Here we go, into the dawn of a new era

Dec. 25, 2011 – On the way to my seat before every home game, I stop to shake the hand of greencoat Cleveland "Deacon" Harp, a friend for decades and one of the true legends of Attucks hoops.

We share the same phrase every time: "Here we go."

The meaning of our little ritual: every game is its own journey and we always look forward to the ride.

As the Pacers prepare to open the 2011-12 season, I can't get that phrase out of my head. This is my 27th season covering the NBA and 24th with the Pacers and the sense of anticipation, intrigue and downright excitement is as powerful as any in memory.

There is the very real feel of a new era dawning.

"I'm thrilled," Coach Frank Vogel said. "We've been waiting a long time to see this group get back in action and we're ready to go."

These Pacers have the talent. Adding David West to the starting lineup brings the perfect mix of veteran leadership, consistent productivity and star quality to the roster. Not only does he provide a much-needed complement to Roy Hibbert inside, he relieves some of the scoring burden from Danny Granger.

Paul George shows signs of taking a big step toward the stardom we all anticipate. Darren Collison is showing signs of developing the on-court command required of a winning point guard.

With George Hill and Tyler Hansbrough leading the way, the second unit looks like a difference-maker in a compressed season where depth will be at a premium.

And Vogel, the effervescent young coach, will benefit from the presence of veterans Brian Shaw and Jim Boylen, who join Dan Burke in what might be the strongest group of assistants in the league.

"I'm very anxious about (this season), because this year we do have the talent level," Granger said. "We have veterans, we're not super young like we used to be and we have a very promising future. So I think this is the beginning of it."

There is a cautionary tale from franchise history.

During the 1990-91 season, popular young assistant Bob Hill took over for the wildly unpopular Dick Versace and guided the Pacers to a 32-25 finish and a near-upset of the mighty Celtics in a memorable first-round playoff series.

Sound like a familiar scenario?

That team did not take the next step in 1991-92 (or 1992-93) for one reason: it could not coalesce. Its talent did not fuse into a unit. It took two more years, another coaching change and a couple of key moves for that era to dawn.

If this team learns from that lesson, shows the willingness to make individual sacrifices for the benefit of the group, it will forge into a force to be reckoned with. It may not happen all at once, but it will happen.

"I put it on the top of the board every game: it says 'togetherness,' " Vogel said. "I think we reached a level last year where we were running offense and reading defense well enough that nobody on the floor cared who got the shot. There was a level of selflessness I really haven't been a part of much in my coaching career.

"To taste it last year, I think the guys that are here understand how powerful that can be and that's just what we will be preaching day-in and day-out is that level of selflessness."

The Eastern Conference is a land of opportunity. Beyond Chicago and Miami, teams that look truly dominant, there is quality but no certainty.

Does Boston have one more run left or are the Celtics heading into their inevitable decline? Will Tyson Chandler bring a defensive mindset to the potent Knicks or will he stand alone? Will Orlando find a way to keep Dwight Howard happy? Are the Hawks a real contender or just another team that can't break through?

Launching into the fray are these Pacers, a team certainly on the rise with every chance of putting an exclamation point on this season.

"I'm just excited to see this group get back out on the floor and compete," Vogel said, "because they're fun to coach and they're fun to watch and I'm looking forward to it."

He is far from alone.

Here we go.

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