CHICAGO – Larry Bird knew it was going to be a tough sell.
After all, how do you sell what appears to be a car with no wheels to someone hitchhiking?
The Indiana Pacers franchise, though basically well run and moderately successful since coming from the American Basketball Association in 1976, never had won an NBA championship. And with scandal and embarrassment since the Ron Artest/Stephen Jackson attack on fans in Detroit and several subsequent run-ins with police involving players, the community had pretty much tuned out the local NBA team.
Indiana is Midwest wholesome. It’s the home of the Hoosiers basketball fable of the little guy beating giants, post-David and Goliath.
It’s not Sodom and Gomorrah.
Attendance sunk to the bottom of the NBA; the franchise was losing millions of dollars annually. Owner Herb Simon, whose brother Mel had died recently, was cutting back financially amidst rumors the team might even move.
So now Bird was coming to Herb Simon with a plea: Spend almost as much as you ever have on a player, almost $15 million a year, who waddles more than walks, runs like the Frankenstein monster and maybe is your third- or fourth-best player.
“It took some explaining,” Bird recalled.
But a so called small market team, like the Indiana Pacers, doesn’t attract free agents. Indianapolis is not a destination. Even for most U.S. airlines. So Bird had to build carefully and unconventionally, chasing players whose value is down like a wise stockbroker, being smart with the draft because they never could afford to get really bad for a high draft pick and still make enough money to stay in business. He had to take some risks and hope it wasn’t for another community black eye.
But Bird did persuade owner Simon to match the Portland offer for restricted free agent Roy Hibbert in the summer of 2012, and while it isn’t exactly due to Hibbert, he sure helps at 7-2 (229 cm). So much so he’s spooked the champion Miami Heat into taking a chance with injury-plagued center Greg Oden after surviving a seventh game in the conference finals against the Pacers last spring.
And now thanks to some of Bird’s best long shots since he led the Boston Celtics to three championships in the 1980s, the Indiana Pacers are the early season team to beat in the NBA, ranked first in most early power ratings and the last undefeated team in the league as they improved to 8-0 with a home win over Memphis on Monday.
“I like our team,” says Bird, who returned this season to run the Pacers after a one-year hiatus to deal with personal family business. “We have a chance.”
The Pacers have shown that to open the season with impressive wins over Brooklyn and the neighboring Bulls, and even a little trash talk to go along with it.
Though the Pacers, like everyone else, are chasing the two-time champion Heat, they are most annoyed by the Bulls. They were angry a few years back after breaking a long losing streak to the Bulls in Chicago when Derrick Rose accused them of celebrating too much.
Then as Rose returned from his knee surgery he mentioned casually the Bulls had no rivalry with the Pacers, that it was Miami. Again, the Pacers took that as condescending.
“Their success is the Michael Jordan era,” Paul George said after the Pacers’ victory over the Bulls. He protested the Pacers were defending division champs and not the division’s little brothers. Perhaps he was making a bit much of a division title, which means little in the NBA. But the Bulls bother the Pacers.
And it’s the Bulls — and everyone else — looking up at them for now.
It’s not a star-driven, athletic team like Miami. It’s difficult to find too many stars at all, though George, the 10th pick in the 2010 draft from Fresno State, is becoming an all-NBA player. He’s probably one of the top five small forwards in the game now.
But it’s a roster of mostly castoffs or not-sure-we-wanted-them guys. It’s not a team that overwhelms you on paper, though they’re better where it matters — On the court.
Because it’s Indianapolis, there’ll be no long run. Bird knows the economics there mean if the team does well and players become more valuable the Pacers won’t be able to keep them under the more restrictive collective bargaining agreement rules.
“I know we can’t keep everyone,’” admits Bird.
They’ll go for it now and they have a chance.
David West, the bruising power forward with the nice jump shot to support Hibbert, was signed just after he had anterior cruciate ligament surgery.
It’s the only way the Pacers could afford the former All-Star. He liked it so much he reupped. And along with Hibbert, who is leading the league in blocks, provides the front court strength that makes the Pacers by far the league’s best and toughest defensive team thus far.
Former All-Star Danny Granger missed all last season with knee problems and opened the season out again. He’ll probably return as a scoring reserve and be let go when his contract expires after this season. He’s been replaced in the lineup by Lance Stephenson, a wildly erratic 2010 second-round pick basically only Bird in the entire NBA believed could be productive.
He’s matured and given the Pacers a second athlete to support George at shooting guard.
It’s hardly a perfect team.
Former Spur George Hill is a combo guard trying to play point guard backed up by former Bull C.J. Watson, another shooting point guard. The Pacers did make a strong off-season addition of veteran Luis Scola for a young big man in Miles Plumlee and a No. 1 pick. The Pacers aren’t in the business of building, anymore, with their veterans and tepid fan base.
It’s time to go for it, and this is the Pacers’ best chance since the late 1990s team coached by Bird that lost a conference finals to the Bulls in 1998 and in the Finals to the Lakers in 2000.
You can’t sustain in Indianapolis, so they had to break it up after that.
They had their conference finals matchup last season. This is the season they begin to go for it. Thus far they’re right on pace.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”