BENNER: Mental fixes lead to wins for Vogel’s Pacers

Keywords Pacers / Sports Business

A basketball coach—OK, it was my erstwhile pal, Bob Knight—once famously said, “The mental is to the physical as four is to one.”

The late Indiana University football coach Terry Hoeppner put it another way: “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Then there was the great relief pitcher for the Miracle Mets, Tug McGraw, who made “ya gotta believe” the rallying cry behind his underdog team’s run to the 1969 World Series championship.

Certainly, it’s far too early to determine whether a skeptical buying public can begin to believe in the Indiana Pacers again. But for starters, the Pacers have to believe in themselves.

From both internal and external perspectives, deposed Pacers coach Jim O’Brien did not foster such belief. O’Brien was an old school, straight talk, (verbal) kick-in-the-butt kind of mentor.

That works, I believe, with a veteran team. I recall when Larry Brown arrived on the scene bringing a no-nonsense approach to a team that had experience and talent but lacked mental toughness. Brown challenged and cajoled, both privately and in print. Even as the Pacers won and became a force in the Eastern Conference, Brown usually focused on the negatives. Pacers General Manager Donnie Walsh’s great line about Brown was that “he’s only happy when he’s unhappy.”

Brown’s successor (and now team president) Larry Bird was no less demanding and only slightly less blunt, which was the optimum approach for a team that, by then, was the essence of both physical and mental toughness. When the Pacers finally broke through to win the Eastern Conference championship in 2000, they then lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals not because they had less resolve, but because they didn’t have Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

I suspect that one of the reasons Bird hung on to O’Brien as long as he did was out of loyalty to the tough-love philosophy that marked both Bird’s playing and coaching careers. My personal objections to O’Brien were not so much his public criticisms of his players but his inconsistent use of them.

Then again, I don’t attend Pacers practices, nor am I privy to the private coach-athlete conversations.

In any case, former assistant and now “interim” head coach Frank Vogel seems to have enlivened it. Abetted by a forgiving schedule, the Pacers—as of this writing—are 7-2 since Vogel took over, with the only two losses to the formidable Miami Heat.

The second of those came Feb. 15 at Conseco Fieldhouse, in front of a rare sellout crowd. Certainly, there is no such thing as a good loss in professional sports, but the Pacers’ inspired comeback from a 24-point deficit in the first quarter had the fieldhouse rocking like it hasn’t in some time.

Though the presence of the Heat and their three-headed monster of LaBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh for their only Indianapolis appearance of the regular season was the obvious enticement for the sellout, there were no doubt fans who saw this as a chance to also sample this new Pacers product under Vogel.

Other than the outcome, I don’t know how they could go away unimpressed and not at least thinking—maybe believing—that the franchise finally has turned a corner (and isn’t staring at an oncoming bus).

There’s the revival of center Roy Hibbert, again giving all those Area 55 fanatics a reason to cheer instead of cringe (Hibbert partially underwrites tickets in that section). There’s that power forward, Joshler McBrough—you may know them as Josh McRoberts and Tyler Hansbrough—who bring great effort to every possession.

There’s point guard Darren Collison who, we must remind, is still in his relative infancy as a pro. There’s Danny Granger, perhaps relieved of the burden of being the Pacers’ must-go-to guy. There’s the off-the-bench play of guys like Dahntay Jones, A.J. Price and rookie Paul George, suddenly making the most of opportunity.

Yes, there is a long way to go. The Pacers hit the All-Star break with a tenuous hold on the eighth and final place in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. And we have been teased—and ultimately disappointed—by this team before, as recently as December.

The Pacers have themed this season with the buzzwords of “passion” and “pride,” but for too long both have been in short supply. Their play of late, however, gives hope that there is substance behind the slogan.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at He also has a blog,

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