There’s never a good time for domestic violence—or to otherwise run afoul of the law. And let’s be clear here, I’m not a judge or a jury. In the case of Indiana Pacers rookie Lance Stephenson all you currently have are allegations. But those allegations were serious enough to get him arrested Sunday morning.
That’s bad news for the Pacers at the worst possible time.
For the first time in a while, Pacers fans had something positive to cheer about last week. The acquisition of Darren Collison addressed the team’s point guard issues. James Posey was a nice addition as well. Gone is Troy Murphy and his fat contract.
At last, Larry Bird had done something Pacers fans could almost universally applaud. With one year left on his contact, the pieces seemed to be falling into place for Bird and his lieutenant, David Morway.
Then news broke that Stephenson threw his girlfriend down a flight of stairs in New York. This is the same player the Pacers signed to a two-year guaranteed $1.5 million this summer. It’s a guarantee the Pacers didn’t have to offer the 40th pick in this year’s draft. But essentially, Pacers brass were saying, “In Lance we trust.”
Stephenson was supposed to be part of a rookie class—along with Paul George—that was going to solidify Bird’s front office job here.
Bird took two somewhat risky players. George has great potential and had flashes of brilliance at Fresno State, but is largely unproven.
Stephenson was the 2010 Big East Rookie of the Year at Cincinnati this past season. The 6-foot-5 guard was the Pacers' second-leading scorer in the Orlando summer league at nearly 15 points per game, and led the league in field goal percentage at 73 percent.
Stepping out from under the shadow cast by former Pacers President Donnie Walsh, it looked like Bird might finally be ready to take flight on his own.
Pacers President Jim Morris was recently in the IBJ office professing his confidence in Bird. Both men were looking pretty smart last week. Finally, there was some Pacers news to talk about besides the Conseco Fieldhouse lease deal.
The Pacers’ tide was rising at just the right time. The team is in the heat of their off-season selling period, reaching out to sponsors and current and potential season tickets holders.
Then Stephenson stepped out of the Blue and Gold blueprint and into the headlines of dozens of newspapers, TV and radio newscasts and Internet stories.
Morris and the rest of the Pacers marketing staff must now regroup and decide how they’ll reach out to sponsors and ticket buyers. Instead of selling Collison, Posey, George and the new-look Pacers, they have to convince team faithful the Stephenson arrest shouldn’t be an indictment on Bird and his staff.
Worse yet, Morris—along with owner Herb Simon—have to convince their customers and community supporters this shouldn’t be an indictment against the entire front office, the same front office that vetted Stephenson this summer and even hired a private investigator to do a background check.
This isn’t the first time Stephenson, 19, has been in trouble. I won’t go into all that here, but Bird clearly thought the trouble was either behind Stephenson, or that he is such a talent that he warranted the risk. And Morris has to take responsibility for signing off on that deal.
Mayor Greg Ballard might also be feeling a bit uneasy, having supported $33.5 million in public funding to help cover Conseco Fieldhouse costs. This isn't the sort of representation the city wants from the professional teams it stands behind.
So far, the Pacers have only released a brief statement regarding Stephenson’s arrest. Yes, they deserve time to gather facts before elaborating. Eventually, though, Pacers officials are going to have to answer not only what next, but how and why did this latest misstep happen?
There’s still plenty to be optimistic about regarding the Pacers’ upcoming season. But it’s too bad Pacers brass will spend so much of their time in the coming weeks worrying about the wrong kind of spin moves.
And it’s unfortunate Stephenson will be spending so much of his future dealing with the wrong kind of court.