INDIANAPOLIS — Another gig, another miracle.
These heady days when their team is in the final four every year, it's hard for people to remember how it was before the Great Hoosier arrived to recapture the lost glory.
These days, the Great Hoosier isn't IU Coach Bob Knight, it's Indiana Pacer Coach Larry Brown.
Of course, Brown is a native New Yorker who has been a Californian (twice), a Texan, a Kansan and a few others. But he has been here two years and the Pacers have been in the Eastern Conference finals twice, so these Hoosiers love him as one of their own.
Of course, one still hears the usual--Larry is looking around--but he loves the Hoosiers, too.
"I didn't go to the 500, but I'm an interested spectator," he says. "And I love basketball so I think if you're in a state like this, that's got to be part of it."
He smiles, then adds:
"I don't eat a lot of meat. They eat American food [here]; that's what my wife says. But it's been great for me because I have a new family [at 54, he has a young wife and a new son] and it's been a good way to kind of keep things in perspective."
His career could use some perspective, but its brilliance is undiminished. Since 1974, every team he has taken over--and he's up to seven--has taken off like a rocket.
His Denver Nuggets had their two best seasons. His first UCLA team made the Bruins' only appearance in an NCAA championship game between 1975 and 1995.
His New Jersey Nets made their first two NBA playoff appearances. His last Kansas team won its only post-Phog Allen NCAA title. His San Antonio Spurs had their two best seasons. His Clippers made their only playoff appearances. His Pacers, until his arrival a band of free-spirited gunners who had never won an NBA playoff series, are now a gritty, defense-minded team that never seems to realize what an underdog it is.
"When we lost to the Knicks in Game 7 [last season], that was probably as proud as I've ever been of a team," Brown says.
"That we could lose Game 6 and go back and compete at such a high level after so much disappointment. And I've had the same feeling this year, and we wound up winning at New York.
"I like this team. I don't have a pulse of this team, like I have in the past. I don't know where they're coming from and I sometimes don't know who's going to show up but I'm very proud of them."
How did he do it? The same way he always does.
When Brown left the Clippers, suddenly in the spring of 1993, good options were few and far between. When he took the Spurs' job, he got David Robinson. When he joined the Clippers, they had Danny Manning, Charles Smith and some others who could play.
The Pacers? They had Donnie Walsh.
Walsh, the team president, was a longtime friend who had been Brown's assistant at Denver but was then in trouble. The Pacers were stuck at .500. In the last four seasons, they had gone 42-40, 41-41, 40-42 and 41-41. The owners, the long-suffering Simon brothers, were tired of suffering.
The Pacers needed a new coach, and the Simons decided to pick this one, themselves.
"All of a sudden," Walsh says, "my owner calls me up the last day of the playoffs and told me he had people contact Rick Pitino.
"So I told him, 'Look, I'm going to tell you right now what's going to happen. He's going to run you up a pole and in the end tell you, after he deals with Kentucky probably, tell you he's not going to come.'
"So that's the first time that ever happened, that they went outside. Normally, I would be [picking the coach]. So when [Pitino] didn't come, they turned to me. So I come in with my recommendation and my recommendation was Larry.
"And it took convincing. I mean, they thought it was my friend and they were more focused on his history as a guy who moved around and that kind of thing."
Walsh had traded Chuck Person for Pooh Richardson the previous year, but Pooh promptly misplaced his game. Shortly after Brown arrived, Walsh was forced to deal Detlef Schrempf, a free agent-to-be who wanted out, for Derrick McKey, the Seattle SuperSonics' enigma. Suddenly the high-scoring Pacers had become Reggie Miller and 11 role players.
In recognition thereof, the Indianapolis News headline on the Schrempf trade read: "Walsh Builds a Contender."
Under it ran a smaller headline: "However, That Place Is Seattle."
Thus it was no surprise when the Pacers started 5-10. It was a surprise, however, when they finished the season with a 31-13 run, swept the Orlando Magic in the first round, winning an NBA playoff series for the first time, and advanced to Game 7 of the Eastern finals before losing to the Knicks.
"Never would have believed it," Brown says. "Knowing what we've had to go through, I can't imagine this year, when you look at all the good teams that aren't playing, when you consider the teams out West. There are a lot of terrific teams out West that finished a long time ago. Then I look at Chicago and New York and Charlotte not playing in our conference, I'm pretty proud and I feel pretty thankful."