Bird, Simon responses raise questions about Pacers ownership

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As I watched Wednesday’s Indiana Pacers press conference, I couldn’t help but think how much has changed in four years.

The biggest change is that the Pacers are a much better team, one that last year began to gain the adoration of Indianapolis hoops fans once again. But there are other more subtle, but no less important changes pertaining to the team’s long-term future.

When I asked Pacers owner Herb Simon four years ago about future ownership of the team, he was adamant about one thing: The Simon family would maintain ownership is some way, shape or form.

On Wednesday as the Pacers announced Larry Bird would step down as president of basketball operations and Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard would fill his shoes, Simon seemed much less adamant on that point. I was taken by the apparent change in heart.

I should state that I’ve been told by Pacers officials that the team is absolutely not for sale and Simon will continue at the helm for the foreseeable future. But it appeared from Wednesday’s press conference that the idea of the Pacers sailing on without Herb Simon has finally crept into his mind. And the possibility also arose that there may be no one in the Simon family waiting in the wings to take over this money-losing operation. Simon has never been willing to address this point.

When asked Wednesday if Larry Bird could ever own the team, Simon responded, “We’ll keep an open mind.”

When I asked the same question four years ago, Simon almost went through the roof, emphasizing that the franchise would stay in the family. Perhaps he was just being diplomatic in front of a room full of reporters Wednesday.

Bird was asked if it is a goal of his to own the team.

“Not anymore,” he responded. “It used to be. I had a group at one time, I thought maybe if they decide to sell … I have other people interested in buying the team.”

It seemed pretty clear Bird and Simon had discussed the team’s ownership status. Then Bird dropped what to me seemed like a mini-bombshell. Is Bird in touch with a group that wants to buy the Pacers? It sure sounded like that.

“I think the goal here, it don’t matter who owns the team, it’s got to stay here in Indianapolis,” Bird said. “That’s been Herbie’s life-long dream, and that would be mine.”

Simon said nothing. But he nodded affirmatively. Four years ago, I suspect he would have reiterated that the Simon family would continue to own the team. Wednesday, there was no such affirmation.

Some things—happily for Pacers fans—have not changed. So while the Simon ownership into the infinite future may now be in question, it appears the team’s long-term status as Indy’s team is not.

Four years ago, I asked him,“Do you envision any scenario under which the Pacers would relocate to another market?”

“Well, there is no thought, plan or concept at this time that would provide for that,” he answered. “I feel, within whatever power I have, that the reason I've really taken back my involvement in this team is because I want to keep it in the city, and it was going in the direction where it was almost impossible to have it here. So I’m here in this room to make sure that this team becomes viable so that we can stay in this city forever. That’s my task. That’s my challenge, and that’s what I’m here to do.”

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