SPORTS: Trainer is MVP so far, but Pacers can recover

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If ever there were a team in need of a break-lucky, all-star, rest or otherwise-that team would be the Indiana Pacers.

At risk of stating the obvious, in all the years I’ve followed that franchise or other sports organizations in general, I cannot recall a more star-crossed season.

It began with preseason injuries, spiked the moment that beer cup landed on Ron Artest’s noggin, and since has been a steady drip-drip-drip of injuries and illnesses sprinkled on top of the suspensions.

The law of the land would be Murphy’s, and Calamity Jane has joined the Pacemates.

And the Pacers’ MVP to this point? Easy. Trainer David Craig.

To the Pacers’ credit, excuses have been few, and the cries of, “Why us?” muted. Coach Rick Carlisle has maintained the stiffest upper lip this side of a bronze bust.

I also must hand it to the spectators who continue to mostly fill Conseco Fieldhouse. Their support has been admirable. Last November, post-Detroit, there was a lot of speculation about bandwagon-jumping, (off, not on) but for the most part, the faithful have been faithful.

While no one feels good about what happened in the Palace-no one, that is, except the Detroit Pistons and every other team in the Eastern Conference-it speaks to the loyalty of the Pacers’ fan base that it has hung in with this team.

Perhaps, like me, folks still are holding onto the belief that the next victory is going to be the one that starts the hot streak that gets this team believing in itself again, vaults the Pacers into solid playoff position, and scares the beejeebers out of the teams that might face them in the first round.

The other hope is that David Stern will issue an executive pardon to Artest. Commissioner Napoleon opened this door ever so slightly with a recent comment that anything is possible in his realm-say, like the Knicks getting Patrick Ewing in the lottery?-but I see it as his way of using false hope to yank the chain of the local populace. Artest has a better chance of becoming comeback record producer of the year.

Yet, as the All-Star Game break arrives and all but Jermaine O’Neal are afforded the opportunity to refresh their minds and recharge their batteries, I still see the season as one that could go deep into May, or even June.

For starters, remember that the Pacers toil in the Eastern Conference where a .500 record is almost certain to advance a team into the postseason. And despite all that has happened, the Pacers are just a notch below that break-even level.

Second, while I don’t expect the Pacers to be motivated over their last 30 games by Reggie Miller’s retirement announcement, I do see that as a psychological card they can toss on the table when they reach the playoffs. Not only that, given No. 31’s gifts of timing, showmanship and playoff drama, it is easy to envision a final Miller moment-or two-that lifts this team.

Finally, odds are that any team that has had this much bad luck will eventually see it turn. But perhaps that’s just wishful thinking … along the lines of an Artest return.

Speaking of whom, I hope the Pacers keep him because (A) he’s a unique talent; (B) this team, as it is now constituted, can’t contend for a championship without him; and (C) he is a good person at heart.

However, that’s for next season. This one is far from over.

Finally, and this has nothing to do with the team’s performance on the court, the Pacers organization is to be commended for its donation of $2.4 million to youthserving charities. I serve on the board of one of those-Special Olympics Indiana-and I cannot describe to you the emotions our executive director, Debbie Hesse, and I felt when we learned of the Pacers’ gift. The money, parceled out from the fines resulting from the suspensions, will directly help thousands of Hoosier youngsters.

It was funny, in a sad kind of way, but at the press conference announcing the Pacers’ donations, at least one of the local TV stations was going to go “live” and cut into afternoon programming had the announcement been Artest’s reinstatement. Instead, in the words of one sportscaster, when it was learned it was “just a charity thing,” the editors back at the station quickly determined the announcement was not worthy of a live cut-in.

In fairness, that station and the others provided excellent coverage of the news conference in their regular newscasts.

I guess I’m just waiting for the day for that first “good news” live cut-in.

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

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