MIAMI-As individuals, we are a psychiatrist, a dentist, a college fund-raiser, a couple of small-businessmen, a couple of distributors of adult beverages, and one old and mostly broken-down sportswriter.
But, collectively, we are a basketball team, wearing the uniforms of the Indiana Pacers, our names sewn on the backs; receiving first-class coaching and instruction; practicing on the floor of Conseco Fieldhouse; road-tripping to Miami; staying in premium digs; having team meals; getting pregame inspiration from none other than Pacers coaching legend Slick Leonard; and, finally, taking the court in American Airlines Arena to (a) show what we learned and (b) defend the pride and honor of Indiana basketball.
Well, on the matter of the latter, at least we tried.
The occasion was the first Pacers Foundation Fantasy Camp, sponsored (although I liked to use the term “fueled”) by Miller Lite. The camp is the brainstorm of the Foundation’s executive director, Dale Ratermann, Foundation coordinator Sarah Baird and the Pacers’ director of camps, clinics and alumni relations, Darnell Hillman-a/k/a Dr. Dunk-who would also serve as the coach of our eclectic crew.
The experience was, simply, a hoot, although as I compose this, my typing fingers are about the only things on my body that aren’t sore.
But hey, no pain, no gain.
Fantasy experiences in sports are becoming ever more common, although mostly in baseball, where retired Major Leaguers entice-for a price-a bunch of older folks to come to a camp in a warmweather location, wear the uniforms, get some instruction, and take part in a game or two.
The concept has been less tried in basketball, owing to the rigors of the sport and the timing of the season. The Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan used to do a fantasy camp and the Golden State Warriors currently conduct one, but the assembled athletes-and I employ that noun in its broadest sense-usually stay in one place, and the game consists of intramural battles.
Ratermann wanted the experience to have a philanthropic bent: Proceeds would go to the Pacers Foundation, which funds youth initiatives. And to sweeten the pot, he wanted to add a road trip to a sunny locale where the opposition would be a team of strangers.
Thus, on Jan. 17, we gathered on the floor of Conseco Fieldhouse, donned official uniforms, had team and individual photos taken, then changed into practice gear for the first of three sessions.
Hillman served as head coach; his assistants were fellow former Pacers Billy Keller and Stuart Gray. The next night, they were joined by ex-Pacers Rik Smits and Derrick McKey and Coretta Brown of the Indiana Fever.
The coaches ran us through a multitude of drills for conditioning (yes, we did “suicides”), shooting, passing, ball-handling and defensive principles. They installed a motion offense-although it was more like a “slow-motion” offense-and a couple of zone defenses.
Our team ranged in age from late 20s to late 50s. Our psychiatrist, David Giles, at 58 was the patriarch. But not to worry about Giles … he still plays pickup ball a couple of times a week with a group of shrinks that dub themselves “The Freudian Slips.”
On Jan. 20, we flew to Miami where we joined the real Pacers at the team hotel. The next day, we were to play a team put together by the Heat organization and, that night, the Pacers would play the Heat.
We were prepared for battle at a team breakfast hosted by Slick Leonard, where, as only Slick can do, he regaled us with basketball war stories. His final instruction: “Walk in [the arena] like you own the joint … and have fun.”
We did, indeed, have fun, although we lost, 48-26. A lopsided score, you say? Well, yes, but only because of a lopsided age difference. The Heat team consisted of five young hard-bodies (four of them 6 feet or taller) from team front office, a couple of whom had played college ball.
Still, we had our moments. Sean Curry, a Shelby County businessman and former Triton Central High School player who received the Fantasy Camp invitation as a Christmas present from his wife, Teresa, scored the first four points of the game and more than held his own. Our dentist, Rob Thoman, hit a 3-pointer and literally skipped back down the floor. At the end of the game, we ran a version of the “picket fence” for Giles, and he drained a 15-footer. Lu Hamilton, a fund-raiser for Wabash College, plucked a rebound and had a sweet little putback.
The biggest downer was that our “power” forward, Fred Noens, suffered an early injury and couldn’t continue. “Best three minutes I’ve had in a while,” he deadpanned afterward.
As for me? Suffice it to say I didn’t hit a shot until we played golf the next day.
The good news is that evening, the Pacers avenged our defeat-we’re sure that was their motivation-by beating the Heat in overtime.
All in all, the reality lived up to the fantasy. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat except for one thing: My knees have announced their retirement.
Benner is 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.