For the Indiana Pacers, success seemed to vanish with the five-inch Afro and the red-white-and-blue ball. In their ABA heyday in the early 1970s, the Pacers won three championships in five seasons; in their 13-year NBA lifetime, they have shown up in the playoffs twice and won one game.
Last year Indiana finished 28-54 and didn't get its seventh victory until it had its fourth head coach. Tracy McCaulley, an ardent if not always too sensible believer, still wears a Pacer smock to work at the team's gift shop in Market Square Arena. The words ON THE THRESHOLD OF A DREAM were ironed onto the smock at the start of last season and are beginning to peel off. "Some people would see it and say they didn't know about dreams," McCaulley says. "Seemed to them more like a nightmare."
Which is why the rest of the league has been rubbing its disbelieving eyes. With a 13-7 record as of Sunday, the Pacers, in second place in the Central Division, had a victory total they didn't reach until Feb. 26 last season. Exactly how much the Pacers have improved should be determined in the next week, when they complete a five-game Western swing that began with a 121-113 loss in Portland Sunday night.
Through a couple of trades, a coach who pushes basketspeak to a new level, a maturing of young talent and an attitudinal overhaul, the Pacers have quietly done an about-face. Not only that, they have become downright different, with a cast of characters that could conceivably be written up in everything from
Psychology Today to Stern to The Ring to Road & Track.
Indiana's climb to respectability began last season when its coaching situation finally settled down. After going 0-7 and deciding the game was no fun anymore, Hall of Famer-to-be Jack Ramsay retired in November. Mel Daniels (0-2) and George Irvine (6-14) did interim shifts until team president Donnie Walsh plucked Dick Versace off the Pistons' bench. Versace had joined Detroit in '86-87, following a winning and controversial eight-year run at Bradley, where his teams were 156-88; after Versace left Bradley, the NCAA put the Braves on probation for recruiting violations committed in 1981.
As Chuck Daly's assistant with Detroit, Versace was expected to do advance scouting and catch a whatever-a.m. flight back to the Pistons for the next game. He pulled off that double 70 times a season. After interviewing 10 candidates, Walsh looked beyond Versace's combination of pink cheeks and spool of white hair and found what he wanted. "Because of his personality and charisma, people tend to undersell his abilities," Walsh says. "Dick has great communicative skills, and he has a very, very thorough basketball background."
The Versace vocabulary is entertaining. For kicks, he often spouts esoteric verbiage he may have learned at the knee of his mother while she was writing The Fifteenth Pelican, the book on which the TV show The Flying Nun was based, or from his twin brother, Steve, who has a doctorate in the psychology of self-destructive behavior. On the sidelines, Versace barks out messages to his players: "The sun came up" (we will run); "Sleep nights" (we will concentrate); "If it goes, it flows" (we will react); and his favorite mantra during games, "See it" (we will find the ball and help out in transition defense). On arrival in Indianapolis Versace deemed that the Pacers' most glaring weakness. Some players have even begun to echo another of his standbys, "We're here, so we might as well do it." Says Versace with a nod to bits of Daly's phraseology, "Some were actually...purloined."
Most of this was lost on the team he inherited. The Pacers had talent, but too often it got in its own way or it got lost in the fallout from finger-pointing. No chemistry—or, as Versace puts it, "no brand."
He concluded that the Pacers gave up too many easy hoops on the break, so he would call timeouts to remind them to jam the outlet pass, force the ball to the perimeter or avoid what he called a "celebration lag" after a basket. This would be the Pacer brand: a commitment to transition defense.
Their personnel was another matter. That was up to the 48-year-old Walsh, a lawyer and former coach of the Nuggets who became the Pacers' general manager in '86. "I realized I had to devote the rest of the season to building the team back up, and I couldn't afford any mistakes," Walsh says.