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Ask pacers forward Al Harrington about going to the playoffs last season as a 19-year-old, and he'll describe what it was like to lie awake, anticipating his first NBA title run. He'll recall the nervous excitement before the tip-off and the sound of his name being announced at Market Square Arena—and the fact that Indiana dropped him from its postseason roster. Harrington, who had made the jump from St. Patrick's High in Elizabeth, N.J., to the NBA, went to the playoffs all right, but he did so in street clothes. "It was the hardest time of my life," says Harrington, with no trace of the warm smile that usually dominates his baby face. "I had started to do really well in practice near the end of the season. My confidence was up. I really thought I could contribute...."
Pacers executive vice president-coach Larry Bird thought differently. While he could have used young legs in the postseason, he was turned off by Harrington's youthful arrogance and inability to focus on defense. "Al wasn't professional," Bird says. "He was running around here acting like some high school kid. But there's no question he's learned from it. This year, he's all business."
In fact, Harrington's play was the most promising development of Indiana's training camp. If he can exhibit the same deadly jump shot and creativity off the dribble in games that he unleashed in practice, Bird will have a pleasant dilemma: Should he use his old unit of Mark Jackson, Reggie Miller and Rik Smits in a half-court, grind-it-out game, or rely on a smaller, quicker, younger lineup of Harrington, Jalen Rose, Travis Best and, eventually, No. 5 pick Jonathan Bender, another high school player making the leap to the pros? The 6'11" Bender's offensive arsenal has dazzled the coaches, but, as Bird is quick to note, "he isn't ready to do much of anything in a game yet." Bender will also be sidelined for at least the first three weeks of the season with a fractured bone in his left wrist.
Harrington vows he will be a factor this year, after averaging a scant 7.6 minutes as a rookie. He bulked up 24 pounds to 254 during a summer conditioning program and spent countless hours with the Pacers' staff studying his shooting motion on video tape. His cockiness has been replaced by a firm resolve to prove he belongs. The postseason snub, he admits, was the catalyst. "When it first happened, I was really angry," Harrington says. "I felt like I was ripped off. But now I'm kind of glad it happened. Every time in the summer when I thought I couldn't go anymore, I remembered how Coach left me off the roster, and I found some extra energy to keep at it."
Harrington spent last season living with forward-center Antonio Davis, but Davis wanted a guaranteed starting job, which Bird refused to give him, and was shipped to the Raptors in the deal that brought in Bender. Without Davis coming off the bench, the other Davis—Dale—will need to increase his productivity. Bird will no longer have the luxury of using Antonio at center when Smits is slowed by injury, ineffective or in early foul trouble, all of which happened far too often last year, most disastrously against the Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals. In that series New York disposed of the Pacers in six games, exposing them as too old, too predictable and too fragile offensively to succeed.
Smits, who has chronic nerve problems in both feet, was so discouraged over his injuries and lackluster postseason play that he contemplated retirement. "There were some days over the summer when I wanted to come back, and plenty of them when I said to myself, Maybe not," says Smits. "But by the time August came around, I decided I had to come back. I didn't want to end my career on such a bad note."
Smits isn't the only one with something to prove. Both Jackson and Miller are in the final year of their contracts and are seeking long-term extensions. For Miller, a four-time All-Star, last season was one of the most disheartening of his 12-year career. He shot a career-low 43.8% from the field and connected on a less-than-Reggie-like 38.5% of his three-pointers. The Pacers looked to Miller to hit his historic big-game threes against the Knicks, but he was unable to deliver. The effect it had on his teammates was devastating. "We were all guilty of the same thing," says Bird. "We kept thinking, 'Reggie will bail us out of this one.' But it never happened."
Jackson also experienced a frustrating year. During the regular season, Bird often platooned him with Best at the point and even benched him during crunch time. In the playoffs Bird leaned heavily on Jackson, but his role could be diminished again now that Indiana is beginning to look to the future. Pacers president Donnie Walsh is taking a wait-and-see approach to Jackson's and Miller's contract requests, and no wonder: Not only can he clear salary-cap space by waiting, but he must also make contract decisions on Rose and Austin Croshere at season's end.
Croshere, who was also impressive in the preseason, is among the plethora of small forwards who will battle Harrington for playing time. The group includes Rose, who can also play either guard position; 36-year-old Chris Mullin, last season's starter who has already been told he will be coming off the bench; and veteran Derrick McKey, who missed most of last season with injuries but is healthy and remains Indiana's most effective defender. That's a skill Harrington is hell-bent on acquiring.
"Us young guys spent most of the preseason trying to signal the coaches that rebuilding won't be so bad," Harrington says. "Hey, I'm ready now. Last year they called me Baby Al. I haven't heard it once this time around."