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There's a new curse in town

Doomed Pacers Nation continues to be plagued by Curse of Tom Owens 

Posted: Thursday October 28, 2004 11:26AM; Updated: Thursday October 28, 2004 4:13PM
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Let the oppression sweepstakes begin. Now that the Curse of the Bambino has been administered the Linda Blair treatment, it's time for another group of beleaguered, long-suffering fans to proclaim that the deities are in cahoots to screw their team.

Cubs devotees, of course, will be the first to stake their claim. Their team hasn't won the World Series since 1908, and their curse already has a name and a legacy. But the franchise has gotten so corporate of late -- The Tribune Co.'s lawyers rattling their sabers at the rooftop bleachers owners; the mistreatment of Steve Stone for having the audacity to tell the unvarnished truth -- that any misfortune is more karma than curse. Buffalo Bills fans will tell you their team has been under a hex. But how cursed can you be when you've been to four Super Bowls? The football fans in say, Atlanta or New Orleans, would kill for that record. (Plus Buffalo has that whole Vincent Gallo thing to account for.)

No, the Blog submits that the Indiana Pacers can now claim to be the most doom-struck franchise in sports. We're calling it the Curse of Tom Owens. A little history: after abundant success in the ABA, the Pacers joined the NBA in '76. Since then, misfortune has trailed behind the franchise like a rudder. In the beginning, the team had a singular knack for terrible trades. Adrian Dantley for James Edwards and Alex English for George McGinnis were two of the gems. But the coup de grace came in '81 when the brain trust sent its first-round pick in '84 to Portland for a journeyman named Tom Owens who played a whopping 74 games in Indianapolis. Portland used that pick to select Sam Bowie, but, as we all know, Michael Jordan was still on the board.

To think: the Pacers could have had Michael Jordan if they hadn't pined for the services of Tom Owens. Babe Ruth for "No, No, Nanette" sounds like an even swap by comparison. (Hell, Sam Bowie for Tom Owens would have been a steal.)

In the early years, the curse of Tom Owens reared its head on the nights of the draft lottery. In '83, the Pacers should have had the first pick, but Houston tanked the last few games of the regular season. The Rockets won a coin flip and got Ralph Sampson -- say what you will, he led the team to an NBA Final -- while the Pacers landed Steve Stipanovich. The following year the Pacers were due to claim the top pick, but David Stern picked the Knicks' envelope out of a hopper -- to this day, Hoosiers swear it was rigged. New York got Patrick Ewing. Indiana got Wayman Tisdale, who turned out to be a better jazz musician than basketball player. As for Stipanovich, a rare knee injury forced him out of basketball after five seasons and by the time he turned 30, he was running an alfalfa farm in Oregon. Really.

Not that "Stipo" was alone. Medical conditions are a recurring theme in the Pacers' doomed history. Before he became the skilled goateed announcer he is today, Clark Kellogg was a hell of a power forward for Indiana. Unfortunately his knees were held together by string, glue and popsicle sticks, and he played his last NBA game at age 25. Likewise, two seasons after he made the All-Star team for the first time, center Rik Smits was out of basketball, his feet worn and torn by the rigors of the NBA. Then there's Chuck Person, who won the Rookie of the Year award and then contracted a mysterious disease that seemed to make him genetically incapable of passing the ball to his teammates. Such is the power of the Curse of Tom Owens.

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The Pacers even have their own Bill Buckner moment. In '99, Indiana was up 91-88 against the hated Knicks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. With six seconds separating the Pacers from victory, New York forward Larry Johnson took an inbound pass and shot. Inexplicably, Indiana's Antonio Davis tapped Johnson on the arm. The shot swished, Davis was whistled for a brain-lock foul. Johnson made the free throw to complete a four-point play. The Knicks won the game and the series.

When the team's dowdy old home, Market Square Arena, was imploded in '99 --  turned, quite literally, into a parking lot -- Pacers' faithful thought the Curse of Tom Owens, too, would disappear into thin air. The new arena, Conseco Fieldhouse, was a basketball shrine that would surely inaugurate a new era. Wrong. The Pacers reached the Finals that season but lost to the Lakers. Larry Bird then resigned as the team's coach, and the team backslid under the squirrelly successor, Isiah Thomas.

The Pacers were tantalizingly close to reversing the curse last spring. Under a competent new coach, Rick Carlisle, the team finished the '03-04 regular season with the best record in the NBA. With the East diluted and the Lakers' locker room more contentious than a Disney shareholders meeting, the Pacers' prospects were looking good. Again, disaster. In the waning moments of the crucial Game 6 of the Eastern Conference, the Pacers were leading Detroit. Ron Artest -- the Pacers' answer to Oil Can Boyd, come to think of it -- blew a gasket. After taking a cheap elbow in the groin from Detroit's Rip Hamilton, Artest retaliated by butting Hamilton in the face. Naturally the refs saw the response and not the original act and cited Artest for a technical foul. The Pistons took the lead, won the game, and, of course, humiliated the Lakers in the Finals.

Now, a few days before another NBA season commences, Pacers Nation is left to ponder this: Can Schilling play the point?

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers tennis for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.