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Indiana Pacers

A professional basketball team in the Eastern Conference of the NBA.

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Keeping Pace in Middle America

  • Aug 18, 2012
Does it seem right that, when the NBA was still on less-than-solid ground and creating new teams left and right, it missed out on putting a team in Indianapolis? Indiana is famously a big basketball hotbed. It's where Bobby Knight made his name, where Larry Bird was born and raised. So missing the market there was rather rude of the NBA, don't you think? Well, the NBA was eventually forced to pay. Beginning in 1967, a bunch of people got together and pooled their money to create a rival basketball league, the American Basketball Association, whose sole proposed goal was to force a merger with the NBA. Upon creation of the ABA, it was immediately decided to place a team in Indianapolis. So the team was created and named the Indiana Pacers, a name decided through a collective decision of the six investors who were paying for the franchise. Pacers is an unusual name, and it was apparently decided given the state's equally rich racing history: harness racing pacers, and the fact that at the start of every auto race, the racing cars are led through caution periods by a car called the pace car, which limits the speed at which the other cars on the track are allowed to go. The team also took the state's namesake, rather than the city's, because one of the original ideas regarding it was to have it play in many different locations within Indiana, with just the base in Indianapolis.

In the beginning, the pace was decidedly a very fast one for the team. Of the nine championship series in the history of the ABA, the Indiana Pacers played in five of them, winning three. All of them happened before the final year of the ABA, when the league had only seven teams left halfway through the season and the whole league abandoned divisional play. Of their players' individual accomplishments, George McGinnis led the ABA in scoring once. Mel Daniels led the league in rebounding three times, twice with the Pacers. Don Buse led the ABA in assists once and steals once. By the time the merger was complete, the Indiana Pacers were the most successful team in the short history of the American Basketball Association.

Starting in the 1977 season, the Pacers - along with the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, and San Antonio Spurs - were one of the four holdovers from the ABA days. Unfortunately, the NBA was doing its best to keep its invaders in their places, which meant the Pacers had to suffer. Financially, the Pacers were easily the weakest of the holdovers, and the only reason they even made the NBA cuts in the first place was because the Chicago Bulls (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/d/UserReview-Ch...atest_Bullfighters.html) held the rights to Artis Gilmore, the star player for the team that was supposed to be taken ahead of the Pacers, the Kentucky Colonels. If the Colonels had been allowed into the NBA, they wouldn't have dissipated, and they would have kept him, and dammit, the Bulls really, really needed him! Had they been included, the Bulls never would have allowed the merger, and since the NBA hated the idea of competing with a cooler league, it relented.

The local pricks running the NBA needed some hefty financial restitution from the teams that wanted in, and so local investors had to kick up $100,000 for the Pacers to even stay in business. Between the NBA's franchise fees, the fact that they had to compensate the other teams that didn't survive the merger, and the fact that the NBA forbade them from sharing in the TV revenues for four years, the Pacers were broke. Since cash rules everything around, the team sucked, and their first NBA campaign with a record of 36-46, but Billy Knight and Don Buse were bright spots, both receiving All-Star invitations.

For the next few years, the Pacers lacked continuity. Or an audience. They resorted to fancy stunts to get attention. At one point, they invited a women's basketball star to try out for the team. Ann Meyers is currently still the only woman to ever try out for an NBA team, but needless to say, she didn't make the final squad. In the 80's looking to finally be as competitive as they once were in the ABA, the Pacers went in for two major trades. Both of them turned out to be among the more one-sided trades in the league. The other thing they both have in common is that neither of them benefitted the Pacers. In 1980, they traded Alex English to the Nuggets to win a bit of approval by picking up an old favorite in George McGinnis. McGinnis was long past his best years by then, and he didn't do a whole lot during his two-year rerun in Indiana. English became one of the greatest scorers in the league. The next year, they traded a first-round draft pick to the Portland Trail Blazers. It was a draft pick for a couple of years in the future, though, so the Pacers didn't worry too much when the player they received in return, Tom Owens, only got to stay in Indiana for a year. Unfortunately, the pick they gave up was for the draft in 1984. In the 1984 season, the Pacers had finished with the worst record in the Eastern Conference. Had they kept the pick, they would have been second. And, well, we all know just what Portland did with it. And what happened one pick later. The Indiana Pacers wouldn't have been that stupid. That mistake might have allowed them into consistent playoff contention a bit earlier had they not made it, but as it happens, the Pacers would have to wait until 1986 to make the playoffs for the second time, the first being in 1981 and ending in a first round sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...25-A_True_Original.html).

In 1987, the Pacers drafted probably the best player in their history, Reggie Miller. Even though he started as a backup to another player, John Long, he had established himself as Indiana's greatest scoring threat by 1992. In 1989, they made a trade that paid off in spades when they sent Herb Williams to the Dallas Mavericks for future Sixth Man of the Year Detlef Schrempf. The next year, they made their third playoff appearance, but got swept by the Detroit Pistons, who went on to win their second consecutive title that year.

