As I drove to work May 12, I listened as local talk-show radio host, WXNT-AM 1430’s Abdul Hakim-Shabazz seized on a blog report that the owner of the National Hockey League Vancouver Canucks was considering a bid to purchase the Indiana Pacers and move them to the Canadian city.
There was nothing to confirm that the report was credible and, we must emphasize, Pacers co-owner Herb Simon has been steadfast in his stated desire to keep the franchise in Indianapolis.
Nonetheless, Hakim-Shabazz used the report to pose a question to his listeners: If the Pacers left, would they even be missed? Most replied they would not.
Now I listened to perhaps only a half-dozen callers before I reached my destination, and it would be nonsense to suggest they were a representative sampling.
Certainly not among those with that sentiment is Tim Streett.
Streett’s a lifelong Indy guy who is the assistant director of the Shepherd Community Center, a faith-based organization that runs after-school mentoring, tutoring and athletic programs for 1,300 youth, 85 percent of whom he says are born into "generational poverty."
About an hour after Hakim-Shabazz’s radio show concluded, Streett got a call from his boss, Shepherd Executive Director Jay Height. Height told Streett the Pacers had called, and needed someone from Shepherd to be at Conseco Fieldhouse by 11:30 that morning. Height wasn’t given a reason, just told to have someone there, and he asked Streett to go.
Streett knew that the Pacers had called a news conference to announce that forward Danny Granger was to be named the NBA’s most improved player.
What he didn’t know was that the award is sponsored by auto manufacturer Kia, and that a vehicle—either a Borrego SUV or a Sedona minivan—would be awarded to the charity of Granger’s choice.
Granger had selected Shepherd Community Center. So, much to his surprise and delight, Streett was handed the keys to a new minivan at the news conference.
"This is a tremendous gift," said Streett, still looking a bit shocked. "Transportation is one of our biggest issues. This is a real blessing to us."
That said, Streett wasn’t totally taken aback that Granger had chosen Shepherd for the gift. During the course of the Pacers’ season, Granger had stopped by Shepherd on numerous occasions.
"[The athletes] use their star power to speak to kids’ lives and to get them to think about their futures," Streett said. "We ask our kids all the time, ‘What’s your ‘future story’ going to be?’
"It may not include college, or a career in professional sports, but at the very least it has to include a high school diploma or vocational education. When a Danny Granger comes to speak to our kids, it’s an episodic moment that can re-energize them. It helps them know that if they believe in themselves and trust in the Lord, it’s possible to succeed in life."
Streett said it’s "easy to understand" resentment toward professional athletes or teams, but he doesn’t buy into it.
"That’s because I’ve seen the interaction our kids have had with Danny," he said. "I’ve seen six Pacers come in last December and take five kids each and go do Christmas shopping. I watched Troy Murphy, who has a real sense of responsibility to present a positive image. Danny, Troy and the others seem to understand. Their actions are genuine and heartfelt.
"Everybody looks at some of the other things pro sports bring to a community. But for us and other organizations like ours, it’s about pride and charity and philanthropy."
From my perspective, people such as Tim Streett and Jay Height are every bit the community heroes that the likes of Granger or Murphy or Manning are. But when they all combine forces—the gifts of time, treasure and inspiration from the athlete in concert with the programming, dedication and outreach of these community leaders—they can change the direction of young lives.
So, back to Hakim-Shabazz’s question: Would we miss the Pacers if they left?
Perhaps not. But don’t tell it to Tim Streett who, courtesy of Danny Granger, walked out of Conseco Fieldhouse with keys to a new vehicle that can provide a lift in ways beyond mere transportation.
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 column via podcast at www. ibj.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.