The first trade came on Feb. 20, 1989, after Indiana reached loss No. 10 in a 12-game skid. Walsh peddled forward Wayman Tisdale to Sacramento for shooting guard Randy Wittman, an Indianapolis native, and power forward LaSalle Thompson. "That was a no-brainer," Walsh says. Tisdale, a prolific low-post scorer, constantly needed the ball, but the 6'10", 245-pound Thompson was content to retrieve it. He averages 8.3 boards a game and had 16 in a 106-104 victory over the Bulls on Dec. 8. Thompson is a study in contrasts, a self-described mother hen who goes by the nickname Tank. He brought a smile to the locker room and some of the menace needed by any contender. "When you set a strong pick and rattle a guy's teeth," says Thompson, grinning, "that's a great feeling."
Then, while denying all interest in the Mavericks' Detlef Schrempf even to his closest confidants on other teams, Walsh obtained him on Feb. 22 for forward-center Herb Williams. The 6'10" Schrempf had been sorely miscast in Dallas as a small forward and shooting guard, and he languished on the bench. For Indiana he has bulked up 15 pounds, to 215, and plays inside, but he still has the latitude to use his rare skills: the touch to hit the three-pointer, the power to rip a rebound and the speed to run the break. He has rapidly bloomed into one of the league's top sixth men. " Arnold Schwarzenegger," Versace calls him. Most of Schrempf's family is in Leverkusen, West Germany. It's a long way from Indiana, but winning is a major consolation. "We're just a bunch of young guys, messing around and having fun," Schrempf says.
Indiana is 30-22 since the acquisition of Thompson, Wittman and Schrempf. The moves unclogged the low post to provide more spacing on the floor, allowing playmaker Vern Fleming to penetrate while opening up scoring opportunities for Chuck Person and Reggie Miller. Miller has particularly benefited, averaging almost 23 points since the trades, 10 more than in his first season and a half. He has added a midrange floating jumper to his long-distance shot, and at 6'7" and a spindly 185 pounds he's surprisingly physical. When he was kidded over the off-season in his native Los Angeles by Mike Tyson, he did back down—" Indiana? Indiana what? What were you all, like 10 and 72?"—but now he willfully engages the NBA's reigning heavyweight. "Bird and Magic, that was a matchup for the '80s," Miller says. "In the '90s, it's Air versus Hollywood." For the record, Jordan out-pointed " Hollywood" on Dec. 8, 36-22.
While the trades certainly have worked out, perhaps the two key adjustments Versace has made involved Rik Smits and Person. Smits, the No. 2 pick in the '88 draft after the Los Angeles Clippers' Danny Manning, figured to come along slowly in the pivot behind incumbent Steve Stipanovich. Smits grew up in Eindhoven in the Netherlands and had played the game for only a couple of years before moving to the U.S. to attend Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "When I first saw him I said, 'This guy's a dog with fleas,' " recalls Person. "He was out of shape, thin, couldn't catch it and could only shoot it if nobody was on him."
Smits is a pleasant, shy fellow who brightens less at a discussion of hoops than of his fascination with Cadillacs. His first was a '76 Coupe De Ville he got in college. "A 500 engine and 8.2 liters," he says. "It was the first roomy car I ever sat in." Thanks to his penchant for fouling, he put in more time in his half-dozen vintage Caddies than he did on the court last season. Stipanovich had a history of knee problems that eventually ended his career, and when Versace arrived he had to force-feed Smits to his teammates—and force his teammates to feed Smits.
Versace let Smits play through foul trouble and built an offense that wouldn't freeze him out in the low post. Though Smits still doesn't rebound or pass that well and can be muscled out of position—"You've just got to have an attitude you're not going to take any crap from anybody, and he isn't there yet," Thompson says—he has added a hook and a move into the lane to his baseline turnaround and faceup jumper. His touch is deft. In a 136-117 win over the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 6, he sank 12 of 17 field goals, and his percentage for the year is .543, despite a paltry 10 stuffs.
In the locker room after the Denver game, Person made a point of whispering encouraging words in Smits's ear. Person had been an unpopular first-round pick by Walsh in 1986—Pacer fans preferred Indiana native Scott Skiles—but was named Rookie of the Year. In the two seasons since then, he has struggled with his roles on the court and as a captain this season and last. Five days after saying he wanted to assume the leadership role, he showed up late to a shootaround. He either shot too little or was selfish, spoke out too often or was silent. Person took a lot of the heat for the Pacers' prolonged funks but was still expected to bail them out in the clutch, as he did when he made a last-second jump shot to give the Pacers their two-point win over the Bulls on Dec. 8.
Person admits to some errors in judgment and believes many of those came from his frustration with losing. Versace has given Person free rein offensively, and while Person's scoring average has dipped slightly from 21.6 last season to 20.4 as of Sunday, his spirits are soaring. "He reminds me all the time, every day, whatever you want me to do, I'll do it," Versace says. Adds Person, "People think we're a team of bad draft picks. We're going to take those picks and stick them up everyone's butt."
How successful Person & Co. will be depends largely on the continued development of Smits and whether the Pacers can survive their cruel schedule for the rest of this month. "A lot of people think they're halfway lucky, but they're for real," says the Pistons' Mark Aguirre. At the very least, Indiana is finally on the threshold of something good.