- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2000

Hey, Indiana Pacers.

Welcome to the NBA Finals. It took you long enough. Hope you are planning to make it interesting, although the smart money says you won't.

You're a hard team to embrace. You're the team everyone assumed was destined to shoot itself in the foot. And you almost did in the first round of the playoffs. What was that, being pushed to a fifth game by George Karl's eighth-seeded bunch?

And what a stomach-churning fifth game it was, decided near the end on a 3-pointer by Travis Best.

That's how precarious life in the NBA is. A backup point guard hits a 3-pointer, and life is good. But if Best had missed the shot, people would have been questioning Donnie Walsh's oft-stated desire to keep this aging team together.

The Two Jerrys, Reinsdorf and Krause, broke up the Bulls after six championships in the '90s. The Pacers were May's team, not June's, serious only to a point.

The franchise's glory days involved the rebellious red, white and blue ball of the old ABA. The last of its three ABA championships occurred in 1973. Bob Leonard was the coach then, George McGinnis and Mel Daniels the stars.

At least this puts to rest one of the conspiracy theories involving David Stern and NBC, namely that small-market teams are sacrificed in exchange for TV ratings and revenue.

These Pacers don't help on the marketing end. They lack panache, to say the least. Perseverance is their leading quality. They are two steps too slow.

Sam Perkins, who landed in Chapel Hill, N.C., before Michael Jordan, gave up running three or four seasons ago. He kind of lopes to his spots on the floor now. His nickname is the Big Smooth, perhaps because at times he appears to be asleep and functions at two speeds, slow and slower.

Perkins is one of the two members of the team who is familiar with the NBA Finals. Zan Tabak is the other, if you count his contributions as a designated clapper with the Rockets in 1995. Tabak performs the same service for the Pacers.

The Pacers are kind of the Utah Jazz of the Eastern Conference. They took forever to get this far, and now that they are here, they are said to be too old to do anything about it, starting with 36-year-old Chris Mullin, far removed from his days as a 25-point-a-game scorer with the Warriors.

Perkins is coming up on his 39th birthday. Mark Jackson is 35, Reggie Miller is 34, Derrick McKey is 33 and Rik Smits' feet are 103.

Smits is emblematic of the Pacers. In some games, he is painful to watch, unable to perform the most perfunctory tasks, such as catching the ball. In other games, he is a viable option on offense, the best 7-foot-4 spot-up shooter in the NBA.

Larry Bird is the straight-talking coach who professes not to be very good at what he does. It has become fashionable to take him at his word.

Bird deflects the credit to his two assistants, Dick Harter and Rick Carlisle. A coaching staff of three is small by NBA standards but reflective of Bird's old-school ways. Bird is walking away from coaching after the season, his version of term limits set at three seasons, which is at odds with the lifers who populate the coaching ranks.

He already has warned his players about what is ahead. They don't know what it is like to be on the NBA's largest stage. Bird knows only too well from his playing days with the Celtics in the '80s. No June was complete unless Bird and Magic Johnson were on the floor.

The challenge for the Pacers is not to be content with where they are, despite their history. Four previous trips to the conference finals, going back to 1994 and Larry Brown, resulted in elimination.

They have a shooter's chance, with Miller being a big-game shooter of the highest order. His 3-pointers atone for all kinds of mistakes, even the team's sometimes noticeable lack of grit.

Jalen Rose is the wild card. He has come so far in a relatively short time from the first player off the bench to the team's leading scorer in one year but when the lights are brightest, will he blink?

That question is probably applicable to the rest of the Pacers as well, Perkins excluded.

The next time Perkins shows any emotion will be the first.

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