom has no grasp of the franchise's historical relevance.

Yet no one can question the commitment to get the ship righted and to do it as quickly as possible, given the salary cap and contract limitations inherent to the NBA. No better example of that is the apparent willingness to swallow the $21 million left on Jamal Tinsley's contract. That clearly underscores a determined attempt to give the fans a team they can embrace.

That's what it was like back in the early '70s and those wacky nights in the Coliseum. Fans loved that team, and the team loved them back. The feeling was replicated again from 1994-2000.

Now we look ahead while stepping back into the past for a night. It's a nice synergy. And a nice reminder, especially if you're a sentimental sap.



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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