SPORTS: Pacers' off-the-court performance never waned

March 13, 2006

Like any team, especially the professional variety, the Indiana Pacers are to be judged by their success ... or lack thereof. Their bottom line is the one that's posted on the scoreboard 82 times a season, then again in the playoffs.

It comes as no bulletin that the last two years have been more painful than pleasurable, much of which can be traced to the excesses and eccentricities of the nowdeparted Ron Artest.

Collateral damage has been the organization's reputation and its connection with the local populace. Attendance is down and local media have jumped off what is perceived to be a rickety bandwagon. The Indianapolis Star has been regularly pushing the Pacers to the inside pages of its sports section. Local television stations have relegated the team to the middle or end of sportscasts, focusing on Indiana University basketball, the Indianapolis Colts and the NFL labor situation. Callers to the local sports talk shows are similarly preoccupied.

Even this august publication offered up some ridicule, posing headshots of Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh on the bodies of female cheerleaders above a cover story about declining attendance.

I joined the chorus in late January, criticizing the Pacers for a lack of emotion and professionalism, among many other failings. At the time, the Pacers were a hanging curveball-it didn't take much to knock them out of the park. They were everybody's piñata.

Then came the injuries to all-star Jermaine O'Neal and starting point guard Jamal Tinsley. The campaign was a writeoff, or so we thought.

But it's a long season and lately, well, what do you know? Not unlike last year, the Pacers are responding admirably to their undermanned situation. Peja Stojakovic has been all anyone could have hoped-and more. Young players-Danny Granger and David Harrison-have elevated their games. Anthony Johnson has been exceptional at the point. Rick Carlisle has continued to make many right moves ... and no excuses.

Are they championship material? No. But there's hope. Flickering hope. And they've started to become a team you can feel good about again.

But the purpose of this piece is to put the Pacers in a larger context-not as the team, but as the corporate entity.

I was leafing through the team's media guide when I came upon the section titled "community relations." Eight pages in all, printed in small type, detailing the organization's efforts for people-kids, mostly-to whom the win-loss record doesn't really matter.

"We have the opportunity to influence, with whatever resources we can bring to the table, a lot of lives," says Quinn Buckner-the Quinn Buckner, of course, who oversees those community activities as the Pacers' vice president of communications and doubles as one of the team's television analysts.

"That's a responsibility for us to shoulder, and to shoulder with a great sense of pride. We just want to do good ... the rest of it takes care of itself."

Cynics-and as a semi-reformed cynic, I know whereof I speak-consider community relations a convenient means of offsetting the high cost of professional sports. In other words, public relations. And, post-Detroit brawl, that would seem to be particularly important for the Pacers.

"We were doing these things prior to the [brawl]," Buckner says. "That event is one of those things you don't want ever to happen, but we do this because it's an important part of the company and the community.

"It's about the opportunity to present people with an opportunity as it relates to education, to health, awareness and self-esteem. My friend Charles Barkley says, 'I'm no role model.' Well, the Indiana Pacers are a role model, I don't care how you look at it, and if you tend to help in those areas that need help, people gravitate to that and pay attention to that."

Buckner provided a list of Pacers' community relations activities from last September through this coming April. There were 109 listings that included book giveaways, blood drives, reading time outs at local schools, academic achievement programs, wheelchair basketball (the Pacers sponsor a team), autograph sessions, health and career fairs, youth clinics, family nights, and activities at the Pacers Academy and the five Pacer Learning Centers at IPS schools. And a whole lot more.

"It's about those people who need just a little extra push, who don't have the same opportunities as others," Buckner says.

Sure, it doesn't count as much as what happens on the court. But it does count, especially to those on the receiving end.

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.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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