Pacers' owners deserve accolades, not scorn

March 16, 2009
From the department of no good deed goes unpunished, I present to you Herb and Mel Simon.

You know, those "greedy billionaires" who have done so little for this city over the years.

Except to keep their business here and grow it into the largest of its kind in the country.

Except to personally employ thousands of Hoosiers and serve as the economic engine that has put countless others to work.

Except to erase the blight by filling in those holes in the heart of downtown with that little thing called Circle Centre mall.

Except to donate millions upon millions of dollars to local charities, hospitals, not-for-profits ... you name it.

Except to rescue the Indiana Pacers from out-of-state ownership — remember Sam Nassi? — 26 years ago when no one else wanted them. Even if it meant absorbing enormous losses along the way. They did it not because they enjoy losing money, but because they considered the Pacers an important community asset worth saving (Quick quiz: Want to know how to become a millionaire? Start out as a billionaire and buy a small-market NBA team.)

Sure, they're rich guys and you know what? Good for them. I wish I had the business savvy and personal chutzpah to be able to walk a mile or two in their Italian loafers.

I'm also old enough to recall a time in America when accumulation of wealth and providing livelihoods for others wasn't considered an awful thing.

And unless I'm mistaken, there never has been a hint of scandal about how they advanced their fortunes. What I do know is that they took risks, and the risks paid off. They're self-made men. Again, a trait that once was admired in this country.

Yet now they — younger brother Herb, especially — are being pilloried for bringing the Pacers' financials problems to light and asking for relief with the operating expenses of Conseco Fieldhouse.

Suffice it to say there's plenty of blame to go around for the fine mess the Pacers and the Capital Improvement Board find themselves in. But any criticism of the Simons must be kept in the perspective of their positive influence on Indianapolis and their investment in the Pacers.

I hasten to remind everyone that this is not a franchise that arrived via Mayflower moving vans (and that's not a knock on the Colts) but was born of the blood, sweat and tears of good Indiana people who had the vision long ago of using professional basketball as a catalyst to make our burg a better place.

Herb and Mel Simon sustained that vision and never uttered a complaint through year after year of losing money.

Yet there's a lot of undeserved garbage being tossed in their direction, balanced by little appreciation of the immense contribution they have played in the city's development.

As for the Pacers, absolutely, beginning with The Brawl in Detroit, they had a bad run. But the last "incident" took place long ago. With Herb Simon's imperative and direct involvement, this franchise has cleaned up its act and is putting forth a team that is busting its collective rear end and playing close to the maximum of its potential.

In a sincere attempt to reconnect to the public, the Pacers have offered tickets for as low as five bucks. That's less than a movie. Oh, and even as they continue to lose money, the Pacers have announced an across-the-board reduction in season-ticket prices for next year.

Among NBA owners, few if any have worked or lobbied harder than Herb Simon in trying to convince Commissioner David Stern that the NBA salary and revenue-sharing structure is out of whack. That's not a fight he's waging just for his own benefit, but for the good of the league, especially with two-thirds of the teams — including virtually all the midsize and small markets — bleeding red ink.

Unbelievably, Stern continues to put on a happy face about the state of his league. Wonder if he'll still feel the same way when the NBA's down to 16 teams.

By all accounts — especially his own — Herb Simon's commitment to the Pacers is unwavering. Just like the commitment the Simons made to the city years ago.

Imagine Indianapolis without the jobs they've created. Imagine Indianapolis without the Pacers, or the fieldhouse, or Circle Centre, or a revitalized downtown, or the millions they've donated to charities.

A better place? I, for one, think not. And I'm glad the greedy billionaires chose Indianapolis as their home.


Benner is 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 podcast 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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