The ear;y 90's saw the Pacers being a strictly middling team, good enough to make the playoffs but not quite good enough to mount a credible, serious threat. First round exists were very common, two to the Boston Celtics (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...-The_Big_Green_Men.html) and one to the New York Knicks (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...he_New_York_Groove.html) before their 1994 playoff appearance, where they finally beat those first round hiccups, as well as the Orlando Magic. In the next round, they pulled off one of the great upsets by upending the top-seeded team, the Atlanta Hawks. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the national scene finally took note of the Hoosier Pacers from lil' ol' basketballville, Indiana. Miller created his name because he kept rising up whenever his team needed him in the playoffs. Also because he famously made the choke sign at Knicks fans at the same time he was leading the Pacers to a comeback victory in game five with the series tied at two. The Pacers won that game, but the Knicks roared back during the next two games and won the conference. Miller, though, became an overnight superstar.

In 1994, Larry Brown was hired to coach, and by 1995, the Pacers were finally playing at their ABA levels once again. They went 52-30 and won the division. In the playoffs that year, they blew past Atlanta, and at one point in a series against their least favorite tormentors, the Knicks, Miller put eight points on the board in eight seconds in a Pacers victory. They pushed past New York but fell to Orlando in the Conference Finals, with the same result the next year. That was 1996, the year of the Bulls and their incredible 72-10 regular season record. Well, the Pacers were damn good too, being the only team to beat Chicago twice in the regular season, but Atlanta booted them from the playoffs. Larry Brown stepped down after the 1997 season (he tends to do that), but in 1998 they were back in the Eastern Conference Finals, against Chicago, where they played another epic series. Again, they lost. It wasn't until 2000 when they were finally able to overcome that last hump and punch their ticket to their first-ever NBA Finals. In game five, the Pacers handed their opponents, the Los Angeles Lakers, the worst loss in their playoff history at the time, a 33-point difference. Too bad they were only able to win two games in the Finals, which is of course two games short of the four games necessary to procure a series victory.

The Pacers remained dangerous right until 2005, when Reggie Miller hung up his cleats. Despite being a Pacers legend, he was forced into retirement without ever reaching championship glory, yet another victim of Michael and the Jordanaires. The Pacers fell into the doldrums for the next several years, but were back in the playoffs by 2011, and they returned in 2012.

Indiana is hoop central. As I mentioned, it's a mystery why it took so long to get a team there. The fans of the Pacers are known to be some of the most devoted and knowledgeable in the league.

Reggie Miller is once and forever the face of the team. His ability to rise up whenever it was needed launched him into superstardom, but his making the choking sign at Knicks fans also helped him get spotted. His little feud with film director Spike Lee also got him noticed. Miller and Lee got into a very heated insult exchange during one memorable game, but it was probably just the heat and intensity of the moment sweeping the two of them up. The two of them seem to have left the whole incident behind them. Hell, soon after it happened, they both showed up in a television commercial which parodied the entire incident! One of the other really well-known players for the Pacers was Metta World Peace, a raging psycho who is always in constant danger of unexpectedly taking out himself and half the room with a large knife. (Yes, I know his given name was Ron Artest. But he did change it legally. If he wants to be Metta World Peace, it's time to get over our obsession with trying to keep pretending he's still Ron Artest.) World Peace is one of my favorite athletes today. He once attended practice in a bathrobe, applied for a job at Circuit City just for the employee discount, and drank cognac in the locker room at the half. Yet, he also has a bit of a philanthropist side. He promotes control of the pet population and is an advocate for mental health issues, which shouldn't be a surprise.

The Pacers share a feisty rivalry with the nearby Detroit Pistons. This rivalry has had a share of moments, but one truly stands above all: The infamous Malice at the Palace incident from 2004. The two teams had met in the Eastern Conference Finals earlier that year, and the Pistons won en route to claiming the NBA Championship. Being a new fight between the defending champions and the best team in the Eastern Conference, this game got a metric shitload of hype and was televised nationally. With 45 seconds left in the game, Indiana had a safe 97-82 lead in a defensive, hard-fought game. Pistons player Ben Wallace was fouled hard from behind by Metta World Peace (still Ron Artest back then), during a lay-up, to which Wallace calmly, rationally responded by shoving him back. It started a fight between both teams, during which World Peace grabbed a nearby mic from the scorers' table, which was off because everyone was counting on World Peace to say something outrageous and explicit. From the vantage point, World Peace appeared to be giving an interview, to which Wallace responded by throwing his armband at him. A spectator decided that wasn't too bad an idea, and he took it a step further by lobbing a can of Diet Coke at World Peace. This naturally pissed him off, and he ran into the stands and grabbed the person he thought did it. Not the guy who did do it, but the guy he thought did it. Pacer Stephen Jackson also ran into the stands and started throwing punches at random fans, and so Pistons fans were now having an audience participation night. Another melee started when two fans confronted World Peace on the court and he punched one of them when Jermaine O'Neal intervened.

World Peace, Jackson, and O'Neal received the bulk of suspensions dolled out for the incident, although several received minor suspensions as well. Fortunately for all involved, the lack of any injuries just turned what could have been a nasty, blood-boiling incident into an amusing sideshow. It could have been a lot worse, but it fortunately wasn't, and World Peace basically responded by resorting to instinctive self-defense. He can't be entirely blamed. Hell, even some columnist moral crusaders called out the fans for starting it.

The championship may be elusive, but there won't be a lot of fans more appreciate if the Pacers ever reach the summit. All in all, they're actually very likable. They flash an occasional personality and have some fantastic stories attached to them.

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Nicholas Croston ()
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