- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Anxious to keep its prime tenant, the company that controls Market Square Arena met the player payroll and began an intricate series of moves to keep the franchise solvent.
When all the figures had been added up, it was clear that to keep the team from folding, 8,000 season tickets had to be sold in June. But when July dawned, only 5,300 tickets had been bought.
At that point a local television station suggested running a telethon to sell the remaining season tickets and save the club. The tickets were sold, time was bought, players with expensive contracts were traded for players who were willing to work for carfare, and Pacer officials said they could see "a light at the end of the tunnel."
As a competitive basketball team, however, the Pacers don't seem to be getting any closer to the end of that tunnel and the light is beginning to look like a 20-watt bulb even though Leonard ranks fourth in career wins behind Red Auerbach, Alex Hannum and Red Holzman. Last summer, Leonard impetuously guaranteed 40 wins this season. He remains convinced it is still possible, but last week the Pacers were 10-15 and struggling to avoid last place in the Midwest Division. In what may have been the least slick move of his career, Leonard coined the team's official 1978-79 slogan—"Baby, we're due!"—which could go on to outlive even the 1977-78 Philadelphia 76ers' memorable "We owe you one." A local reporter has already suggested the slogan may have to be revised to "Baby, we're done."
The Pacers' problems haven't come about because the director of player personnel hasn't been trying. Since Sept. 1 of last year, Leonard has traded Forward Billy Knight for Adrian Dantley and Mike Bantom; Guard Don Buse to Phoenix for Ricky Sobers; acquired, then cut, the fabled backcourt man Johnny Neumann, who once mooned a startled home crowd while taking off his warmup pants; sent Dantley and Center Dave Robisch to Los Angeles for James Edwards, Earl Tatum and cash; traded No. 1 draft choice (1978) to Portland for Guard Johnny Davis and the No. 3 pick, which was used to draft 6'11" Rick Robey from Kentucky; signed Forward Alex English as a free agent; acquired Forward Corky Calhoun from Portland for a second-round draft pick in 1980; and sent Tatum to Boston for cash plus the Celtics' first-round draft choice in 1980. That's trying.
Edwards, the 7'1", 230-pound pivot-man, is rounding into a quality player, though his defense doesn't impress all that many people yet. He was averaging 19 points and 8.7 rebounds a game last week, leading the Pacers in both categories. Davis is a razzle-dazzle performer in the backcourt, where he teams with Sobers, who led the Pacers in scoring and was third in the league in assists last year. What the Pacers lack is a big forward who can score and some capable backup players. Leonard has always substituted sparingly, but this season his bench has been reported missing in action.
Missing, too, are the pioneers who made the ABA what it now is—the NBA. Brown, who operates a car wash in Indianapolis, says, "When I go into the dressing room to say hello, Slick or Davey [Trainer David Craig] will usually come up to me and say how much they miss us, the old guys, pulling our guns on each other. I guess things have changed a lot in the Pacer locker room."
Slick Leonard was dressed in black slacks and a black pullover, and with a glowing cigarette sticking out of his face, he looked like a big lump of coal. Behind his eyes it was 1958 again and the Minneapolis Lakers' chartered DC-3 had just taken off from St. Louis in a cold mist.
"As soon as we got up in the air the plane's electrical system failed," he was saying. "We couldn't go back because of the mist, so we headed for Minneapolis. We were up there about four hours with no heat and no lights, and the pilot told us we were lost and running out of fuel. It got pretty scary. There it was three o'clock in the morning, and we were buzzing some town until pretty soon all the lights started coming on. We couldn't read the terrain, but the pilot thought he saw a cornfield, so he decided to try and set it down."
Hot Rod Hundley picks up the story. "They were flying the plane with the windows open in the cockpit," says Hundley, "shining flashlights at the ground, hanging their heads out to try to see where they were going. Incredible stuff. One of the pilots ended up getting frostbite from sticking his head out in the snowstorm. When they started to take the plane in, Elgin got out of his seat and went to lie down on the floor in the back of the plane. Everybody else was just sitting there kind of quietly, saying their prayers, when Slick looked over at me and said something I'll never forget. 'Rod,' he said, 'if we don't make it, baby, at least we got to smell the roses.' That's Slick. He always did know how to smell the roses."