Ailene Voisin

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Ailene Voisin: Indiana wrote the book on bucking the odds

05/10/2013 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:43 AM

If this Kings drama comes to a logical conclusion next week, with new owners and the promise of a new arena, and with the team's future secured and rubber-stamped by the NBA board of governors, Sacramentans can heave an immense sigh of relief and start rooting hard for the Indiana Pacers.

Yep, the Pacers. Hoosiers it is, because in many respects, the Hoosiers are us.

Pacers fans – in Indianapolis they refer to themselves as Pacer People – could write the textbook on how stubborn, small-market communities overcome the odds, fight off threats of extinction and relocation, and attract a billionaire owner and partner on an 18,000-seat downtown fieldhouse that is part shrine, part museum.

When you walk into Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the first time, you don't know whether to bow or bless yourself. Mostly, you stand and stare, amazed and admiring.

Yet not so long ago, the Pacers were grateful to be playing in any local joint that had seats, wooden floors and two rims. The franchise that hosts the New York Knicks on Saturday in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals – the organization that gave birth to Reggie Miller and once was coached by Larry Bird – survived two particularly virulent threats: the first in 1977, when season-ticket sales dropped below the numbers required to remain operational after the ABA-NBA merger, and again in 1983, when then-owners Frank Mariani and Sam Nassi almost sold the franchise to a group headed by young Sacramento developer Gregg Lukenbill.

"We talked to officials in most of the leagues," said Greg Van Dusen, who was general manager of the Sacramento Sports Association at the time. "Bowie Kuhn spent a lot of time with us, but he said, 'You guys are not getting a baseball team with two teams in the Bay Area.' The NHL commissioner stiffed us after we sat in the lobby of his office for about an hour. His secretary finally came out and said, 'You're not getting a team.'

"Then we met with Scotty Stirling, who was the NBA's director of operations, and started looking at his league and at teams that might be in trouble. And the Pacers were the first team we went after."

This is where the Pacers' saga begins to sound familiar. Citing the "incalculable value of a franchise" in his attempts to lure businesses to Indianapolis, then-Mayor William Hudnut took his case public while privately lobbying two of the area's wealthiest residents, brothers Herb and Mel Simon (Herb Simon still owns the Pacers and remains one of the league's more influential owners).

But fighting off Sacramento's attempt to poach the Pacers was minor compared with the threat of the franchise's extinction barely into its inaugural 1976-77 NBA season.

As one of the four ABA teams that merged with the NBA, the Pacers were forced to pay a $3.2 million entry fee and were not allowed to share in national television revenue for four years. The combination financially crippled the franchise. Local business leaders contributed an estimated $100,000 to keep the team from folding. When projected season-ticket sales faltered, igniting fears of a sale and relocation, area residents collaborated and came to the rescue.

A television station offered airtime for a 24-hour telethon. A physician, who had staged telethons for the American Cancer Society, called and offered his expertise. Pacers executives, players and family members worked the phones. Neighbors went door to door. Youngsters broke into their piggy banks.

"The response was unbelievable, a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Bob "Slick" Leonard, the Pacers' icon who was general manager at the time. "We stayed on the air until we got the 8,000 or 10,000 season-ticket pledges we needed, and then the next few seasons, we ran the club with 12 or 13 of us. I handled the basketball and my wife, Nancy, handled the business. She was the first female general manager of any sports team that I know about!"

Leonard paused, then asked the question people used to repeatedly ask him: Is the franchise staying or going?

"Is it true that some guys are bringing in the big money to keep the team there?" he asked. "We were in the same spot as Sacramento before the Simons came in and we got the fieldhouse. I sure hope so, I certainly do. We're a small-market team, too, and we overcame a lot."

Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin (916) 321-1208 and follow her on Twitter @ailene_voisin.

About This Blog

Ailene Voisin, who has been with The Sacramento Bee since 1997, writes columns on a variety of sports, from the NBA, NFL and baseball to local high schools. Voisin previously worked for the San Diego Union, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has been a beat writer covering the Dodgers, Angels and Clippers. Contact her at avoisin@sacbee.com or 916-321-1208. Twitter: @ailene_voisin.

 

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